"I could say, you know, the mushrooms are awesome, but it was the tattoos that bought me to Portland," says rock 'n' roll chef Anthony Bourdain, through a cloud of smoke from the first of two back-to-back Gauloises.
We are in a room at the Heathman Hotel and besides the cigarette smoke, his voice is raspy and thick with the accent of his native New York. It is an hour before Bourdain, dressed in Armani and with a soap-star's suntan, will read to 400 fans and sign copies of his new book The Nasty Bits downstairs. He has just finished shooting an episode of his Travel Channel show, No Reservations, in Portland and Seattle, and is really, really upbeat about the cooking in this town.
While the comment about the tattoos may sound flippant, it is probably as good a reason as any for the man whose culinary experiences stretch as far as eating the still-beating heart of a Vietnamese cobra to stop in what might otherwise be a pedestrian destination for a thrill-seeking chef. (For the record he says: "I could answer the cobra-heart question in my sleep, with a ball gag in my mouth—it tasted like an athletic, peppy, moving oyster!")
But once Bourdain's attention was caught, he noticed Portland's tattooed chefs had talents that were more than skin-deep: "I was struck by the preponderance of heavily tattooed, outwardly slacker-looking chefs and cooks here who I found to be unusually motivated, knowledgeable, ambitious, and very focused on specific areas of cuisine," he says.
"It's not simply a case in Portland of, 'I want to cook, man, sounds cool.' These people all have very specific areas in mind, either types of food or an even tighter focus, such as wanting to make the best pizza in town, or the best croissant, or doughnut."
For the show, Bourdain enlisted a local—Fight Club author and erstwhile Mercury contributor Chuck Palahniuk—to show him around. Palahniuk took him to two eating destinations in town: The gourmet pizzeria Apizza Scholls, on Hawthorne, and the seemingly ever-on-the-rise Voodoo Doughnut on SW 3rd. Bourdain can now barely contain himself when it comes to their maple-bacon offering.
"I mean, come on, if you can't enjoy a maple-bacon doughnut, there's no hope for you. Either that, or you're just not taking enough drugs," he says.
Palahniuk and Bourdain also took a look at our farmer's market, and Bourdain is enthused about the quality of Oregon's vegetables, despite normally being unmoved by greens.
For something to wash it all down, Bourdain confesses to being skeptical of microbreweries, saying Heineken and Guinness got it right 200 years ago—he does not want anybody putting strawberries in his beer.
A former hippie himself, Bourdain says he doesn't like beer made by hippies, and seems frustrated by what he sees as the blunting of Portland's culinary creativity by "health Nazis". Then there's the thoughtless re-packaging and consumption of hippie mantras he says are out-dated—it sounds as if he'd like the town's hipsters to be a little more piquant.
"It's amazing to me that a guy can spend $75 putting gel into his mohawk in this town, buy a load of goth clothes, and then sit with his old lady on the sidewalk, and apparently that's a lifestyle choice. At least try to rob me, or hold up a liquor store, you know. Show a little initiative, come on!" he rails.
And with that, he proffers his stance on the inevitable hippie hot potato: animal rights. Despite shooting a seal (to eat its raw eyeballs) in the Alaskan episode of No Reservations, and describing every order worldwide of carnivorous dishes such as pig's feet, steak tartare, brains, or foie gras as a "win for the good guys", Bourdain is surprisingly sympathetic to those in Portland who are protesting the fur trade.
For Bourdain, in an age of Gore-Tex and polyester, there is a clear moral distinction between the incidental death of animals to feed people, and the cruelty of fashion, or indeed, dog-fighting. To illustrate his philosophy, Bourdain quotes comedian Bill Hicks, saying if by hooking a monkey up to a car battery you could find a cure for AIDS, he'd do it, but he asks those concerned with animal rights to focus their efforts. He's up in arms, for example, about battery-farmed chicken.
Ever the individualist, Bourdain still smokes like a trooper and is reluctant to curb his lifestyle: "I'm 50, dude, it's too late to die young. I was really shocked when I hit 30, and I didn't really have a plan for anything after that. I've been living on bonus rounds," he says.
A contemporary of Marky Ramone, Bourdain ate dinner with him this year at Les Halles, his brasserie in Manhattan. The new book is dedicated to the Ramones and Bourdain almost gets misty-eyed talking about the band. His favorite song is "Beat on the Brat" and if he could go back in time, he says, he'd stop Jethro Tull from ever recording.
Bourdain likes dining with rock stars, although as with his contemporary chefs, he warns that anyone too good may be a lousy talker because they'll have spent the first two-thirds of their lives in a cellar, "noodling away on a guitar".
He wants to cook for Keith Richards, Iggy Pop, Brian Eno, and John Lydon, adding: "The guys from Anthrax are actually good conversationalists and really smart guys."
For a 50-year-old, there's a Viagra-era youthfulness to Bourdain, who is later sharper than a paring knife in front of an audience drawn from a surprisingly wide demographic. There are cook-school kids and Harley-riding grandfathers, but the ladies from human resources are also out in abundance (one asks if he needs a dinner date for the evening). I think: His publishers must love him.
Asked if there's anything he regrets, he says getting a massage in Uzbekistan was so painful an experience he was oblivious to the sexual humiliation of being rear-mounted by an Uzbekian in a Speedo. But one senses that even at the time, he was thinking of how best to deliver the anecdote. There was eventual pleasure to be gained.
The best restaurant in the world, he thinks, is the St. John in London, run by Fergus Henderson, whose book The Whole Beast: Nose to Tail Eating glories in the joy of pig's trotters and the elegant brutality of butchering every last inch of an animal to eat.
After the signing, the Heathman's head chef Philippe Boulot cooks old school, frippery-free French soul food for richer members of the audience. Asked earlier in the hotel room what kind of reception he expected for the evening, Bourdain cut straight to the point.
"You can't be a snob and a good cook, and I'm beginning to think you can't be a snob and a good eater, either. I'm expecting it to be crowded, and there'll be a lot of rowdy cooks who'll want to go out afterwards and get really shit-faced drunk. And that, too, is my intention," he smiled.
Cheers, Tony, and welcome to Portland.
Hear more of this interview on the Mercury's Pod 'n' Vod. portlandmercury.com/podcasts