Life Lessons from Anthony Bourdain: How He Developed His Iron Professionalism, Achieved Creative Freedom & Learned from Failure

Anthony Bourdain was not a particularly good chef. That statement comes not as a cheap shot at the recently departed, but a quote from the departed himself. Bourdain freely admitted it over a couple of Tiger beers with a Fast Company interviewer last year. "I was very deservedly fired on a number of occasions," he adds for good measure, referencing his decades of dirty work and drug abuse before he rose to prominence in the worlds of food- and travel-centric books and television. But in more than one way, those decades prepared him to ride the kind of success he would eventually achieve into a body of work that could have arisen from no other life or personality.

"Most of the people I've met who've been in the television industry for a long time, their greatest fear is that they will not be in the television industry next year," Bourdain says. "That they'll say something or do something or make a decision that will be so unpopular that they'll lose their gig and won't end up back on television again. I don't have that fear." He knew, surely better than anyone who has publicly remarked on it, that he may not have shown the genius in the kitchen to attain star-chef status. But he also knew he had something ultimately more important: the skills to turn out meal after flawless meal, day in and day out. "If I have to," he says, "I'm pretty sure I can keep up on an omelet station."




Many remembrances of Bourdain have highlighted his iron professionalism. "He is controlled to the point of neurosis: clean, organized, disciplined, courteous, systematic," wrote the New Yorker's Patrick Radden Keefe in a profile published last year. "He is Apollo in drag as Dionysus.” Bourdain credited that to his lean years in the kitchen: "Everything important I ever learned, I learned as dishwasher and as a cook: you show up on time, you stay organized, you clean up after yourself, you think about the people you work with, you respect the people you work with. You do the best you can." This went for matters personal as well as professional: "If I say to you I'm going to meet you tomorrow at twelve minutes after five to see John Wick 7, I will be there at 5:02."

He would also, he adds, be "hanging out across the street, discreetly observing to see what time you show up. And I'll be making some very important decisions based on your arrival time." Bourdain's exacting standards, for himself and others, allowed him to achieve an unusual degree of freedom for a major media personality. "I detest competent, workmanlike storytelling," he says of his and his collaborators' penchant for creative risk. "A powerful reaction, in one way or the other, is infinitely preferable to me than pleasing everybody." Yet despite taking books and television shows ostensibly about food in new and unpredictable aesthetic and intellectual directions, in the kitchen he remained a traditionalist to the end. "You put chicken in a carbonara? You lost me. It's an unforgivable sin against God."

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Watch Anthony Bourdain’s Free Show, Raw Craft Where He Visits Craftsmen Making Guitars, Tattoos, Motorcycles & More (RIP)

Why has food become such an object of interest in recent years? One possible explanation is that it represents one of the last pursuits still essentially untouchable by digital culture: for all you can write about and photograph food for the internet, you can't actually experience it there. Food, in other words, means physicality, dexterity, sensibility, and hand-craftsmanship in a concrete, visceral way that, in the 21st, century, has come to seem increasingly scarce. But another, shorter explanation sums the phenomenon up, just as plausibly, in two words: Anthony Bourdain.

Ever since he first entered the public eye at the end of the 1990s, late chef-writer-traveler-television host taught a reading, and later viewing public to appreciate not just food but all that goes into food: the ingredients, sure, the intense training and labor, of course, but most of all the many and varied cultural factors that converge on a meal. Bourdain found robust cultures everywhere, those that developed cart-filled streets of cities across the world to the kitchens of the most unassuming-looking restaurants and everywhere in between. He deeply respected not just those dedicated to the making and serving of food, but those dedicated to crafts of all kinds.




Bourdain's natural kinship with all craftsmen and craftswomen made him a natural choice to carry Raw Craft, a web series sponsored by the Balvenie, a popular-premium brand of Scotch whisky. In its fourteen episodes (each of which finds a way to feature a bottle of the Balvenie), Bourdain goes characteristically far and wide to visit the studios and workshops of real people making real suits, shoessaxophones, drums, guitarshandprinted books, furniture, motorcycles, and "traditionally feminine objects." That last may break somewhat from Bourdain's swaggering, masculine-if-not-macho image, but as the series' host he displays a good deal of enthusiasm for the subject of each episode, including the trip to the sponsor's own distillery in Dufftown, Scotland.

Naturally, Bourdain can engage on a whole other level in the episodes about food and food-related objects, such as pastries and hot chocolatekitchen knives, and, in the video at the top of the post, cast-iron skillets. Ever the participatory observer, he finishes that last by preparing steak au poivre with one of the workshop's own skillets on the flame of its own skillet-forging furnace. He takes it a step further, or several, in the episode with Japanese tattoo artist Takashi where, despite "running out of room" on his own much-tattooed skin, he commissions one more: a magnificent blue chrysanthemum on his shoulder, drawn and inked with only the most time-honored tools and techniques.

We even, during one of Bourdain's ink-receiving sessions with Takashi, glimpse a true craftsman-to-craftsman conversational exchange. Bourdain asks Takashi about something he's seen all of the many times he's been on the tattooing table: a junior artist will approach to watch and learn from the way a senior one works. Takashi, who had to go through a minor ordeal just to convince his own master to take him on as an apprentice, confirms both the universality and the importance of the practice: "If you stop learning, you are pretty much done, you know?" Bourdain, who could only have agreed with the sentiment, lived it to the very end. "I'd like it to last as long as I do," he says of his Takashi tattoo — "Which ain't that long," he adds, "but long enough, I hope." But surely no amount of time could ever satisfy a culinary, cultural, and intellectual appetite as prodigious as his.

You can watch the complete series of Raw Craft videos here.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Short Fascinating Film Shows How Japanese Soy Sauce Has Been Made for the Past 750 years

A few years back, we visited Hōshi, a hotel located in Komatsu, Japan, which holds the distinction of being the 2nd oldest hotel in the world, and "the oldest still running family business in the world." Built in 718 AD, Hōshi has been operated by the same family for 46 consecutive generations.

It's hard to imagine. But it's true. Once established, Hōshi would have to wait another 500 years before soy sauce came to Japan and could be served to its guests. According to the National Geographic video above, a buddhist monk traveled from China to Yuasa, Japan in the 13th century. And there he began producing soy sauce, fermenting soy beans, wheat, salt and water. That tradition continues to this day. This fascinating short film by Mile Nagaoka gives you a good glimpse into this timeless process.

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The Science of Beer: A New Free Online Course Promises to Enhance Your Appreciation of the Timeless Beverage

The brewing of beer is as old as agriculture, which is to say as old as settled civilization. The oldest recipe we know of dates to 1800 B.C. Over centuries, beer moved up and down the class ladder depending on its primary consumers. Medieval monks brewed many fine varieties and were renowned for their technique. Beer descended into pubs and rowdy beer halls, whetting the whistles not only of farmers, soldiers, sailors, and pilgrims, but also of burghers and a budding industrial workforce. During the age of modern empire, beer became, on both sides of the Atlantic, the beverage of working-class sports fans in bleachers and La-Z-Boys.

A craft beer Renaissance at the end of last century brought back a monkish mystique to this most ancient beverage, turning beer into wine, so to speak, with comparable levels of connoisseurship. Beer bars became galleries of fine polished brass, pungent, fruity aromas, dark and serious wood appointments. Craft beer is fun—with its quirky names and labels—it is also intimidating, in the breadth of complicated concoctions on offer. (Hipsters and penurious revelers revolted, made a fetish of Pabst Blue Ribbon, Milwaukee’s Best, and ye olde malt liquor.)




“Has craft beer peaked?” wonders The Washington Post’s Rachel Siegel. You can probably guess from the question that most trends point to “yes.” But as long as there is wheat, barley, and hops, we will have beer, no matter who is drinking it and where. One lasting effect of beer’s highbrow few decades remains: a popular scholarly appreciation for its culture and composition. You can study the typography of beer, for example, as Print magazine has done in recent years. A new online course applies the tools of empirical and sociological research to beer drinking.

“The Science of Beer,” taught by a cadre of student teachers from Wageningen University in Holland, explores “how [beer is] made, the raw materials used, its supply chain, how it's marketed and the effect of beer consumption on your body.” (This last point—in a world turned against sugar, carbs, and gluten—being partly the reason for craft beer’s decline.) Should your voice quaver when you approach the upscale reclaimed walnut bar and survey unfamiliar lagers, ales, stouts, bocks, porters, and hefeweizens… should you hesitate at Whole Foods when faced with a wall of beverages with names like incantations, this free class may set you at ease.

Not only will you learn about the different types of beer, but “after this course, tasting a beer will be an entirely new sensation: you will enjoy it even more since you will better understand what’s inside your drink.” Enrollment for the 5-week course began this past Monday and the class is currently open and free. (Make sure you select the "Audit" option for the free version of the course.) You should expect to devote 2 to 4 hours per week to “The Science of Beer.” Please, study responsibly.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

The Case for Writing in Coffee Shops: Why Malcolm Gladwell Does It, and You Should Too

Photo by Kris Krüg via Wikimedia Commons

I passed Malcolm Gladwell on the street a few years ago, on the final stop of a road trip I took from Los Angeles to Raleigh, North Carolina. At the time I wondered why the unmistakable New York-based writer, speaker, and interpreter of big ideas had come to town. But now that I know a little bit about his personal and professional habits, I can at least say with some confidence where he was going: a coffee shop. That Gladwell's work has, over the years, occasionally touched on the subject of coffee suggests he may well enjoy a good brew, but in that same time he's also stated, explicitly and repeatedly, that cafés are where he does the work itself.




"I loved the newsroom," Gladwell, who got his start in one, once told The Guardian. "When I left it I wanted to recreate the newsroom and the closest thing to a newsroom is any kind of random active social space." The best coffee shop offers what he calls "the right kind of distraction. There has to be some sort of osmotic process," just as happens with journalists together in the office. "I don’t particularly think coffee shops are amazing places to write," he more recently said in a podcast interview with economist Tyler Cowen (embedded below). "But I do think that simply being around people who are not my age is really useful."

"The coffee-shop writer needs to be, as the sociologists would say, an outlier and not a pioneer," Gladwell writes in the Wall Street Journal. (Even in a personal essay, it seems, he can't resist applying an academic concept to everyday life.) "You don't want to be the laptop cowboy who signals to other laptop cowboys that this is the place to be. You want the club that won't have you as a member." He goes on to recommend the rigorous likes of Manhattan's laptop-banning Café Grumpy and Zurich's La Stanza: "no comfy chairs, no Wi-Fi, no outlets, and coffee so ridiculously expensive that it functions as a tax on lingering."

Other Gladwell-approved writing cafés include Fernandez and Wells in London, Chez Prune in Paris (until, that is, it flooded with "Vassar girls with their Gitanes cigarettes and their Thomas Mann"), and "the back booths in the Swan Restaurant on Queen Street West" in Toronto. These far-flung spots align well with the other personal writing strategy Gladwell explained to Cowen: "I travel a lot. And that’s a really, really useful way of breaking out of bad intellectual habits, and to remind yourself about what the rest of the world is like." As a hard-writing habitué of the coffee shops of Seoul, I second Gladwell's advice, but I should note that following it won't necessarily get you to his level of popularity and acclaim; combine it with his new Masterclass on writing, though, and hey, who knows.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Hunter S. Thompson’s Decadent Daily Breakfast: The “Psychic Anchor” of His Frenetic Creative Life

Image  via Wikimedia Commons

Is breakfast really the most important meal of the day?

It certainly seems so from all the carefully staged photos of overnight oatmeal on Instagram.

The physical and mental benefits are well documented. A nutritious meal in the morning boosts blood glucose levels, improving concentration, boosting energy levels and maintaining healthy weight.

Sadly, many Americans gobble their breakfasts on the fly. How many hundreds of film and television scenes have you seen wherein the main characters hurtle through the kitchen snatching bananas, granola bars, and travel mugs on their way to the door?

The late gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson would surely not have approved, though he may have enjoyed the sense of superiority these morning scrambles would have engendered.

This was a man who bragged that he could “cover a hopelessly scrambled presidential campaign better than any six-man team of career political journalists on The New York Times or The Washington Post and still eat a three-hour breakfast in the sun every morning.”

Reporting for Rolling Stone in “Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail 76,” he intimated that he viewed breakfast with the “traditionalized reverence that most people associate with Lunch and Dinner.”

One wonders who exactly he meant by “most people”?

Texans? The Irish? Rabelais?

Regardless of whether he had been to bed, or what he had gotten up to the night before, he insisted upon a massive repast—consumed al fresco, and preferably in the nude. The sun he enjoyed basking in was usually at its zenith by the time he sat down. The meal, which he called the "psychic anchor" of "a terminally jangled lifestyle, consisted of the following:

Four bloody Marys

Two grapefruits

A pot of coffee

Rangoon crêpes

A half-pound of either sausage, bacon, or corned beef-hash with diced chilies

A Spanish omelette or eggs Benedict

A quart of milk

A chopped lemon for random seasoning

Something like a slice of Key lime pie

Two margaritas

And six lines of the best cocaine for dessert

Last summer, a Danish Vice reporter recreated Thompson’s breakfast of choice, inviting a poet friend (and “aspiring alcoholic") to partake along with him. It ended with him vomiting, naked, into a shrub. His guest, who seems to be made of sturdier stuff, praised the eggs benedict, the Bloody Marys, and dessert.

Thompson preferred that his first meal of the day be consumed solo, in order to get a jump on the day’s work. In addition to the edible menu items, he required:

Two or three newspapers

All mail and messages

A telephone

A notebook for planning the next twenty four hours

And at least one source of good music

Read "Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail 1976" here. The key breakfast quote reads as follows:

I like to eat breakfast alone, and almost never before noon; anybody with a terminally jangled lifestyle needs at least one psychic anchor every twenty four hours, and mine is breakfast. In Hong Kong, Dallas, or at home—and regardless of whether or not I have been to bed—breakfast is a personal ritual that can only be properly observed alone, and in a spirit of genuine excess. The food factor should always be massive: Four bloody Marys, two grapefruits, a pot of coffee, Rangoon crêpes, a half-pound of either sausage, bacon, or corned beef-hash with diced chilies, a Spanish omelette or eggs Benedict, a quart of milk, a chopped lemon for random seasoning, and something like a slice of Key lime pie, two margaritas, and six lines of the best cocaine for dessert... Right, and there should also be two or three newspapers, all mail and messages, a telephone, a notebook for planning the next twenty four hours, and at least one source of good music... All of which should be dealt with outside, in the warmth of the hot sun, and preferably stone naked.

And just in case, here is a recipe for Crab Rangoon Crepes…

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Eudora Welty’s Handwritten Eggnog Recipe, and Charles Dickens’ Recipe for Holiday Punch

’Tis the season to break out the family recipes of beloved relatives, though often their provenance is not quite what we think.

(Imagine the cognitive dissonance upon discovering that Mother swiped “her” Italian Zucchini Crescent Pie from Pillsbury Bake-Off winner, Millicent Nathan of Boca Raton, Florida…)

When it came to crediting the eggnog she dubbed “the taste of Christmas Day," above, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Eudora Welty shared it out equally between her mother and author Charles Dickens:

In our house while I was growing up, I don't remember that hard liquor was served at all except on one day in the year. Early on Christmas morning, we woke up to the sound of the eggbeater: Mother in the kitchen was whipping up eggnog. All in our bathrobes, we began our Christmas before breakfast. Throughout the day Mother made batches afresh. All our callers expected her eggnog.

It was ladled from the punch bowl into punch cups and silver goblets, and had to be eaten with a spoon. It stood up in peaks. It was rich, creamy and strong. Mother gave full credit for the recipe to Charles Dickens.

Nice, but perhaps Dickens is undeserving of this honor? The contents of his punchbowl bore little resemblance to Mother Welty’s, as evidenced by an 1847 letter to his childhood friend, Amelia Filloneau, in which he shared a recipe he promised would make her “a beautiful Punchmaker in more senses than one”:

Peel into a very strong common basin (which may be broken, in case of accident, without damage to the owner’s peace or pocket) the rinds of three lemons, cut very thin, and with as little as possible of the white coating between the peel and the fruit, attached. Add a double-handfull of lump sugar (good measure), a pint of good old rum, and a large wine-glass full of brandy — if it not be a large claret-glass, say two. Set this on fire, by filling a warm silver spoon with the spirit, lighting the contents at a wax taper, and pouring them gently in. Let it burn for three or four minutes at least, stirring it from time to Time. Then extinguish it by covering the basin with a tray, which will immediately put out the flame. Then squeeze in the juice of the three lemons, and add a quart of boiling water. Stir the whole well, cover it up for five minutes, and stir again.

This sounds very like the “seething bowls of punch” the jolly Ghost of Christmas Present shows Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, dimming the chamber with their delicious steam.

It’s also vegan, in contrast to what you might have been served in the Welty ladies’ home.

Why not serve both? In the words of Tiny Tim, "Here's to us all!"

Eudora Welty’s Mother’s Eggnog (Attributed, Perhaps Erroneously, to Charles Dickens)

6 egg yolks, well beaten

Add 3 tbsp. powdered sugar

Add 1 cup whiskey, added slowly, beating all the while

Fold in 1 pint whipped cream

Whip 6 whipped egg whites and add to the mixture above.

 

Charles Dickens’ Holiday Punch (adapted from Punch by David Wondrich)

3/4 cup sugar

3 lemons

2 cups rum

1 1/4 cups cognac

5 cups black tea (or hot water)

Garnish: lemon and orange wheels, freshly grated nutmeg

In the basin of an enameled cast-iron pot or heatproof bowl, add sugar and the peels of three lemons.

Rub lemons and sugar together to release citrus oils. For more greater infusion, let sit for 30 minutes.

Add rum and cognac to the sugar and citrus.

Light a match, and, using a heatproof spoon (stainless steel is best), pick up a spoonful of the spirit mix.

Carefully bring the match to the spoon to light.

Carefully bring the lit spoon to the spirits in the bowl.

Let the spirits burn for about three minutes. The fire will melt the sugar and extract the oil from the lemon peels.

Extinguish the bowl by covering it with a heatproof pan or tray.

Skim off the lemon peels (leaving them too long in may impart a bitter flavor).

Squeeze in the juice of the three peeled lemons, and add hot tea or water.

If serving the punch hot, skip to the next step. If serving cold, cool punch in the refrigerator and, when cooled, add ice.

Garnish with citrus wheels and grated nutmeg.

Ladle into individual glasses.

Learn more about these and other festive holiday drinks in Master of Wine Elizabeth Gabay’s essay “Celebrating Christmas and New Year With Punch.”

Image above via Garden and Gun

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

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