By Dave Woods
New media and marketing manager
JOPLIN, Mo. —
There are two questions Anthony Bourdain asks himself when deciding where to go and what to feature on “No Reservations,” his food and travel show.
“If we’re going to a place, whether it’s Szechwan Province in China or Joplin, Mo., we ask ‘What do you do for fun, and what do you eat after you do that?’” the Travel Channel star, best-selling author and culinary bad boy explained.
During his Joplin visit, Bourdain said he would experience Ozarks culture and take in an arm wrestling tournament at Rumors Lounge. “If there’s alcohol involved, then that’s always a plus,” Bourdain laughed.
After the arm wrestling shoot, he even made an impromptu visit to Woody’s Woodfire Pizza to sample some local fare.
During his Ozarks trip, Bourdain said he would dine on some wild game, gig suckers in a cold Ozark creek and hang out with Daniel Woodrell, the Southwest Missouri novelist who recently won acclaim — and Sundance Film Festival awards — for “Winter’s Bone,” a film adapted from his novel of the same name.
“I know we’re doing some squirrel,” the Culinary Institute of America graduate said. “I’ve had some very good squirrel in the past, so there’s nothing new there. I hear raccoon is quite good, particularly in chili.”
That all makes for good television, but it was a longtime local restaurant that put Joplin on Bourdain’s to-do list.
“We’ve been told again and again and again about Fred and Red’s and their life-giving magical grease,” Bourdain said with a laugh. “If I’ve heard anything, it’s the life-giving force of Fred and Red’s grease that I’m very intrigued by.”
Joplin fans of Bourdain’s irreverent show will have to wait until March to find out what, where and who will make the cut and be featured on the Ozarks episode of “No Reservations.” He took a few minutes during his visit to talk with the Globe about his “checkered” past, the state of American cuisine and to offer some sage advice to the area’s aspiring chefs.
‘Just got lucky’
Bourdain, now famous and in his mid-50s, didn’t always lead a charmed life trekking around the world, sharing his culinary and cultural experiences with millions of viewers every week.
After dropping out of Vasser College and attending the Culinary Institute, Bourdain said he spent many years working his way up the ladder in the kitchens of New York, eventually serving almost 10 years as executive chef at Brasserie Les Halles.
“I was a second stringer my whole life,” he said. “I fell in love with a lifestyle. I was just having a good time bouncing around in the business and living that sort of pirate lifestyle.”
Bourdain said he missed a lot of opportunities due to his party boy lifestyle, questionable work ethic and addiction prone personality.
“It was not a very distinguished career, by any means — a checkered one,” he said. “I had a good 28 years. Well, not all of them were good. There were a lot of bad years, but I guess it was a different era and I was having too good of time.”
Looking back at his career, Bourdain said he “just got lucky.”
“Most of the people I came up with who were behaving in a similar fashion are not around anymore,” he said. “I got lucky and luck is not a good business model. Back in the ’70s people thought cocaine was good for you. You could get away with being high in the kitchen.”
That kind of unprofessional — and illegal — behavior is no longer the norm in America’s great kitchens.
“Now, it’s a much more serious profession and people are proud of their food and their work and kitchens,” he stressed. “Any good kitchen is just not going to put up with that. A good chef is consistent and being a party animal is not conducive to showing up and doing the same high level of work every day.”
From age 17 until 44, Bourdain spent his days and nights on his feet, working deep fryers and griddles in kitchens “good, bad and indifferent,” he said. He offered some advice to those aspiring to be great chefs or restaurateurs.
“Before you know how to cook, you have to know how to eat,” he insisted. “If you are looking to be a world-class chef and really make a career and serious money at it — and be one of the best — you have to travel. You need to eat and work as widely as you can. Traveling outside your comfort zone is really important. You gotta be prepared to work for cheap in New York or San Francisco and Chicago.”
Like baseball, Bourdain said, you want to get into the big leagues at least for a while.
“I admire people who go to France or Spain or New York and make their bones and learn from the best, apprentice with the best, then return to where they came from and find their own individual way; incorporating their own roots and the environment they grew up in with the techniques they learned around the world.”
But, Bourdain cautioned: “Before you get into the business, make sure you understand how difficult it is and how hard and unglamorous it can be. I remember what it’s like to work a griddle. That’s honest work.”
Bourdain said there is no question his time at the CIA — what he called the best culinary school in the country — prepared him for a successful career.
“To be a CIA grad back then was a relative rarity,” he said. “It was exotic. Now, there are a lot of kids coming out of culinary schools. I always advise people that before you spend all that money and get yourself involved with a big, heavy student loan, understand and find out about your self, whether or not this really is the business for you.”
Bourdain suggested young wanna-be chefs work in restaurants for a couple of years and make sure they love the lifestyle before taking on huge student loans.
“Understand the kind of debt load you are going to be carrying and how little you will be making for the first few years of your professional life,” he said. “As long as you go into it with your eyes open, it’s certainly a very good thing to do.”
Bourdain’s advice to young chefs is simple.
“Stay true to who you are and set high standards early in your career,” he stressed. “Stay true to your self and your dream.”
The landscape of the American culinary scene, Bourdain explained, has changed significantly since his days at the CIA.
When Bourdain was a young chef, honing his craft in New York’s kitchens, he said there were few American role models to look to for gastronomic inspiration.
“There were very few heroes for us,” he said.
“It was more an ‘every-man-for-himself’ kind of pirate lifestyle. I looked to England to Marco Pierre White. I looked to France and Paul Bocuse, but I wasn’t ready to put in the work that he put in to become a ‘Paul Bocuse.’”
American chef and restaurateur Thomas Keller, Bourdain said, inspires young chefs — and seasoned ones alike — with the dishes he creates at The French Laundry in California’s Napa Valley and Per Se in New York City.
“I think that (he) is a hugely important hero,” Bourdain said of Keller. “He’s one guy you can say is widely regarded and hugely respected everywhere in the world where they cook. He’s just one of the best. American cuisine is well regarded worldwide and some of the best chefs in the world are American. Even the French know this. We get respect, now.”