I had something of a power lunch with Anthony Bourdain last month. Just Tony and me, a salad of frisée and lardons, brimming glasses of bubbly, two wireless microphones and a hundred spectators who had paid nearly a hundred bucks a pop to listen to us chat.
Why on earth? Well, I wasn’t the draw. Anthony Bourdain, though – he is a force to behold: Author of the bestsellers Kitchen Confidential (soon to be a FOX television show) and A Cook’s Tour, as well as the star of the Food Network show of the same name, Bourdain is the bad boy of the American kitchen, the man who is doing backflips to restore sex, menace, mess, adventure and passion to the American table.
To crown his achievements, Bourdain has now written a cookbook to help you experience bare-knuckled joy at your own stovetop. The book is called Anthony Bourdain’s Les Halles Cookbook (it’s named for the French restaurant in New York at which he’s been executive chef since 1998), and I think it just might be the best basic, no-cooking-school-required, get-it-right-the-first-time cookbook in the history of French cooking, at least in America.
So, in front of a sold-out audience that had gathered to learn a few of his tricks, Bourdain and I sat down with our microphones and our wineglasses to discuss passion, power, bacon and all life’s important issues. Tony started things off with a bang, quickly eviscerating one of Chicago’s most famous chefs. “Eating that man’s food is like paging through a catalog!”
We were off and running! “The great sins of the American kitchen are squeamishness, snobbery, contempt and fear,” continued Bourdain, explaining that he thinks the world is made worse by people who think they’re too important to eat a taco, or too delicate to endure the fact that chickens contain bones.
“To be squeamish, snobbish, contemptuous and fearful is to be anti-human. Being human is about ordering what’s good. Being human is about experiencing passion and pleasure. It is about happiness. It is not about any kind of overrigid philosophy about how one should eat.” And then he said some unprintable things about folks on well-known diets.
And what of today’s power lunch – that all-important and defining meal taken with colleagues or prospective clients, that meal that’s meant to say as much about who you are as about what you eat?
Certainly in the greed-is-good 1980s it meant one thing: intimidating a colleague into submission by virtue of your ability to consume (and spend) like a madman. In the power-neurosis 1990s it meant something else: If you were such a well-known nut that every server knew how to instruct the chef in the preparation of your special off-the-menu, poached-egg-white-and-omega-3 omelet, well, that was power. But now that we’re halfway through the ’00s, what is power, and what is a real power lunch, in these times?
“Do you want me to be brutally honest?” asked Bourdain. “As a chef-entrepreneur, when I hear the phrase power lunch, the next word that occurs to me is ‘upselling.’ So you put in some high-ticket items with buzzwords: foie gras, truffles, jumbo shrimp and, of course, steak. Whatever is clearly the most expensive and luxurious dish is what defines the power lunch for men. And the louder the guys, the higher the check average.”
The approach of power-lunching women isn’t any better, says Bourdain, although it is very different. Where men will compete through spending, women compete through virtuous self-denial. “As a general principle,” says Bourdain, “waiters are not encouraged by the sight of five women coming to lunch.” They live in fear, he says, of the five orders of salmon with no sauce, accompanied by five glasses of iced tea with no sweetener.
This is seriously depressing, I told Bourdain. Is power only and always such a hollow, other-directed effort? Isn’t there some kind of power lunch that actually increases personal power?
Sure there is, he says: Any time anybody makes a choice to make themselves happy, to fall out of lockstep with the crowd, to order what suits them, that choice is itself a victory, and a bit of power accrues to them.
“In my heart,” says Bourdain, “what I would like to see is people using that same kind of peer pressure to force that table of guys, that table of women, to try something new, something good.” What could be more powerful than to really enjoy and experience the moment of life that your heart is beating through, the moment in time in which your palate is making itself known?”
And so, here is a new definition for a power lunch in the year 2005, brought to you by a man who has power to burn, a man who lunches the way Captain Hook sailed: “Ideally?” says Bourdain, “Ideally a power lunch would be one where everybody is concerned with nothing except having a really good time. With not one other criterion than that.”