Some video is up on YouTube from the recent South Beach Food & Wine Festival. It’s a bit shaky in places — and please note that the audio track is NSFW due to a few F-bombs — but in this video, Tony (ably seconded by guest-star Michael Ruhlman) discusses the Golden Clog Awards, his perennial punching bag Rachael Ray, and some other Food Network personalities.
Friends don’t let friends drive drunk, but even better friends don’t let friends go to Les Halles alone. So my good friend Susan, after a careful analysis of this New York magazine article, had really only one injunction: “FIND OUT WHEN!!”
When, indeed, might Monsieur Bourdain once more be taking up his mighty sauteuse and cooking at Les Halles – with Eric Ripert? For an episode of No Reservations? And a full dinner service, no less? Zut alors! What was he thinking? That, yes, despite – oh, about five years away from the stove – you CAN go home again? That you can survive a full, hard-on rush hour without collapsing into the cassoulet? That, even with your knees popping like rice cakes on a fandango dance floor, you CAN crank out a respectable 250 or slamming 350 covers a night, like you used to? Well . . . yeah. Why not? . But I guess we’ll just have to watch the show to be sure.
What I was sure about, however, was that Team Tony was in the house. Scoring a table right at the back with a partial view through the glass partition enclosing the kitchen, the first famous face the unsuspecting diners saw was none other than Eric Ripert, manfully working the grill station at the very front, with Todd Liebler and his camera hanging over his shoulder, and what appeared to be a black knit cap mashing Ripert’s hair . . . and towards the back, on sauté, was Tony. With a black knit cap mashing his hair. Mon Dieu!, I am thinking – what ees zees? Ze Creeps and ze Bloods are wearing zere coleurs? Apparently so.
Ahhh, now this set-up required some Strategic Eating. Clearly, one of our party of three would be ordering steak, and the other two something off the saute station, in the hope of improving the odds of getting something actually cooked by either Ripert or Bourdain. Hmmmmmm. Au revoir to Les Assiettes. Adieu to La Rôtissoire. A bien tôt to Am – no, wait! Do I detect foie gras on the Amuse-Gueles menu? Foie gras that gets . . . sautéed?
Obviously, the assault on the menu would demand the cunning of a Borgia pope so, savagely disregarding anything involving garde mange, we laid siege to saute with three orders of Foie Gras Poëlé aux Pommes:
with a stealth attack on the Boudin aux Pommes:
before – gasp! – a strategic error! The cassoulet Toulousain, not the Hamburger Rossini! (Mais non, non, non – not a two-day dish! Ầ la minute! From sauté!) Oh, well. There were sentimental reasons involved here. (NONE of them mine.)
Recovering quickly, our third Musketeer sized up the grill station carefully and scored a bull’s eye with a stunning Paleron (flat iron steak) with Béarnaise, prepared to order. Yes, by Chef Ripert:
Up to this point, the dining room pretended to ignore the sight of Todd, this time out among us, pointing a very large camera lens into their dinners, while the wait staff pretended to ignore a very large teal box on the empty seat at our table – both with minimal success. Understanding that I was (despite my clear grasp of the situation and usually much better judgment), about to enter the world of dorkdom, I put the wait staff out of their misery and dispatched the Bûche de Noël in a Big Blue Box back to the kitchen, and hoped the diversion would last long enough for me to squeeze off some shots of Ripert through the glass without either the whole floor or Ripert noticing. Now, THAT part worked:
It began with a Bûche de Noël:
that became a Bûche in a Box:
that became a Bûche in a Big Blue Box (well, teal, actually, but it ruins my alliteration):
Okay, so it’s out there, now. The fact that I had stupefying stunads to present two professional chefs – one half-French, the other full French, yet – with a Bûche at the height of dinner service, and – incroyable!- I did so after schlepping the damn thing on the subway. During rush hour. In both directions. But this is New York. Only the strong survive. (On Valium.)
(Charmingly, Todd tried to use this darling little boy as a tripod, except his mom is one of the producers. And, by now, the camera phones were going off.)
Fortunately, before Todd could get busted for child abuse or violating child labor laws, the mâitre d’, Frederic Larrieu, came by with a waiter, Tim, in tow, and gladly started accepting bets as to how long the self-styled Mr. Softy Palms would last before he found himself in the weeds:
And the answer was – he didn’t. Food arrived swiftly and steadily, all throughout, with Ripert so serene he took time to mug at the foodies shooting him with camera phones (and playfully sticking his tongue out at one slim blonde who forgot to turn off her flash), and Bourdain, while intense, never missing a beat; pivoting left and then right, in a controlled blur, fast enough to escape a shutter, but not so fast he wasted any movement, from station to lowboy to the tickets. Was he expediting? I cannot say. He was reading tickets. And, yes, he was cooking. Just for the camera? Again, I cannot say. But long after Todd shot the A roll (main shots) and a second cameraman (Zac?) shot B roll from the corridor leading into the kitchen, Bourdain was working the station.
Several Cosmos later, we were greeted by the sudden appearance of not only Larrieu coming to set my dessert on fire, but Todd – back with a vengeance! And back – for my crêpes Suzette! Ahhh, je comprends! My lovely crêpe has been selected as a stunt crêpe, and it is ready for it’s close-up, Mr. DeMille!
So, naturellement, M’sieur Larrieu is talking up the process and adding big gobs of butter to the crepe pan (because you can never have too much butter, mes enfants), and Mitchell’s silky bananes flambées also drew Todd’s wandering eye:
and there was much soft snuffling of happy wee diners all around. But, of course, could we be smart enough, once, to leave well enough alone? To waft away, replete with the unctuous goodness of flaming desserts and smelling vaguely of gently cooked sugar, and just GO HOME? Of course not. Worried that the Ripert-through-the-glass shots were out of focus (well, so was I), we made a final foray to the glass partition, now mobbed by camera phone-carrying yuppies flash-bombing Ripert, only to come face-to-face with the ubiquitous Todd, gesticulating at us. Was he saying, “Get out of the shot”? No. “I am shooting”? No . . . not quite. “I am shooting you shooting Ripert. Is that OK?” Well . . . sure. You didn’t ask my dessert for a release, but I guess it gave you one:
Great. Now we look like dorks, suckerfishing up like remoras on Ripert’s breath-fogged partition. Shit. Could it get any worse? Yes. Lydia Tenaglia, bounding out of the kitchen, politely asks, “Could we shoot you?” (Yes, I’m sure Ripert and Bourdain are ready to do just that, by now.) “Shoot, as in being a dork shooting you guys through the glass?” “Yes.” “Sure. I’ve already spiraled down to the eleventh circle of dorkdom.” Consider this a release, Lydia.
By now, about as comfortable as lepers in the club Med jacuzzi, the three of us flee and pray for some judicious snipping in the editing room at ZeroPointZero (except for the crêpe, of course. It deserves its air time), just to catch this, posted up on the glass:
Final stats for last night? With a seating capacity of 146 at Les Halles, Team Tony did 315 covers. Stupéfiant? Non. Formidable? Perhaps not. But a good, solid performance, with each bite – whether Ripert’s or Bourdain’s -or NOT – a true delight. It might have been shot for No Reservations, but thanks, Eric. Thanks, Tony. And Joyeux Noël.
Originally, I wasn’t going to take any notes because B&N said they’d be taping this for posterity. However, they then qualified it by saying they would stream it live and then archive it by today. Since some people never got to see it live, it still isn’t up on B&N yet and others are having problems opening it, this a rough version of what transpired last night at B&N Union Square, before people were beaten by B&N security and taken away in cuffs. Okay, so that didn’t happen. But it could’ve.
The first sign of impending trouble at Anthony Bourdain: A Conversation with Michael Ruhlman was . . . well, right there. The signage. A “conversation”? Oh, we think NOT. More like, as promised in the introduction, incendiary remarks, acerbic rebuttals and collateral damage involving Ruhlman’s hair (which, for the record, is Prell perfect and does not need a trim, all right? It was the only think on stage last night that was bouncing and behaving.) The hair held up better than Ruhlman as Bourdain was introduced (a sotto voce sneer from Ruhlman)
as the author of No Reservations – “an impassioned and rare recollection” (eh – so-so)of Tony’s travels around the world while shooting the series of the same name. Ruhlman quickly seized the high ground by presenting Tony with a can of Skyline Chili (“Fresh from Cincinnati!”) and making sure it was displayed conspicuously, glinting viciously on the table between the throughout the rest of the talk.
Tony, in the James Lipton role, began by saying he was always asked what was the worse thing he ever ate? Did he ever get sick? Has he ever seen Emeril in a Speedo? But what Tony himself really wanted to know was – The Symon/Ruhlman Next Iron Chef Issue:
Bourdain: Just how long HAVE you known Symon?!
Ruhlman: I’ve known Symon -
Bourdain: Your kids call him Unky Mike!
Ruhlman: The Food Network knew –
Bourdain: Do you think it really passes the smell test? I mean, it’s like Dick Cheney and Halliburton!
Ruhlman: I actually think I was putting on the Food Network. I’m not sure they even read my books.
Bourdain: And then I got an e-mail from Bruce Seidel (head of programming for FN), so now I’m really paranoid. I predicted a year ago that they’d get rid of Emeril and Batali . . . so now all the old Bolsheviks are taking these guys down to the cellar to be shot. They’re eliminating anyone on FN who can cook. And now they tell me they’ll be re-running A Cook’s Tour – in its entirety – beginning January 2008! How did Bruce get MY e-mail?
Ruhlman: I gave it to him.
Ruhlman: They want you back!
Bourdain: They can’t buy me! F_____ them! And just what IS your relationship with FN?
Ruhlman: I have no relationship with the Food Network. I have no deal with them, no show -
Bourdain: No deal, no show – and no hair and make-up [in your contract] -speaking of which, how about that Gallery of Hair? And Knowlton! Didn’t you REALLY want to beat him up? Come on! [To audience:] And did the best chef really win? Hands?
[Audience mostly indicates Symon]
Ruhlman: It was clear after the second episode that those two were never anything but the top two.
Bourdain: And was the FN rooting for the Hero of New Orleans or the freaking bald guy from Cleveland?
Ruhlman: Truth and justice. You know that, right, Tony?
Bourdain: No! The Food Network needs to be taking chances, and to lead [when it comes to food programming.] About their TV chefs -
There ensues a very lively, rapid-fire discussion of who the audience thinks should be whacked from the FN roster of food celebs.]
Ruhlman: Guy Fieri – is incredibly popular -
Bourdain: So’s Chlamydia! And on Top Chef [to audience] – Hung or Casey?
[Audience is 50-50 on that.]
Bourdain: Hung, easily! So what if he knocked over the truffle oil and [wasn’t a team player]?!
Now, your book The Elements of Cooking – it’s doing really well, isn’t it?
Ruhlman: It’s outselling yours.
Bourdain: It took you – what? – Six weeks to write it?
Ruhlman: About a year. It’s everything I learned about cooking over the last ten years, everything I learned from our friend Eric [Ripert] . . . Thomas Keller . . . but what I want to know is – how do you live with yourself?
Bourdain: How do I live with MYSELF?
Ruhlman: Yeah. You push yourself out there as a cook, but you don’t cook anymore -
Bourdain: Wait a minute, dude -!
Ruhlman: But you still make the best damn cassoulet.
Bourdain: Not the Martha Stewart recipe. But, look, I still have 28 years behind a stove. 28 years of smelling like fryer oil -
Ruhlman: Which you don’t, NOW -
Bourdain: Which, by the way (squints at Ruhlman’s head), is good for the hair. OK, now we’ll take questions from the audience.
Q: Speaking of cassoulet, Michael, have your children recovered yet from the horror of Evil Uncle Tony’s cassoulet? Has your son James pulled his head out of his sweatshirt yet?
Ruhlman: No. They’re still traumatized. [Tony looks wounded.] We keep playing them little bits of the episode, little by little, to lessen the damage . . .
Q: Is there any one place fans bug you to visit?
Bourdain: Yes, The Philippines. “Why not the Philippines?!” And, “Hey, dude – why not MY city?” “Do you have any good food there?” “No.” “Well . . .? It’s TV!” The second most asked-after city is one here in the States, but I’ve completely forgot which one.
Q: Which show changed you the most?
Bourdain: Cleveland. [Audience cracks up.] No, really. For each episode, we try to plan ahead, what to rip off [from movies, books, etc.], what scenes to do . . . in Cleveland, everything went right.
Ruhlman: No. Tony called me. “Cuba’s a no-go. Here. We’re throwing you a bone.” [To Tony]: You’ve done few shows well, but Cleveland was one of them.
[The two discuss the shooting briefly - the brown Lake with the syringes on the beach, etc., and remark about Ruhlman’s “reputation”, which has been totally destroyed by appearing on two episodes of No Reservations.]
Ruhlman: You told people I was drinking lighter fluid! My wife was in tears!
Bourdain: [Really surprised]. Really?!
Ruhlman: Really! People in my neighborhood thought I had a drug problem! They were coming up to Donna [Ruhlman’s wife], and saying stuff like, “I didn’t know Michael had a drinking and drug problem!”
Bourdain: [To audience]: I don’t know whether to feel guilty – or proud!
Ruhlman: Oh, right, like when we went to Masa – who was THAT throwing up into the Hudson?!
Bourdain: The river, dude – not at the bar!
Q: Where’s the best bar for a college student budget?
Bourdain: I don’t know . . . ever since the Siberia bar closed . . . ?
Q: And you quit smoking?
Bourdain: Totally. Having a 7 ½ month old will do that to you.
Ruhlman: You have SOME redeeming qualities.
Q: Let’s talk about near-death -
Bourdain: For Ruhlman, it was Skyline Chili.
[Tony then went on to talk about a recent shoot in Jamaica, where he went spelunking in caves with some “guano nerds”]:
Bourdain: So then the guano nerds say to me, “Dude, do you feel it getting warmer in here?” “Yeah!” “Well, that’s the body heat of 2 million bats!”
Ruhlman: That’s a perfect metaphor for your life.
Bourdain: Hey, that’s why I’m not gonna play with the Food Network! Talk about dropping out of a poop-filled chute!
Q: Is chef celebrity good for food, or bad?
Bourdain: I’m going to say good. People like Batali have the juice and the power to change things [for the good.] He’s got people eating brains and hooves at Babbo. He’s got people to eat out of their comfort zone, because of loveable, orange-clogged Mario. Chefs can now do more, have more on their menus than a meat, a salad, a pasta. [Celebrity chefdom] may be annoying, [it may make stars out of] knucklehead chefs -
Ruhlman: As long as they get famous for what they’re GOOD at -
Bourdain: think it’s increased the prestige of the line cook. People expect more. What I don’t like about it is the celebrity cult thing, where everyone goes along with a lie. You read [in some article]. “Jean Georges [Vongrichten] has a sure hand with herbs and spices” – he’s NOT BACK THERE! He’s flying first class to Beijing right now!
Ruhlman: But great chefs do not need to be in their kitchen to lead it. Only at Masa, where, because HE is the food, and if he catches a cold, the kitchen closes -
Bourdain: The very structure of kitchens is designed so the chef can take a night off. And the very fact that you know the name of a restaurant’s chef means that they can leave their kitchen without the quality [of the food] going down.
[The questioning returned to TV food personalities, and who, again, should be made to walk the plank.]
Bourdain: Ina Gartner – she can cook. Look, she rices mashed potatoes in a ricer! She adds in heated cream! She mounts it with pats of butter! I may not want to spend a weekend in her home – that would be kinda creepy – but she can COOK.
Ruhlman: And Alton Brown. He’s just like his show, but more devious. More mischievous. And he keeps himself pretty separate from the Food Network, too.
Bourdain: Sandra Lee?
Ruhlman: She’s evil. And she needs to be stopped.
Audience: She’s got a big head!
Bourdain: She’s got a big head, but she can cook. How about that Iron Chef Sugar Battle? Paula Deen, and that Dinner: Slightly Difficult Guy?
[Slight audience uproar.]
Bourdain: Ace of Cakes Guy? Does he suck?
Audience: No, there is some real craft there, Tony.
Bourdain: I think I like him. And Bobby Flay? He has a career like William Shatner. He’s pissed on the first half of his career, with all those web-footed, web-headed hicks getting to kick his ass – “Hey! Ah beat Bobby Flay at barbecue!” He deserves more respect.
At which point, Tony and Michael abandoned the stage to perform the time-honored tradition of Moving Some Units.
Hard on the heels of his occasional partner-in-crime Michael Ruhlman, bad-boy chef, author, and TV personality Anthony Bourdain was here in San Francisco this weekend promoting his own new book, “No Reservations: Around the World on an Empty Stomach“. He was scheduled for several events, and we signed up to see him at Book Passage’s “Cooks With Books” lunch at Boulevard restaurant.
I’d like to say we had as good a time at this event as we did at the one last week, but we didn’t (well, at least I didn’t. Scott may feel otherwise). Bourdain is a star of much bigger magnitude, and there’s just no way you can get the same level of spontaneity or intimacy at a four-course sit-down meal with well over 100 guests than at a regular signing. It’s not just the sheer increased number of people, though. It’s also directly connected to the nature of fame, and the impossibility of remaining fully open and accessible when the number of people wanting to interact with you has geometrically increased.
Bourdain signed a huge pile of books, spoke briefly, answered audience questions, and was exactly as you’d expect him – funny, pulling no punches, and occasionally potty-mouthed. The event was polished, professional, well-managed, and the food, although not top-notch, was decent. But all in all, it wasn’t really fun. Instead, I felt bad for Bourdain that he has to go through this grinder, and I wasn’t too thrilled with myself for being a part of it. It was nice to see Bourdain face to face, and I’ll be the first to admit that having an autographed copy of two of his books is more fun than not, but honestly, I am not sure I would go to that kind of event again.
Bourdain is a very smart guy, and I’m sure he knew what he was in for when he chose to take the path of author / TV personality over that of a chef. Signing autographs for a couple of hours is work, but standing in front of a hot stove for 12 hours is a hell of a lot harder. On the other hand, at least when you’re done with your 12-hour shift, you can go home and not have to worry about people snapping your picture as you duck into KFC for some take-out.
Musing over the nature and price of fame is hardly new ground, and it’s starting to move away from the focus of this blog anyway. To get back on track, here’s another shot from today:
UPDATE: Scott’s report on the event is a lot funnier than mine.