“Author’s Note: I have changed the names of some of the individuals and some of the restaurants that are a part of my story.” ~ Anthony Bourdain, Kitchen Confidential
During the Q & A period, at a recent speaking engagement by chef Anthony Bourdain, I was lucky enough to be called on, from my 1st row seat in the balcony of the Palace Theater, in Columbus, OH. I stood, and projected my voice, so that the chef could hear me from his solo position on stage: “As a Journalist. . . ” I started.
“I’m not a journalist,” he immediately replied.
Knowing I’d see Bourdain perform this week, I read his updated and republished book, “Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly“. It is a mix of memoir and expose, whether he cares to call it that or not, detailing the behind-the-scenes drama of the culinary world, in a way celebrating the grit and the grime you’ll find there. His pages speak of heavy drug use and mob involvement in restaurant culture. He tells stories of the experience of growth during culinary school, both inside and outside of the classroom, and the rapid turn of today’s latest “hot spots” into failing businesses.
Bourdain typically doesn’t hold back in expressing his opinions, good or bad, about people, situations, culture and politics, or local cuisine. He explains, in the introduction to his book, that “I was not – and am not – an advocate for change in the restaurant business. I like the business the way it is. What I set out to do was write a book that my fellow cooks and restaurant lifers would find entertaining and true.” So I asked, “In your writing, how do you decide when to name the people you are writing about, and when to give an alias, and instead write, “Let’s call him X”?
These days Bourdain spends more of his time traveling internationally, and he is well known, and well received. His shows have appeared on CNN and the Travel Channel, bringing viewers to London and Vietnam, Thailand, Greece and China. Domestically, he regularly frequents my home town of Chicago, and he’s been spotted in both small towns and big cities, across the US.
In response to my question, he took a moment to speak about his relationships on his current show, Parts Unknown. He spoke of people who welcome him into their homes, to eat in their restaurants and experience the local fare at food stands, and in the market. There is something special about these interactions, something he is privileged to experience, so he shows respect. These folks are sharing their unique stories with him, through food, and he doesn’t take the invitation to dine lightly. Without exception, he tries the local cuisine, and seems to understand that offering someone a meal that you prepared yourself is special. I’d say it can be rather intimate.
So, I’ve had this recent, great experience of hearing Bourdain’s stories, full of color, brassy and flavorful. It’s the type of experience Bourdain has been bringing to viewers, readers, and restaurant goers for decades. I’ve watched episodes of Parts Unknown, No Reservations, and The Layover, always hungry for the next season to start. I’ve been intrigued by the food he devours, the beautiful places he visits, and the people he introduces the world to, whether they are restaurant owners, food critics, fellow chefs he collaborates with, or line cooks he finds, in the kitchen, along the way.
Anthony Bourdain has introduced me to a larger world of food, planting ideas of adventure in my head, and feeding my wanderlust. He’s left breadcrumbs for me, all the way to Thailand and back, and I have gladly followed along.
Cowboy Hat Lady (Chiang Mai, Thailand) – Pull Up a Chair, and Try the Chilies
Parts Unknown, Season 3 Episode 8, June 1, 2014
We almost did not find her. We were all turned around, trying to find the North Gate in Chiang Mai, where we’d heard there was great food to be had. It was late in the trip, and late in the evening. We were close to calling it a night, or at least I was. We’d been out late a few nights earlier, in Bangkok, but hadn’t had much luck finding a real Ladyboy cabaret show. We’d found many sad clubs, with tired, rather bored dancers on stage; one kept checking her cell phone, though I’m not sure I want to know who she was waiting for a message from. It was clear that most of the girls wanted someone “buy her a drink,” with all that implies.
But now we were in Chiang Mai, and we’d walked, and walked. I almost didn’t notice the busy sidewalk, lined with food carts and late night diners, just across the street. It was dark, it was crowded, I was tired. It was a wide, busy street, crammed with cars and tuk-tuks racing by, and a rather large median in the center, blocking our view of what was on the other side.
What was on the other side was braised, slow-cooked pork that slid right off the bone. The Cowboy Hat Lady stands out from the crowd because of her unusual choice of hat. But the single dish she serves up each night is just as outstanding. There’s a long line at her cart that keeps moving, but never seems to fade away. Tourists like us, who have seen her on an Anthony Bourdain episode, share tightly packed tables with locals. With just one item on the menu, diners request one order or two, large or small. The Cowboy Hat Lady doesn’t say much, but keeps cooking and chopping away, as others take the orders, then run plates heaped with food to long, shared tables under a tent.
On the table are the garnishes, large bowls of Thai chilies, both red and green. The Thai woman seated across from nods and smiles, with a gesture encouraging me to spoon more of the chilies onto my plate. I do, and then my mouth is burning, while she nods more encouragement. The meal is delicious, and I’m salivating just remembering it. I don’t eat meat very often, but I wasn’t about to pass up this experience. Anthony would be proud!
With full bellies we were done with all that walking, and climbed into a tuk-tuk, to make our way back to our hotel, feeling very satisfied.
Old Town Ale House (Chicago) – A Place to Return to, Again and Again
The Layover, Season 2 Episode 1, November 19, 2009
Parts Unknown, Season 7 Episode 3, May 1, 2016
On a Saturday night in Chicago I’m fueling up for the Chicago L.A.T.E. Ride at the Old Town Ale House, with a frosty carb-load, and a slight gesture at hydration. I seem to be in the right place. . .
“The Best Bar in the World That I Know About.” – Roger Ebert
The Old Town Ale House has become something of a regular stop when I find myself in downtown Chicago. Located across the street from Second City, it has had an eclectic mix of patrons over the years. The place is a traditional dive bar, with some political leanings. The owner’s politics are displayed all over the bar’s walls, in explicit and unapologetic paintings, brought to life by the owner’s own hand. His paintings cover every inch of wall space. You’ll recognize some familiar faces, if you’ve picked up a newspaper this year, own a TV, or simply don’t live under a rock this election year.
This neighborhood bar is the sort of place that requires a warning, but only if you are of delicate sensibilities, opposed to political satire, or a fan of Donald Trump. It’s an amazing spot to do some real people watching. You’d be just as entertained sitting at the bar solo as you are raising a toast at a table for 10. Here, you can relax with a cold beer and meet the owner, who has been sitting at the end of the bar, just inside the door, most night I have stopped in.
A-Frame (Los Angeles) – Aloha! Catch a wave, then Dive into the Hush Poippies
(Parts Unknown, Season 1 Episode 2, April 21, 2013)
It’s funny to think. . . we drove across L.A. late at night, fought for parking, and ate at the A-Frame just because this celebrity chef told us to. Then we did it again on our next visit to the city. But if every blind following of a recommendation resulted in a plate of hot, spicy-sweet Hush Poippies, I’d blindly follow along every time! The restaurant’s website will tell you it serves Hawaiian soul food with an LA outlook. Well, thank you! I’ll have a second order, and I won’t have to be reminded to come back the next time I’m in this part of the country. I’ll be here!
We all know what hushpuppies are, all warm and greasy and wonderful sitting next to a plate of battered, deep-fried fish, at some fast food joint. Well, think of Hush Poippies as the Taro, Potato, White Cheddar, Parmesan and Sweet Chili Sauce equivalent. Think of them as something amazing that you’ve never tried before, and get yourself out to LA to try them out, the next chance you get.
In the role of book publisher, our chef friend took part in publishing L.A. Son: My Life, My City, My Food by Roy Choi, an Anthony Bourdain Book. The book sits on my shelf, and the food dreamt up by Choi has not lasted long on my plate.
“I wouldn’t do A-Frame aloha if it wasn’t right. But it’s right. So, we took an IHOP and made it a futuristic modern picnic built around abstract forms of aloha.” Roy Choi
An experienced food truck owner, Choi created the brick and mortar A-Frame from an old IHOP, with its blue pointed roof repainted, and its interior decorated in a Hawaiian theme. The location has come a long way since its pancake days, now taking reservations for parties of 6 or more. It’s standing room only on a Friday night, but late on a Tuesday, an hour before closing, you might have the large patio to yourself. There’s a fire pit down at one end, and heat lamps that hang overhead take the chill off of the late November California night.
Chio and his family immigrated from South Korea to L.A. in the early 70s, and his book takes readers along on the journey from “immigrant to latchkey kid to lowrider to misfit to gambler to a chef answering his calling.” (Introduction) He tells his story through narrative and through food; the book is littered with his recipes.
What I can say about his Hush Poippies is that I’ve never had anything like them. They melt in your mouth, blending warm cheesy goodness with a spicy-sweet kick. Bourdain gave A-Frame high marks, and I would do the same.
Billy Goat Tavern (Chicago) – Cheezborger. Cheezborger. Cheezborger.
(The Layover, Season 2 Episode 1, November 19, 2009)
I had about 12 hours on the ground in Chicago, the day they turned the river green for St. Patrick’s Day. My plane into Chicago landed a few hours before the big event, but the green beer was already flowing. The Irish coffee I’d had on the plane had me relaxed and wired at the same time, and ready for some more fun. What better place to kick off the day than the Billy Goat Tavern?
“In 1964, the eatery moved to its current address at 430 N. Michigan Ave, which is actually below Michigan Avenue, made possible by Chicago’s network of multilevel streets in that vicinity. Being situated between the offices of the Chicago Tribune and the old Chicago Sun-Times building led to the tavern’s being mentioned in any number of newspaper columns, particularly those of Mike Royko .” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Billy_Goat_Tavern)
The newspaper crowd were regulars, and the names of visitors are lined up, like bylines, over the bar. Bourdain had visited the place on his show “The Layover”, and that’s what this trip to downtown Chicago, just for the day, felt like – just a quick stop, and an attempt to soak up as much of the city as possible.Fly back after the parade and a quick trip to the Field Museum on the reciprocal membership from Columbus’s COSI (Center of Science and Industry).
It was a chance to get lost in the crowd, joining the city in celebration of its Irish heritage. I grew up in the Chicagoland area, in Brookfield, which is on a Metra line that my father jumped on every day, headed to work at the Merchandise Mart. But I’d never seen the Chicago River dyed green, and I’d never been to the famous Billy Goat Tavern.
The Saturday Night Live skit, with Bill Murray, and “Cheezborger. Cheezborger. Cheezborger.” being shouted across a burger joint, is what might come to mind. It was still morning, so I settled for an egg and cheese breakfast sandwich, to wash down my green beer. But I loaded it up with as many dill pickles as I could, from the condiment bar, much to the dismay of those around me.
Special World Series Note: “The tavern is also known for its involvement in the Curse of the Billy Goat (also known as the “Cubs Curse”). Owner Sianis brought a pet goat, a tavern mascot, to Game 4 of the 1945 World Series. . . Cubs owner Philip K. Wrigley allegedly ejected Sianis and goat due to the latter’s odor. Supposedly, Sianis placed a curse on the team that they would never win another World Series championship.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Billy_Goat_Tavern)
These are just some of the spots I’ve visited on Anthony Bourdain’s recommendation. Does all of this make me a Bourdain groupie? Well, I was grinning from ear to ear waiting for his show to start last weekend. I had an amazing time, and even got to ask a question, from one journalist to another. Okay, he’s not a journalist! He comes close, and his non-fiction writing grabs ahold of his readers, while bringing his experiences to life. His personal story is a page turner. The tales he shares on screen are ones you’ll watch more than once, and then rewatch because you want to share them with a friend.
Join me on my next adventure,
Anthony Bourdain Links:
CNN: Parts Unknown: http://www.cnn.com/shows/anthony-bourdain-parts-unknown
The Travel Channel: The Layover: http://www.travelchannel.com/shows/the-layover
The Travel Channel: No Reservations: http://www.travelchannel.com/shows/anthony-bourdain/photos/no-reservations-sydney-pictures
Kitchen Confidential: http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/33313.Kitchen_Confidential
Featured Restaurants & Bars:
A-Frame – LA: http://www.aframela.com/
Old Town Ale House – Chicago: http://www.theoldtownalehouse.com/
Cowboy Hat Lady – Thailand: https://www.eatingthaifood.com/khao-kham-moo-chang-phueak/
Billy Goat Tavern – Chicago: http://www.billygoattavern.com/