Chef/author/TV host and professional raconteur nonpareil Anthony Bourdain spoke with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on a range of topics in advance of the new season of his CNN show, “Parts Unknown.” The Pittsburgh episode is scheduled to air at 9 p.m. Oct. 22. He is on location in West Virginia, where he is filming a show for next season:
Post-Gazette: I’ve seen the Pittsburgh episode, and you get a lot of things right. But when you were here in 2010, and an audience member asked if you would consider doing a show in the Strip District, you wondered if Pittsburgh had any indigenous foods. When another person asked what you eat while on a book tour, you said you usually grab a can of Pringles from a vending machine.
So, what’s changed and what did you find here?
Anthony Bourdain: People ask me where I’m going and I say that that I’m grabbing something from the minibar because I don’t want people to know where I’m eating later. [laughs]
I don’t remember the other remark at all. I always thought Pittsburgh was beautiful. I have been hearing more and more about the food scene over the last five to 10 years for sure.
PG: What struck you about our city?
AB: I came because I’ve been a few times for speaking gigs and was just really struck by how the place looked. I’m just really interested in American cities that are changing, company towns transitioning to service industry or other industries. So, I think, frankly, it tipped me over the edge to hear there is a really thriving food scene and a lot of interesting chefs doing interesting things. I kind of fell in love with Pittsburgh because it looked awesome and I liked the place.
PG: This weekend, greater Pittsburgh will host Farm Aid, and it’ll likely be attended by folks from the city who support it in theory. But there’s still a massive disconnect between urban areas where food is consumed and rural areas where it’s produced. Why is that?
AB: You see that a lot. I think farm-to-table is over-romanticized by chefs or by people who go to expensive restaurants. I think there are a lot of good-hearted people who live in cities who think they want a cleaner, simpler, healthier, older style of a life without ever having experienced what it’s like to live and work on a farm, where often your world view and personal ambitions are very different.
I’ve met a lot of farmers around the world and many if not most would greatly prefer it if they could make enough money so that their kids could learn to be engineers or doctors or professionals. Farming is hard. I think Alice Waters, as good-hearted as she is, has over-romanticized farming.
As a classic example of this, she says in an interview she gave recently, ‘I actually don’t garden – I pick.’ [laughs] Like she doesn’t dig in the dirt, but she’s happy to pick the fruit. It’s hard work. I’m in coal country right now and the world view for somebody who works in coal is very different than people who are far removed from the actual situation.
PG: One thing you’ve frequently stressed over many years is that food is political. What does that mean in 2017, with the world seemingly upside-down at times?
AB: That’s a complicated question. To tackle just one small part of that question, you cannot admit to eating or enjoying arugula if you’re running for president these days. Admitting to speaking a second language would be a liability. Any degree of sophistication about food is dangerous. But at the same time, it’s a thing that very much brings people together, regardless of their political views.
But look: Who eats, who doesn’t eat, what neighborhoods get cool restaurants, what neighborhoods don’t, what happens to neighborhoods once a cool restaurant comes in. On one hand that’s great, on the other, it tends to push rents up. Who actually produces our food? Who’s actually picking and digging in the ground for us? Where do they come from? These are all fundamentally political considerations.
PG: So is what you eat always a referendum on you as a person?
AB: I don’t think so, but I think people have to an increasing extent made it that way. I remember I walked into a supermarket on the upper East Side with my daughter who was then 4 years old, and I sort of instinctively headed to the non-organic produce section. I was just getting lemons, I didn’t really care. The look on the face of the other shoppers as they saw me take this little girl by the hand into the non-organic section, I was really afraid they were going to call child protective services.
PG: Part of the narrative of filming in Pittsburgh is the great revival we’ve had. But on the underside, we’re in the throes of the opioid crisis, and where you are in West Virginia now, it’s even worse. You’ve never shied away from your past drug use and abuse. What are your thoughts about how this is being handled?
AB: I’m very much against the enforcement model. Clearly, if you ask any law enforcement [officer] who’s been part of the war on drugs, that’s been going on in this country since Nixon, the enforcement-interdiction model has affected the price and availability of drugs not at all. Zero. And no one can credibly claim that it has.
On the other hand, a major pharmaceutical company shipped 3 million pills of Oxycontin to one small town in West Virginia, of 350 people. Three million! Those companies track their sales, they know what was going on. If anybody goes to jail, I’d like to see the head of that company, the head of their sales department, everybody who knew, everybody who was part of it, dragged out of their Westchester homes or Silver Spring homes in front of their neighbors and their crying children.
Unlike the street, where people have limited options at lot of times and are in the business, I think this would change some behavior. You see some executives going away for hard time for narcotics trafficking, for knowingly sending a highly addictive drug – huge, massive amounts into a tiny little community – I’d like to see some people go to jail. I’d like to see them hauled out of their house and humiliated because they are just as bad, just as bad as anybody in the cartels.
On the other hand, it’s forcing America to start to see and think about heroin and opioids as a health problem, because it’s not comfortably urban anymore. Now it’s their kids, it’s their high school quarterback, it’s white kids. Hopefully, hopefully, it will cause a change so it’s not locking up young African-American men in the same numbers that this country has been happily doing for decades.
PG: The restaurant industry and media have kind of a symbiotic relationship that isn’t always a comfortable one, but both seem to need each other to a degree.
AB: Yeah, it’s a small pond, even in New York. The internet has expanded things and made it more democratic and often more painful for chefs who work very hard and take what they do very seriously. It’s a hard thing, especially when you have people sitting in front of keyboards, generating prose for very little money. It’s very hard to write about food from a fresh perspective, with a new angle and come up with however many thousand words on a regular basis. Maybe there should be a time limit [laughs].
It’s hard for me. How many adjectives are there for the experience of eating a salad? In a lot of ways it’s like writing porn – same plot, same ending. That leads a lot of writers to extremes and laziness, like anything else. I’m sympathetic. I write about food a lot. I’m not interested in food as much as I am who’s cooking the food and why they’re cooking it.
PG: Hypothetically, if you were on the phone right now with a guy in Pittsburgh who turns 40 today, what advice would you give him for life after 40?
AB: The good s – – t’s coming. [laughs] It certainly has in my case. It will all happen after 40.
Dan Gigler: firstname.lastname@example.org.