Anthony Bourdain eats L.A., and lives to tell the tale

Anthony Bourdain in KPCC's downtown bureau
Anthony Bourdain in KPCC's downtown bureau
Jonathan Serviss/KPCC

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Chef, writer and TV host Bourdain serves up culinary friends and foes alike with his new book "Medium Raw"

Emeril Lagasse, Rachael Ray, Bobby Flay, Gordon Ramsay... they are all members of the fraternal order of celebrity chefs, a relatively new genre of celebrities that made names for themselves first with restaurants and eventually on TV cooking shows and even by selling specialized cookware.

There is a man who walks in the same circles with the same kind of credentials, but don’t you dare call him a celebrity chef. Anthony Bourdain, who brought front-of-the-house diners back into the sometimes sordid, always hectic world of restaurant chefs with his cult classic book “Kitchen Confidential” is back with a new ode to the food world titled “Medium Raw: A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food and the People Who Cook.”

Bourdain, host of the cable hit TV show “No Reservations” was in L.A. this week and talked to KPCC’s Patt Morrison today about, among other things, the cult of celebrity chefs. Just to clarify the definition, Patt asked Bourdain what, exactly, constitutes a celebrity chef? “Anyone who cooks on TV with a can of cheese whiz and a smile is a celebrity chef, I guess. The threshold is pretty low.”

Even as he’s had some verbal and written disputes with his fellow TV chef personalities, Bourdain doesn’t completely dismiss the positive influence these cooking shows have on the reputations of restaurant workers.

“Even at its worse it’s a phenomenon that’s been good for cooks, restaurants and diners. It’s raised the prestige of your everyday working cook and chef.”

Bourdain made it clear who he honors above all else in the culinary industry.

“To me, the real heroes of the culinary world are, you know, the enormous percentile of underpaid Latinos who do all the work while their chefs are off grabbing awards.”

And speaking of awards, don’t expect the prestigious James Beard Society to be cozying up to Bourdain anytime soon, nor vice versa, “I’m sure that James Beard House would not exactly roll out the red carpet for me… I’ve done everything possible to have them set the dogs on me.”

With the explosion of food-themed TV shows, the popularity of Food Network and the plentiful and trendy restaurant options in every major city, Patt asked Bourdain if food was becoming a cult.

“It’s popular entertainment,” Bourdain answered. “Ten years ago you’d go to the movies and then go to dinner and talk about the movie. Now you go to dinner and talk about other dinners you’ve had and other dinners you’re about to have.

Another food trend that Bourdain is not fond of is vegetarians, who receive some harsh treatment in his book “Medium Raw.” For him the concern over avoiding meat isn’t necessarily philosophical but rather practical.

“It makes for bad traveling,” explained Bourdain. “I’ve been in so many situations — memorable ones that I’ll be grateful for for the rest of my life — where refusing an offer of meat would’ve been an awkward moment, to say the least, if not an insult.”

One food trend that Bourdain applauds is Michelle Obama’s efforts to improve the nutrition of Americans, and especially children.

“I applaud her,” Bourdain said of the First Lady who is trying to rewrite the food pyramid. “I think she’s right on target. It is clear it’s an enormous problem — it will no doubt become a national security problem at some point. It’s already a scourge of Type 2 diabetes among children, the rate is appalling.”

And on the slow food, organic movement in general? Even while Bourdain says that, historically, it’s a bit backward there’s also a positive trend there.

“It is sad that the birthright of poor Europeans years and years ago — organic food, local food — those are now luxury items here. Our relationship with food is clearly distorted, but at the same time there has been a democratization of fine dining that has been going on. I hope it’s a countervailing influence.”

Before she let him go Patt wanted to know about Bourdain’s guilty pleasures, and if there were any place that Bourdain would hate to be caught eating. He was characteristically candid: “If I were really, completely drunk at 2 o’clock in the morning eating macaroni-and-cheese at KFC, I would rather not be seen doing that — and it has been allegedly known to happen.”

His favorite low-budget eating while he’s in L.A.? “In-N-Out burger — just crazy for it,” said Bourdain. “Philippe’s. Roscoe’s Chicken & Waffles, though I like chicken and I like waffles but I don’t like them together, but I still like Roscoe’s.

You can catch Anthony Bourdain’s full interview with Patt Morrison here.