Anyone who follows food blogs on social media saw that Anthony Bourdain spent Wednesday in Houston. The host of CNN's Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown and the author of books like Kitchen Confidential and the comic book Get Jiro! was in the Bayou City to promote his relationship with Scotch brand Balvenie.
As part of the brand's 2015 Rare Craft collection, Bourdain has selected artisans in fields like metal working, printmaking and sculpture to feature in a short film series titled Raw Craft that takes viewers behind the scenes of how these items are made. Five members of the class — letterpress artist Megan O'Connell, metalsmith Elizabeth Brim, sculptor Sebastian Martorana, watchmaker Roland Murphy and Balvenie's head cooper Ian McDonald — joined Bourdain for a Scotch tasting and display of their work at Silver Street Studios.
Read on to find out why the celebrated raconteur chose this project as his first brand association, why he thinks you shouldn't piss off a sushi chef and, most importantly, his first plans to film an episode of Parts Unknown in Houston next year.
CultureMap: You said you've never participated in a brand association in 15 years. What about this project specifically appealed to you?
Anthony Bourdain: I like the stuff — that’s to start with. It’s a product that I like, I drink and I’m in no way embarrassed to be seen sitting next to or consuming, because it’s something I genuinely think a lot of.
Then given the sort of strange and terrible powers to pick out and choose to celebrate for this collection and make short films about, in many respects change their lives, that was enticing. I got a few people in mind right away. Wow, this is a tremendous opportunity to shine a light on some people I think are doing really great work who should be seen as awesome as I think they are and also seen as inspirational as I think they are.
CM: How did you come across these craftspeople?
AB: I was aware of a few of them already, or at least aware of their work. Others, I was presented with a steady stream of people and products of interest and kept my eye open looking for ones that, quite frankly, matched my personal passions, prejudices and enthusiasms. It’s no coincidence that there’s a lot of metal work. Bob Kramer, the Burrow Furnace people, these are dead bang obvious. They’re the kind of tools I used in my career.
The bookmaker printers I chose (because) I love words as a physical object. Elizabeth Brim, pounding metal with her hands, that’s very interesting to me.
CM: How long are you here?
AB: Just overnight. I’ll be back next year . . . We’re going to make a show.
CM: For Parts Unknown?
AB: Yes. We promise to disappoint (laughs). We’re going to do something like there will be no barbecue in the show, there will be no Tex-Mex. The standard refrain when we come to a town will be, “That’s not the Houston I know,” which is sort of the point, right? Be prepared to be confused and disappointed.
We’re toying with the idea of doing an all-Vietnamese show and pretending no one lives here except Vietnamese people. We did an L.A. show with no one in it who wasn’t Korean, and we might go back and do another show L.A. where we pretend no one lives in L.A. but Mexicans.
Look, there are plenty of people who do shows in Houston. There’s plenty to see, and plenty of awesome stuff. That’s just not the business we're in. We’re not here to do 10 bests or what you should know or give a fair, representative overview. We’re here to do something weird and with our own specific, strange, non-representative agenda. Hopefully, it will be awesome, and hopefully many Houstonians will see it and say, “How did he know about that quirky thing we kept for ourselves?”
Or we’ll fuck it all up and it will be filled with tourists.
CM: As part of the promotion for your new comic book, Get Jiro: Blood and Sushi, you’ve been ranting about the way people eat sushi.
AB: Look, eat sushi however you want. The story that was picked up in an interview (was) about a comic book character who kills people for eating California rolls. So, let’s get the setting. Already it’s a hyperbolic situation. (The story) is "six, absolute, he’ll kill you rules for eating sushi." All I’m saying is this: If you’re in a really good, high end sushi restaurant, where you know, or should know, that the sushi chef spent seven years just working on rice because their master wouldn’t let them touch the fish until they were ready, that it is in your interest to not disrespect them or piss them off.
Who wants the chef angry or resentful? You want a chef, especially when he’s standing there looking at you and deciding what your next course is going to be based on your reaction to the last, as is done in an omakase menu, you want them happy and feeling well-disposed towards you so that they’ll reach in and pull out all the little goodies that they are keeping for the special customers.
Sushi chefs will compress the rice differently for people who pick up nigiri with chopsticks or their fingers. Do you want fluffy, perfect rice, or do you want fluffy, slightly less perfect rice? Those are the kinds of decisions sushi chefs make based on your behavior. If the first thing you’re doing is disrespecting their rice by putting a big wad of wasabi in your soy sauce and swishing it around before you even taste their probably already completely perfectly seasoned sushi — it’s in your interest. I mean, above and beyond the politeness aspect.
I understand people who say, “Well, I’ll eat my sushi any damn way I want. I’m the customer.” Well, yeah, that’s true, but don’t you want the good stuff, man? Don’t you want the best possible experience? You can go to the dentist and drill your own damn teeth, too, but I assume you’d like the dentist to weigh in on what he thinks you should do.
CM: Do you have similarly strong opinions about the way people eat pasta or tacos?
AB: Yes (laughs). I’m married to an Italian from Italy, so you can be sure. Yes, I have very strong feelings about the way pasta should be sauced. I do understand that the Italian immigrant tradition; poor southern Italians came over in great numbers to this great land of ours and realized, oh my God, I can afford to put a whole shitload of sauce and giant meatballs the size of your head. This was a pretty fantastic thing.
Personally, I like properly sauced and cooked pasta, and I have very strong feelings about what makes the best possible bowl of pasta. But I’m sentimental about pasta done quote-unquote wrong. I used to be a real snob about too much red sauce, big, bready meatballs and deep fried veal cutlets. But, you know what, I ate a lot of that as a kid. I’m sentimental about those flavors. I actually do that at home now. I sauce it properly, but I do make meatballs.
CM: The Carbone guys have had a lot of success with that cuisine.
The Carbone guys have exposed us for the hideous snobs we are. I have definite ideas. I’m not going to chastise anyone. I’m not going to correct anyone for doing it the way many grateful generations of Italian Americans have been doing it for years and years. There’s a lot to be said for New Jersey Italian. As I get older, that’s what I become nostalgic about.
Tacos? When you’ve eaten as much great Mexican food in this nation that’s wildly underrated and fantastically accelerating cuisine — the food is getting better and better and better. High-end Mexican restaurants are killing it these days. Chefs all over the world are looking at Mexico. Their street food is amazing. I have a hard time looking at Chili's and Taco Bell without feeling murder in my heart. Especially in Texas, it’s not like you have a shortage of Mexicans or you don’t know where Mexico is.
Not a big Tex-Mex fan, unless drunk. In which case, it seems like a really, really good idea. I have eaten airport nachos. Just as, if you run out of water for two days you start thinking about killing your neighbor, give me a few hours in an airport and I’m thinking about nacho grande. (laughs)
CM: What is your Balvenie dram?
AB: If you ask me tomorrow I may give you a different answer, but I’ve been liking the 21 a lot. It’s the perfect metaphor for this project. Here you had all these good old whiskys, why would you want to mess with them? Everything’s fine, you’re making good money, people will buy it. Why do you want to start making platinum for gold?
The fact that they did it in the first place is very much in line with the way I like to think. For my TV show, I like to ask my crew, “What is the stupidest, boldest, off the wall thing we can do in the cause of presumed excellence? We’ll probably fail horribly, but let’s try.” The fact that it resulted in something genuinely awesome, I admire that. It’s a bold thing, a high wire act that he pulled off.
CM: Thank you very much.
AB: Sure thing.