Emmy winner Anthony Bourdain on his Brazilian Jiu-jitsu addiction, his new book and wondering how fat Guy Fieri needs to be
Editor’s note: Ahead of the documentary “Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain” being released, let’s relive our 2014 interview with Bourdain and his BJJ journey.
Fresh off another Emmy win for his outstanding Parts Unknown series, Anthony Bourdain continues to have more irons in the fire than most ambitious men and women are capable of tending. To say that he is driven would be a gross understatement.
The last time I spoke with this wonder of time bending, he had just started training at Renzo Gracie's Brazilian Jiu-jitsu Academy and was preparing for the Christmas holiday feast. Just eight months later he's put another stripe on his BJJ belt, is in the process of opening his own street market-styled restaurant, is filming his award winning series and has just published a book about the remarkable journey of kickboxer Mark "Fight Shark" Miller.
Last week, just a couple days before he won his second Emmy award for Outstanding Informational Series, I managed to snag a small block of Anthony's time to discuss his latest ventures as well as some current events. Here's what he had to say:
Stephie Haynes: How did you and Mark Miller connect in order to put this book together and get it published?
Anthony Bourdain: I was in Spain and there was an effort going on within the martial arts community that Renzo Gracie let me know about. It was to wish Mark well after he had recovered from his heart surgery in the run-up to his famous comeback fight in Russia. People were recording him little video messages wishing him well, so I agreed to do one.
I had no idea who this guy was, but I agreed to stand there with a sign in front of my chest saying "Go Fight Shark" or something like that. Just out of curiosity, I Googled him and found his blog. I was like, "Wow! This guy is really interesting and he can write well." He was talking about interesting things.
There are not a lot of people who punch people in the head/get punched in the head that tell their own story in an articulate and compelling way.
There are not a lot of people who punch people in the head/get punched in the head that tell their own story in an articulate and compelling way. It really says something when Mike Tyson emerges as the most articulate voice that's sort of able to come to terms with the roots of his violence and where he comes from. There's a lot of late-life self-examination coming from him.
Mark is another rare example of a guy in a very physical sport, a very violent sport, and is able to examine himself in a very compelling way. He talks about what it feels like to exert that kind of physical force over another person, to receive pain from somebody else in a competitive arena. He talks about what it was that got him into the fight game and kept him there. He was saying very interesting things in a very interesting way, and he does this in his own unique voice.
I reached out to him and we met up at a signing on the West Coast and spent some time together a couple of summers ago. Very soon after I asked him if he'd be interested in writing a book for my imprint.
Stephie Haynes: Does it affect you emotionally knowing that Mark is still dealing with massive complications from
*It has been brought to my attention that Miller's ongoing medical issues stemmed from a prescription error by his physician which resulted in renal failure.
Anthony Bourdain: Oh yes. I am regularly in touch with him and it's just such a horrendous torrent of bad luck he's had. I'm glad the guy has a sense of humor because his situation is ridiculous. Pieces are falling off of the car but he still keeps going.
The book, to me, has this special appeal. You don't have to know anything about Muay Thai or kickboxing or fighting. You don't even have to be interested in fighting. It's really about pain and violence and reaching into yourself to find a way to get through life.
I'm not going to say it's a self-help book, but I definitely think there's something there for people facing very different circumstances. I just think it's about bigger stuff. Mark carries around a lot of darkness and absorbing that or getting through it or living with it or using it...I don't know. I can relate to that somehow.
Stephie Haynes: You had a very bumpy road in your early adulthood. So do you find that some part of you identifies with Mark's story?
Anthony Bourdain: I certainly know what it's like to be angry, to feel marginalized, to act out on some long-buried grievance or some injustice in the world. I'll say that I was an angry young man and I was in some pain. It's a relative thing. There's pain and angst, and then there's real pain.
I think I know what it's like to walk around for much of your life angry.
I was an angsty kid, an angry young man. I did a lot of drugs and a lot of bad things. I wouldn't say I've faced anything like the great majority of people I see on the road, and I certainly haven't been through anything like what Mark's faced, but I think I know what it's like to walk around for much of your life angry. Trying to resolve that or feeling your way through to resolve that anger...for me, it was drugs, not fighting.
Stephie Haynes: You've done a wide variety of collaborations with musicians, comic book authors/illustrators, TV shows, other chefs, etc. and they've all been successful. Has your fan base been receptive of this book?
Anthony Bourdain: I don't know. I do things because they're fun and they interest me, and I like or feel a connection to the people I'm doing them with. They're very different projects, the comic book and publishing Mark's book. I like collaborating. I like doing things that interest me.
I don't expect any core audience or fan base of mine to necessarily like all of those things. It would be nice if I could bring the same people who like my show, if I could introduce them all to Mark's book. It would be great if they all bought the book. I would like that a lot [laughs].
I try really hard not to anticipate what people might like. I just try to do the best that I can and do the things that I'm passionate about and hope that people will find those things interesting too. If I can be the one to introduce them, then that's great.
Stephie Haynes: You have a tremendous amount of social media influence. Your unique blend of adventurer/chef/historian has caught the attention of millions, and many look to you for recommendations on almost everything.
Anthony Bourdain: Well, I am evangelical about things that I like, whether it be food, books, authors or films. If I see a film that I really like or I read a book that I really like, I do sort of want to go door-to-door and force everybody I know to read the book that I love or see the movie that I love. If I could, I would. I won't make any bones about it.
I'm an annoying film fan. If I'm telling you about a film, I'm sort of not happy until you've gone and seen it yourself. If I could drive you to the theater myself and sit outside until it's over, that would be ideal. It will gnaw at me until you do. Being a publisher, in some ways, allows me that kind of pulpit to arm-twist, coerce, seduce or convince people to read books like Mark's, which I'm really passionate about.
Brazilian Jiu-jitsu Is Life
Anthony Bourdain trains with Igor Gracie.
I'm like all of these other sick fucks out there. If I don't train, I'm like going through drug withdrawal.
Stephie Haynes: You recently skipped New York traffic to take a helicopter to BJJ practice. How did that come to pass?
Anthony Bourdain: You asked me a couple years back if I would ever train, and I said to you, "Hell no!'" Now, I'm like all of these other sick fucks out there. If I don't train, I'm like going through drug withdrawal. I feel miserable and worthless if I miss a single day. I've been going a lot. I'm not commuting to NY every day like Ottavia, but given the opportunity to fly in for family training day, it made perfect sense to me.
Basically, for the last year, every day that I'm not shooting, I'm training. From the last day of the show, I've been training at Renzo's every single day, sometimes two sessions a day. Sometimes in regular class with the general population, and then again in a private session to figure out what I fucked up in class.
Stephie Haynes: A couple of years ago you were totally against learning the art, then this past Christmas you caught the bug and had started training. Now you're a full blown BJJ addict. You've come full circle, it would seem.
Anthony Bourdain: I have reasonable expectations. I am a white belt. There's not a single thing for me to be proud of when I walk out onto the mat, but I am really having a good time. I've discovered that it's a lot like writing. I think that they appeal to the same part of my brain.
If I have a good writing day, I get up and write for an hour or two or three, after which I basically paint myself into a corner or up a tree. I can't go any further. I'm out of ideas. I don't know where I'm going to go next. I've created a problem for myself by not being able to continue. The rest of the day I'm thinking about how am I going to fix this and what am I going to write tomorrow.
When I go to the gym, inevitably, as happens in jiu-jitsu, you are presented with a series of problems, which chances are, you do not solve [laughs]. When I finish at the gym, I'm thinking for the rest of the day about how I can go in the next day and suck a little bit less than I did today.
I don't really have a goal in mind. I'm just looking to suck a little bit less every few weeks.Anthony Bourdain with Rener Gracie.
For me, I don't really have a goal in mind. I'm just looking to suck a little bit less every few weeks. It's very satisfying when something actually clicks and I can see improvement. When I don't spend an entire hour squashed on the mat, that's very satisfying.
It's much more about the creation of new problems that's maybe even more interesting to me than any notion that I'm going to get somewhere in particular. I'm really liking this endless process. They're also nice people. They're very supportive. I'm 58 years old and I was in shit shape when I started, and now I go home feeling good. It's physically the hardest thing I've ever done, and I love it.
Stephie Haynes: What was it like for you in the beginning?
Anthony Bourdain: I had a really hard time. I mean, my first classes where I went into the general population...the first few classes and the warm-ups just destroyed me. The warm-up was the most terrifying part of the class. I didn't mind getting squashed by a guy 1/3 my age, you know, some high school wrestler with a sadistic streak [laughs]. That wasn't frightening at all to me. It was the fucking warm-up and the idea of sitting there gasping for air and struggling to not vomit off to the side of the room.
Getting through that certainly feels a lot better, and yeah, I'm probably in a lot better shape. The thing is, I'm not fighting time here. I'm not going to be 30 again. I understand these things. Again, I have very realistic and limited expectations of where I'm going to be with this. I don't even care where I'm going to be. I just know that I'm really enjoying this ride.
Stephie Haynes: You compared BJJ to writing earlier. Do you find any similarities with cooking, or is that too far removed?
Anthony Bourdain: They're very different. Cooking is a very instinctive thing and it's also about multi-tasking. It's about doing the same thing the same way over and over. I don't really see a lot of similarities with cooking other than repetition, repetition, repetition. You learn to cook by doing the same thing over and over and over again, until it's second nature. You know when a piece of steak is done just by listening to it, or there's a little internal alarm you have where you just know when it's done.
If you were to stretch it a bit, I guess you could say you could sense an omaplata coming [laughs] in much the same way. I'm still at the point where I'm not seeing stuff. Again, I'm a white belt. I'm still spazzing out about how to breathe and when to use my energy. Right now, I don't know anything, but I'm looking forward to maybe someday knowing something.
Stephie Haynes: I saw that you finally christened your gi with some blood. Did you frame that or did Ottavia the Laundry Machine swoop down and wash it?
Anthony Bourdain: [Laughs] I didn't even know until afterwards. It was nothing, a tiny little nick. When you're all into your session, you don't even realize it. Nobody even told me about it until afterwards. The guys didn't think I seemed to mind it so they didn't tell me until the end. We were having a good day.
If I'm still around at this point and haven't been seriously injured, that's a good thing.
There are a few bad days, but mostly they're good. If I'm still around at this point and haven't been seriously injured, that's a good thing.
Stephie Haynes: This has really become a family affair for you guys. I saw your daughter got a special belt, you added another stripe to yours and Ottavia has been at this for three or four years now.
Anthony Bourdain: I think she was surprised that I actually started doing it. It is a family thing, but we're all sort of going at it for different reasons and I think we're all getting different things out of it. I think it's also something to note that often, I will be training in the same room as my daughter [laughs]. You always have to be humble in jiu-jitsu because there's always someone better than you at any level.
I often find myself training and looking across the room at my little seven-year-old training the same moves and executing them with impeccable grace and flawless technique. It definitely puts me in my place. If I think I'm having a good day, I look over at my daughter, doing a flying armbar, it's both exhilarating as a dad, and humbling as a fellow practitioner [laughs].
Friends In War Torn Countries
Jason Rezaian and Yeganeh Salehi with Anthony Bourdain
Over the last several years, Bourdain has forged close bonds with some of his travel guides while filming. Recently, a couple that had been his liaisons in Iran, Jason Rezaian and Yeganeh Salehi, have been arrested. Anthony has been using his considerable social media presence to obtain any information he can on his captive friends.
Stephie Haynes: I've noticed your pleas for information regarding your friends that were arrested in Iran. That must be kind of alarming for you, having been there so recently, and then something like this happens.
Anthony Bourdain: All I can tell you is that I wake up every morning and I'm not sure...I eventually end up reading the news, but I dread doing it. These two lovely people that I spent a fair amount of time with, one is an Iranian-American and the other is an Iranian citizen. He's The Washington Post correspondent and she's the correspondent for an Arab Emirate paper [The National, out of Abu Dhabi], I believe. They were taken away in the middle of the night by presumably, the secret police. There's been no word for over two weeks now. It's very, very worrisome.
I often think of the people that I spent time with in Gaza, those people that were so kind to me when I was there, all the kids that I played with, the homes where they fed me...are they even still alive? Do those structures still exist? Are those children still with us? It's very discouraging.
I’ve walked those streets. I know those people, and in every case, they’ve been very kind to me. It’s sickening what’s happening there.
Kurdistan, I mean my God, I spent time in Iraq a few years ago in Kurdistan, and the bad guys are just 45 minutes away at this point. It's all too easy to throw my hands up from my vacation in Long Island, while the world is going to shit, and say, "I'm gonna go back in the pool", but I can't do that.
I've been to those places. I've walked those streets. I know those people, and in every case, they've been very kind to me. It's sickening what's happening there.
Stephie Haynes: Have you bonded on that level with other families and people that you've met along your travels?
Anthony Bourdain: Always. That's something that you carry with you. I was very affected by Lebanon, Gaza, Vietnam. People are very kind to me everywhere, and often in very unexpected places. I am regularly the beneficiary of incredible acts of kindness from total strangers. You can't help but be affected and changed by that. When so many different people from so many different backgrounds and so many different countries are lovely to you, just because you're a stranger who's interested in their food and their lives, it's a humbling thing.
Parts Unknown and Foodie Fun
Anthony Bourdain wears his gi pants while cooking at home.
Stephie Haynes: Parts Unknown is more than just a food show, it's equal parts cultural history lesson and culinary exploration. On one of the episodes, you talked about a phenomenon called "culinary fashion." It seemed to be a distasteful topic to you. What exactly does it mean?
Anthony Bourdain: It's a lot like the music business. Some forward thinking innovator does something brilliant and creative and it becomes successful. Then, everybody else in the industry is doing it too. Suddenly every menu looks the same. I think that's a function of any creative enterprise, whether it's music or television. There are young, enthusiastic fans of certain chefs that they look up to and they want to emulate them.
And then of course, there's the cynical business people who see somebody successfully selling molten chocolate cake 20 years ago, and suddenly molten chocolate cake is on every damned menu. It's easy to make fun of, but I only get really angry about it when it verges on not being food or it's fucking up a good thing. I mean, a buffalo chicken wing is a good thing, a nacho is a good thing. A Guytalian nacho is probably a bridge too far [laughs].
You look at Guy Fieri's menu and his brand, and it's like how fat do you need to be?Guy Fieri does ... something with buffalo wings. (Getty Images)
I'm hardly a health nut, but you look at Guy Fieri's menu and his brand, and it's like how fat do you need to be? How sick do you need to be? Is there anything funny about proudly shoving 4,000 calories into your face just because you know it's 4,000 calories? The chicken wings are fine. I don't need the fucking donkey sauce and melted cheese on them. Do I? I don't know. Maybe I do. Maybe I'm all wrong.
Stephie Haynes: Have you watched NBC's Hannibal, and if so, what do you think of the way the food is executed on the show?
Anthony Bourdain: I love it. First of all, my dear friend, José Andrés, who happens to be one of the greatest chefs in the country, is the consultant for the show. I happen to think they are the finest food scenes on fictional TV.
When Hannibal makes osso buco, of course he's making it with a human calf bone, a human shank, the technique, the presentation, the details were absolutely perfect. The food looks really good. It's a beautifully photographed show. The production design and cinematography is the best ever on network television. It's also the darkest, most violent, disturbing, sick shit ever.
Stephie Haynes: Would you ever be interested in guesting or anything like that on Hannibal?
Anthony Bourdain: Oh no. I'm not an actor and I don't want to be one. I do voiceovers for cartoons because they're fun or my daughter likes them, but I can't act. Let's leave that to the professionals. I'm on TV quite enough. Less is more [laughs].
Stephie Haynes: You've tried the songbird delicacy that was featured in one of the episodes. What was that like?
Anthony Bourdain: The ortolan. I've had it a number of times. It's fantastic. It's absolutely wonderful. People eat that scary looking thing for a reason, because it is absolutely delicious. It really is one of life's rare pleasures.
It goes back to the Romans and the idea of fattening little birds up until they are plump and eating all of them. It's not that strange, and they used to do that with all sorts of animals. There's just something very extraordinary about it.
Stephie Haynes: What are some other culinary delights that qualify as one of life's rare pleasures?
Anthony Bourdain: Super high-end sushi every once in a while is always good.
Stephie Haynes: You met Paul Bocuse on one of the episodes of Parts Unknown and it resonated with me what a big deal that was for you. Are there any other chefs out there that you want to connect with?
Anthony Bourdain: I was practically in tears. I was totally intimidated. I never thought in a million years I would ever eat at his restaurant, much less with him. I mean, I knew that history was happening in front of me. It was a once in a lifetime thing, a dream come true. It's once in a lifetime for very, very few people. Bocuse was the mountain top for me.
Stephie Haynes: Gastro-tourism seems to be catching on in a big way. What are your thoughts on it and if you could choose three locations for an American gastro tour, what cities would you choose?
Anthony Bourdain: I'm fine with that, yeah. I like the idea of traveling off to a place with food in mind. I can think of a lot of places where I would recommend people do that.
New York, San Francisco, Chicago, those are easy. Of course you have to go to those places. They're major destinations for restaurants with a lot of famous chefs. I think Los Angeles because it's underrated, and I would fully recommend exploring it. Charleston, South Carolina and of course, New Orleans would round out my tour.
Stephie Haynes: I've noticed from my vast cooking show viewing experience that most chefs draw on childhood memories for inspiration. What were some of yours?
In our last interview with Anthony Bourdain, he discussed MMA, radioactive monkey colons, In-N-Out vs. Five Guys, the world's best beef, and "bro-food."
Anthony Bourdain: My mom made meatloaf. Who doesn't love mom's meatloaf? That's a powerful memory for me. Steamer clams from the Jersey Shore, a good hero sandwich or Italian sub, a deep-fried ripper hot dog, I love those things. They take me back. Campbell's tomato soup; my mom would heat up some tomato soup if it was a cold, rainy day or if I had a bad day at school. Those are all powerful childhood flavors for me.
Stephie Haynes: When you traveled to Copenhagen and ate at Noma, the menu was primarily veggie based, and you seemed pretty happy with it, despite being a self-professed carnivore. Have you found other places where the veggie menus impressed you?
Anthony Bourdain: There are a few restaurants where they do very exciting things with vegetables. I think one of the problems that I've had is that I don't like dogmatic restaurants or a guiding philosophy, generally. A lot of the vegan or veggie-centric restaurants don't really cook vegetables well. Lately, there have been a lot of great chefs doing really exciting things in that department. I think Alex Stupak from Empellón in New York does some very exciting stuff; Ludo Lefebvre at Trois Mec in LA does some great vegetable dishes.
I don't know. I‘ve been eating some good vegetables lately, and I have to admit, it's sort of a shameful secret since I've been training jiu-jitsu....I haven't been eating much carbs, let's put it that way [laughs]. Hell, I actually make myself a salad on a regular basis, which is a total turnaround for me. For me to actually buy green stuff to make myself a salad used to be just about as likely as me sitting down and listening to the collective works of Creed.
Stephie Haynes: Was Quebec or France the most decadent episode of Parts Unknown to date?
Anthony Bourdain: Quebec. Well, France is pretty decadent, especially when you're traveling around with Daniel Boulud, but they're aggressively hospitable in Montreal. They're just not going to be happy until you're dead; until they've killed you with fine wine, delicious cheeses and wonderful meats. The stuff is all so good and so legendary, you figure, "I'll never see a wine this good again. I guess I'll have to drink it." It's a week in rehab after episodes like that.
Stephie Haynes: What's the latest food trend going right now?
Anthony Bourdain: I think spicy is the big thing now. Increasing heat. Heat so screamingly spicy that your hair will burst into flames. I think that's where we're going.
Stephie Haynes: Where did your love for organ meat and entrails come from?
Anthony Bourdain: Well, it's good. I don't know. I think most chefs find their way to it. When you're bored with filet mignon, you move on to tripe. What's better than a good cow's liver with onion and bacon? That's delicious.
Stephie Haynes: Do you find that your very distinguished palate ruins some of your everyday dining experiences because you might be dissecting the ingredients and cooking methods?
Anthony Bourdain: No, I am very good at turning my brain off when I eat. I don't evaluate. I try to experience my food in an emotional way. I don't overthink it or intellectualize it or evaluate it. That destroys the pleasure.
I would assume that those folks that work in porn all day and then are able to go home and have a relationship are able to separate the two. I certainly do.
As a professional for so many years, if I were to start thinking about and analyzing the food, it would be work. It would be misery. I guess it's like being a porn star. You fuck all day at work, it ruins your romantic life. I would assume that those folks that work in porn all day and then are able to go home and have a relationship are able to separate the two. I certainly do.
Stephie Haynes: Have you seen the movie Chef, and if so, what did you think of it?
Anthony Bourdain: I loved it. I thought it was great. My friend Roy Choy produced it and consulted on it. You could really hear his voice in the film. The cooking was wonderful, the details were absolutely correct. I thought it was a really terrific film and I'd see it again.
Stephie Haynes: You're going to be opening your own street food market. What kind of influences will we be seeing there?
Anthony Bourdain: I think Singapore, Hong Kong and Malaysia will be the major influences. That kind of a model of a hawker center, but certainly there will be Thai food, Mexican food. The heart and soul of it will be a dai pai dong, as it's called in Hong Kong. It's very mixed up. It's got a Chinese heart but there's also Malay and Indian food. It's super casual and hopefully affordable and delicious.
Stephie Haynes: Which episode did you drink the most on, because you're always invited to partake in the local spirits?
Anthony Bourdain: Russia definitely. You're drinking vodka in Russia. You drink your face off. That's why I only go every few years. I just can't take it. I'm an amateur when it comes to drinking in Russia. It's horrifying how much they drink.
Stephie Haynes: What foods seemed the most revolting to you but ended up tasting okay?
Anthony Bourdain: I think Thailand's raw blood soup is a good example. That did not look good, but it was amazing. So delicious.
Stephie Haynes: I saw that you took your daughter to a WWE event a few weeks ago. Are you also a professional wrestling fan?
Anthony Bourdain: I took my daughter and her little friend and they loved it. I was dreading it; I wanted to wear a bag over my head. I thought it was just going to suck so bad. I ended up having a really great time, and I'd totally do it again. It's so much outrageously over the top fun. It's like a John Waters film with muscles [laughs].
Stephie Haynes: Last question, Parts Unknown has been nominated for several Emmy awards this year, most importantly the one for Outstanding Informational Series. How does it feel to be nominated again this year?
Anthony Bourdain: When I was a chef, I liked building up a certain esprit de corps, a camaraderie in my kitchen. I liked my cooks to feel that they were the best and that they were part of something important. Even if no one else knew it, we knew that we were good. This recognition is nice because it's nice to know that my sound editor, my camera people, my production are being recognized with an elite award. You know, if you're going to be in the Army, it's nice to be in the Green Berets.
Anthony went on to win that Emmy just three days after our interview on August 16. You can follow Anthony via his Twitter account, @Bourdain