Anthony Bourdain, the offal-y good chef, author, and food-travel television host, may be the purest pop-culture expression of libertarianism today. I’d been itching to interview him ever since I first saw A Cook’s Tour, his tragically shortlived Food Network series, and ran out to buy the eponymous book nearly five years ago.
There are a lot of reasons I wanted to speak with Bourdain, not the least of which is that most things I do, he does much better and to great acclaim and, in many cases, greater excess.
For instance, I like to cook. Bourdain, trained at the prestigious Culinary Institute of America, is executive chef at Brasserie Les Halles (with locations in New York City, Washington, D.C., and Miami).
I read books. He writes books. I’m especially fond of offbeat travelogues, cookbooks, culinary nonfiction, and the occasional fun bit of fiction. Bourdain’s written at least one book of each type.
I take drugs, though my career as a drug user is mostly over, and it was always more limited in scope than Bourdain’s. He is a pot smoker and a former abuser of both heroin and cocaine.
I like grimy rock music. Bourdain, a fan of 1970s New York punk acts like The Ramones, seems to believe in what I call the magical number-three rule: Any song longer than three minutes or with more than three chords is pretty much useless.
I like going to foreign countries and soaking up the culture by, say, joining the locals for a few puffs of hashish or a Cuban cigar, or dining on the local delicacy, be it eel or boar or cow’s cheek or, better yet, a sumptuous fish taco prepared by a street vendor in some Mexican alley, so fresh and flavorful its taste will linger in your mind long after the resulting diarrhea has run its course. Add to the list chewing a mouthful of coca, downing absinthe or chi-cha, and you get the idea of what sort of traveler I am.
And Bourdain? His ongoing No Reservations show on the Travel Channel and A Cook’s Tour are two of the most adventuresome and daring series ever to make it on television. Some of the “foods” Bourdain has eaten on camera are the stuff of horror movies. Barbecued iguana not daring enough for Tony’s audience? No worry, he’ll up the ante by slurping down the still-beating heart of a cobra. Cobra heart? Bah! Watch Tony dine on fire-roasted guinea pig. Still not enough? See him sit on a kitchen floor for a meal of freshly killed raw seal, gnawing on a healthy amount of eye, whiskers, and brain — that’s raw seal brain — with an Inuit family in northern Quebec on an episode of No Reservations.
It’s not just what he eats that makes Bourdain so engaging, but where and how he does it. His account of dining at the Gun Club in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, stands out as undoubtedly the most startling mealtime exhibition since Caligula.
“Drinks are free at the Gun Club,” Bourdain writes in A Cook’s Tour. “Ammunition, however, you pay for by the clip.” Chew on that for a moment.
Finding oneself at a combination open bar/automatic-weapons range alongside former Khmer Rouge fighters and other psychotic drunks — including a hammered, grenade-tossing Japanese businessman — any reasonable person would have headed for the exit.
He opened up his picnic lunch of sausage and a baguette, added some beer and ammo to his bar tab, and locked and loaded.
“I favored the AK-47,” he writes, “as the M16 seemed to jam anytime I put it on full auto — and my marksmanship was better with the heavier gun.”
The “L” Word
The guy can hardly go more than a couple of days without being interviewed or published in some medium. So, rather than being the fifth journalist before breakfast to ask him about eating a cobra heart, or inquiring how he feels about celebrity chefs Emeril Lagasse (whom Bourdain once derided as an “ewok”) or Rachael Ray (whom Bourdain openly abhors), I was going to pursue one simple, elemental question.
I’m a libertarian. How about you, Tony?
Bourdain clearly personifies the more libertine aspects of the philosophy through his routine consumption of controversial, illegal, or soon-to-be-outlawed goods.
In his writings and his actions, he has shown that his guiding philosophy is one of personal choice. He doesn’t see a cigarette or a cheeseburger as an opportunity for regulatory intervention. Instead, he’s horrified by those who do. Bourdain frequently attacks “smug” leftists and rails against attempts by the left and the right to restrict smoking, drinking, use of certain drugs, travel, immigration, and culinary opulence. So, is he?
Before delving into Bourdain’s comments, I should note my predilection for turning people into libertarians.
Or, rather, my tendency to lend maximum weight to the libertarian qualities of people I admire.
This penchant to turn those I like into one of my own is hardly unique. It’s best likened to the way millions of gay men, during the late 1980s, decided that they’d like nothing better than for Tom Cruise to be one of them. At some point a forward-thinking gay man decided to just declare Cruise gay and welcome him to the club. And, several wives and the bronzed contents of Suri’s diaper notwithstanding, Tom Cruise went from being a gay icon to actually gay just like that.
The way I transform someone into a libertarian works pretty much the same way. Take former Washington Redskins running back John Riggins. I’ve always been a fan, and within minutes of hearing him defend on personal-choice grounds the Minnesota Vikings teammates who were implicated in last season’s sex cruise, I decided John Riggins was a libertarian. Welcome, John Riggins.
To measure Bourdain’s commitment to the libertarian principles of limited government and individual rights, I devised a set of questions. These covered the nanny state, corporate social responsibility, regulation of restaurants, drug legalization, globalization, open borders, and immigration, genetically modified crops, and much else. Then I gave him a libertarian-purity grade for each response, weighted them equally, and gave him a final grade. I also decided to give extra credit should Bourdain tell me flat-out that he considers himself a libertarian. Note, however, that I also decided an actual “No, I’m not a libertarian” would not by itself disprove my hypothesis. He might after all be a closet libertarian, in denial, or just so attractive a spokesman that he would have to be recruited against his will.
I caught up with Bourdain by phone in late July for this DOUBLETHINK piece. He’d just returned from Beirut, having spent ten hellish days, with thousands of other Americans, trying to get out of the country.
The experience seriously shook his optimism, he tells me, and was clearly weighing more on his mind than Chicago’s ban on foie gras. Nevertheless, Bourdain tells DOUBLETHINK why, when it comes to the nanny state and food Nazis, immigration and globalization, his perspective isn’t the one out of whack.
The Nanny State
“I think it’s shameful, discouraging,” he says of the Windy City’s recent decision to outlaw foie gras, a move that led restaurateurs and customers to engage in spontaneous acts of civil disobedience. “Probably a sign of the apocalypse, but also a sign that I think it will by no means be the last misguided state to do that. It makes them look foolish. It’s tragic. There are so many worse things in this world to worry about.
“You know, we’re force-feeding people in Guantanamo Bay and there are people worrying that we’re feeding a duck too much?”
Comments: As libertarian a defense as you’ll find. Bourdain told me that if America does turn into a Singapore-style nanny state, “I can only hope we’ll have food as good as they do.”
Corporate Social Responsibility
“Whole Foods is concerned about clams’ and lobsters’ quality of life, while Lebanon is in flames?” he asks, referring to the upscale grocer’s decision to stop selling live shellfish on anti-cruelty grounds. Bourdain’s disdain extends to the fast-food industry, normally a target of lefty fat cops. He’s as virulent a critic of American-style fast food as there is. But he can’t be pegged, as most fast-food critics can, as an elitist or a regulation freak. Common sense, personal responsibility, and individual rights underpin his opposition to Big Macs.
In his most recent book, The Nasty Bits, Bourdain recounts having sat on a panel about the fast-food industry alongside Eric Schlosser, the liberal author of Fast Food Nation, who has called for a “total ban on the advertising of unhealthy food to children.” Bourdain and Schlosser ripped into the two fast-food industry representatives seated alongside them. Yet Bourdain steers far clear of Schlosser’s longing for a regulatory fist to punish fast-food outlets.
“People should be teased and humiliated for eating at McDonald’s,” he tells me. “I don’t think we should legislate them out of business.” And so on.
“American fast food fulfills a need,” he says later on. “It’s unrealistic to look forward to an America that’s some sort of hippy, agrarian wonderland where we all go back and work on the farm. I think the Khmer Rouge had that idea.”
Comments: I would have knocked the grade down to a C+ for having appeared alongside the loathsome Schlosser. But the Khmer Rouge comment and his aside that Schlosser “should be a little bit more realistic about hunger in the world” and that “a sense of humor would be a good thing for him to have” earned him a few extra points.
Regulating the Dining Experience
While he’s happy to spew invective in the direction of fast-food outlets, Bourdain, a longtime smoker who regularly lights up on camera, is even happier defending the rights of business owners and their paying clientele against nanny-state smoking bans.
Right as New York City’s smoking ban went into effect, whom did CNN book as their anti-ban guest? Bourdain, of course, who said, “We’re in such a headlong rush to become the next Singapore, I find [it] horrifying and completely, well, un-American.” His solution was a simple one, and libertarian at that. Let restaurant and bar owners decide whether to permit smoking or not in their venues.
This doesn’t mean Bourdain opposes all food regulations. He’s behind some health regulations governing restaurants, for example. But he’s also willing to eat at places that may have little or no oversight. He favors them, in fact. “This notion that the government owes you food absolutely free of any risk or dirt is an unreasonable one,” he tells me, calling it a “worldview that seems to be shared by Republicans and Democrats . . . I think a reasonably intelligent person doesn’t need a warning label to tell them not to pour hot coffee on their balls.”
Evidence of Bourdain’s support for individual rights in the culinary underbelly is evident in Typhoid Mary, his urban history of Mary Mallon, the chef responsible for a series of typhoid cases in New York in the early part of the 20th century. In the book, Bourdain doesn’t once call for more regulations.
While not in any way defending her wanton infection of others, Bourdain portrays Mallon as, first, a chef and, second, a victim of a public-health bureaucracy that “utterly screwed” her. In this sense, Bourdain is one of the few writers not employed by a free-market think tank to have written about public health in a way that looks sympathetically on the unseen victims of burdensome public-health regulations — restaurateurs, publicans, chefs, wait staff, and customers.
Comments: Bourdain opposes smoking bans but believes in some restaurant health regulations, itself not a libertarian dealbreaker. “But,” he continues, “I think there’s a reasonable line that shouldn’t be crossed. I don’t know where that is, exactly. The pendulum has swung so far over the line. We missed it somewhere.”
In Kitchen Confidential, his expose on the restaurant industry, Bourdain details his rise from lowly fry cook to executive chef. He writes that he and his fellow cooks “would work all day and late into the night. When the restaurant closed, we’d take over the bar, drinking Cristal — which we’d buy at cost — and running fat rails of coke from one end of the bar to the other, then crawling along on all fours to snort them.”
In addition to the mounds of cocaine, heroin became Bourdain’s constant companion. That’s all changed. He’s been off the junk for more than a decade. But he still smokes marijuana regularly, and on a recent episode of No Reservations he openly espoused the merits of the “wake-and-bake” — smoking a joint in the morning in order to improve the day’s prospects. He’s also been filmed abroad chewing coca — the raw ingredient in cocaine — and drinking absinthe, both of which are illegal in America.
A libertarian position on drug use is that the government should have no say in what adults choose to put into their bodies. Bourdain is firmly behind that approach for marijuana, but he takes another view for more potent drugs.
“Theoretically I like the idea of decriminalizing drugs,” he tells me. “I think there’s definitely room for reevaluation of the laws against heroin, for instance. But having had so much experience with crack cocaine, there is no freedom of will.” In sum, he’s “like a lot of ex-junkies,” he says. “I’m contradictorily draconian on some things.”
Consequently, Bourdain calls for harsh penalties for those who sell significant quantities of hard drugs, suggesting to me that some prison sentence between twenty-five years and life in prison might be warranted. On the other hand, he clearly has no love for the globalized War on Drugs. “Ideally we wouldn’t be dealing with the problem outside of America’s borders,” he says.
Comments: Bourdain’s views on drug legalization might be good news coming from a member of Congress, but they don’t cut it for a libertarian.
Poverty, Globalization, and Immigration
In his books and television shows, the defining Bourdain theme is his search for the perfect meal — not the most expensive or even the best food. It is a pursuit of the most representative and genuine dining experience possible.
He rides on top of a bus in India. Another time he hops aboard a small boat in the Amazon. You’ll find him often among people who aren’t just poor by American standards, but by the standards of their own developing countries. He has no illusions, though, that poverty is a state of being in which the poor wish to remain.
“I think glamorizing poverty — as long as they wear cute, indigenous clothes and look good from the tour boat — I think is a danger we should be aware of,” he says. “I think it is smug to suggest indigenous people would be better off without television or modern clothes if that’s something they would very much like. They would like to see their children educated. They would like to have a roof over their heads. They would like the things that we take for granted.”
On the issue of genetically modified crops, Bourdain’s disdain for large corporations is again apparent. “In a world that’s starved for food, the idea that you might make food more readily and cheaply available and widely available is something I think should at least be allowed to be investigated,” he says. “I’m just not going to say I’m against it in principle.”
When he’s not touring the world, Bourdain’s in high demand as a speaker on a variety of topics. One of the talks he delivers is called “How to Stop Worrying and Enjoy Globalization,” in which he stresses “globalization is inevitable. It’s coming, it’s here — and it’s a good thing. Relax and enjoy.”
Bourdain says on the phone, “The places that I’ve seen that are multi-ethnic, places like Singapore and Malaysia, where the ethnic populations are almost indistinguishable, yet they manage to hold on to bits of traditional cultures, as well as the wonderful melting between those cultures, in a general way that’s what the future looks like. The future looks like Singapore and Malaysia. At least ethnically and foodwise.”
Accordingly, Bourdain is a strong supporter of freer immigration. And he’s not just a passive proponent of an American melting pot; he’s actively stirring the pot, urging people of different ethic backgrounds to make babies.
“America is a mutt-culture, isn’t it?” he writes in The Nasty Bits. “Who the hell is America if not everybody else? We are — and should be — a big, messy, anarchistic polyglot of dialects and accents and different skin tones. Like our kitchens. We need more Latinos to come here. And they should, whenever possible, impregnate our women.”
Understanding the future of immigration in America, according to this chef, who says most of his best and hardest-working employees have hailed from Latin America, requires recognizing the current state of immigrants in America. “The fact is anywhere from 30 to 70 percent” of restaurant employees in America are immigrant. “It would be ungracious and unrealistic to not acknowledge that.” In The Nasty Bits, Bourdain suggests “immediately opening up our borders to unrestricted immigration for all Central and South American countries.”
Comment: His views on globalization, poverty, and immigration are sound from a libertarian perspective. I took points away for his over-cautious emphasis on who’s making genetically modified crops, which wasn’t as strong as his defense of their lifesaving utility.
How about you, Tony?
By the time I got to the question that had spawned this piece, I felt pretty convinced that Bourdain may not be the perfect libertarian — his opposition to drug legalization alone proved as much — but he comes a lot closer to ideological purity than do most people in general, and nearly all pop-culture figures.
Later I processed my findings and determined that Bourdain had earned a B+ on my libertarian litmus test. On the phone (before my report was in) he seemed to have a similar assessment.
“I’m flattered. I guess I am,” he admits when I ask straight-out if he’s a libertarian. “I’m very libertarian on many things.”
And like many libertarians, he finds the choice between liberalism and conservatism unpalatable. “I’m horrified by the excesses of both the right and the left,” he says. “Embarrassed by the excesses of the left, because that’s very much where I came from. And, for a million good reasons, horrified by the excesses of the right.”
So is Anthony Bourdain the best popular example of a person living and promoting a libertarian lifestyle in America today, as I believed him to be? The question requires an answer more complex than a simple yes or no.
I asked a few libertarians who else they thought might fit the bill. One friend, who supported my case for Bourdain, pointed out that the food industry is a special target for the nanny-staters, and so chefs may reactively become libertarian heroes when they defend their rights, as has happened with the foie gras protests in Chicago.
Larry Flynt and John Stossel were two other very good suggestions. They’re both popular in libertarian circles — Flynt chiefly for his porn empire and defense of the First Amendment, Stossel for getting out the shovel in his “Give Me a Break!” segments on ABC’s 20/20.
But Flynt is a registered Democrat (though he’s previously run for office as a Republican), and Stossel isn’t much of a libertine, despite his X-rated mustache. Furthermore, with both print porn and free network television on their way out, to varying degrees, it would be hard to make the case that either Flynt or Stossel is more popular in America right now than Bourdain. For these reasons I’ll stick with my claim that Bourdain is the best popular example of a person living and promoting a libertarian lifestyle.
But, really, is he in fact a libertarian? I’m not sure he is, by any standard definition. But he looks like one, acts like one, and sounds like one. Also important, perhaps, is the fact that he’s receptive to being called one. For a movement lacking in star power, he’s about as good as it gets. He’s our Tom Cruise, which is certainly a step up from Drew Carey.
Baylen Linnekin blogs at crispyontheoutside.com. He eats, drinks, works and attends law school in Washington, D.C.