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.