In the world of food and booze today, marketers and restaurateurs alike endlessly lean on buzzy phrases like "handcrafted," "house-made," and even "farm-to-table" to lend dishes and consumer products an air of authenticity and craftsmanship that many of them simply don't have. They've appropriated these descriptors from the Slow Food movement—where they once distinguished goods produced outside of the industrial and corporatized food system—and applied them to everything from maple water to tortilla chips.
So when Anthony Bourdain, the culinary world's foremost anti-establishment bullshit-detector, decided to launch Raw Craft, a web series that highlights true craftsmen—artisans such as famed knifemaker Bob Kramer and welder Elizabeth Bishop—I was intrigued. Even more interesting is Bourdain's choice of sponsored partner on this project: the single-malt Scotch brand The Balvenie.
I met up with Bourdain in between two back-to-back LA premiere screenings of the web series' second season in the back room of the silent movie theater to talk about how the "artisanal" craze started, the food media's role in its perpetuation, the pros and cons of making everything in-house, and why unnecessary things can be the most beautiful.
MUNCHIES: Hi, Anthony. You say the term "handcrafted" gets thrown around a lot, and I think that is totally true. How did we get here? Anthony Bourdain: I think it's part of the effect of the discovery by corporations that if they call something artisanal they get to charge more for it. They identified that some people were actually sourcing things—you know, better quality products or making better things and getting more money for it. They figured, "Let's get some of that, all you have to do is slap a name on it."
The same kind of things happen in the kitchen too, right? Like you kind of hear everything is farm-to-table even if it isn't. Yeah, I mean my way of thinking is most food is grown on a farm and it is served on the table. It's an overused definition as well, and I think it's a little pretentious.
Do you feel that food media is kind of at fault for that? I think that the pressures are understandable with the nature of journalism changing. Visual media has opened things up in a really, really interesting way. I mean, it can make a restaurant now. It's made the playing field much more interesting but it's also put pressure on a lot of people, clocking away at keyboards, underpaid in cubicles to generate hits. So, they've got to generate a certain amount of words every day and there's only so much to be written about food. It's a lot like writing about porn. It's the same story over and over. So I think a lot of people are less scrupulous about calling bullshit. Look, if we'd shut down the pumpkin spice thing in its crib, we would've done the world a service on the one hand; on the other hand, we'd have a lot less to write about because we can't write endless articles about the scourge of pumpkin spice or how awesome the latest pumpkin spice product is or how just weird or astounding or laughable it is.
The fact is people need stuff to write about and it's hard, particularly in food. There's a limited number of adjectives which describe a salad, a limited number of players. So that pressure is on to generate content, generate hits. So, you know the balloon fills with a lot of gas and nobody's interested in really puncturing the thing because it's one less thing we'll have to write about. I kind of understand.
What's the worst example of something being incorrectly called "hand-crafted" that you've come across? I think the famous "artisanal" potato chip—I forget which company put out the artisanal potato chip, but it comes to mind.
I think of the house-cured salami, charcuterie programs, too. Look, I like very much that there's a lot of people out there making their own charcuterie and I like that we're seeing the creation of a new generation of people who are teaching themselves these skills. But a lot of it's not that good. There are a lot of people out there who make really good (blank). There's something to be said for buying out, particularly when you have a faculty for it. So I don't want to discourage it because the more people who get into it and learn how to do it, the better. On the other hand, the term "house-cured,"—look, I'm assuming you're making it in-house and if you're not it better be really, really good, otherwise I'm not gonna come here again.
Absolutely. It's like how you can't go to a restaurant in LA without seeing homemade pasta on the menu, which can be great, but at the same time there are certain sauces and certain styles of pasta that just do better with a dry noodle. Truer words have never been spoken to me. If you spend any time in Italy, the first thing you learn is that for a lot of pastas, like a lot, they prefer dry pasta. Fresh pasta is something that is either seasonal or for a specific kind of special event or regional pastas.
Ain't nothing wrong with a box of dry pasta—I could think of a few brands that are perfectly decent. So that's not always a plus. Is it about the product or is it about the chef? That's something every chef has to ask themselves. "Look at me!" is not a reason to do something.
I've noticed that many of the episodes of Raw Craft feature people who work with their hands—metalworkers, they're knifesmiths. Why did you choose these people? I think it is the most stark example of the principles we're talking about. They don't let a machine do the work; in many cases, the machine could do the work faster and cheaper. So it's a really visual, easily understood, easy to sympathize with. You see somebody working—I saw somebody make a pair of shoes the other day, and how hard it is to put together a pair of shoes to stitch together a pair of shoes by hand.
It seems like the romance of these people is really important to you as a storyteller. Is that a quality intrinsic to craftsmen? I think these stories speak to the romantic in us all. They speak to our romantics, clearly. Anyone who makes a kind of leap of faith to work really hard to make a thing, particularly by hand, without really any assurance that they're gonna sell enough to pay for all the time that they've put in—yeah, that requires a basic, romantic world view. And I consider myself a romantic. Already cynical by nature, I spent 30 years in a business that, if nothing else, taught me to be cynical about the world—I went from there to television, which if you had anything left you would think would smother it, but the fact is I remained committed to certain notions, that there are good guys in the world worth speaking up for, worth supporting if you can. That there are reasons to hope that there's merit to truth and beauty—you know, true love. I still believe all of those things. It may be a failing, but I believe them.
You've always been highly anti-establishment, so what about The Balvenie led you to want to do a sponsored project? Look, it is a good gig to be sure. I've been offered, over the last 15 to 16 years, a lot of endorsement things. This is a product that I liked and respected and a cool project—you know, it was a cool idea. It was an opportunity that was in my interest. It's a bottle I'm not embarrassed to stand next to, that I can genuinely say that I like and I drink. Whatever anyone thinks of this alignment, I haven't met anyone or even heard anyone on Twitter or Reddit for that matter say, "Wow, that whiskey is not good." No one said that. So: cool project, a brand that I'm comfortable with, good gig.
I tried some right before I interviewed you. It's delicious— It's awesome, and if you see how they make it, it really is batshit. It's really like stepping into another world—it's not like Keebler elves, but it kinda feels that way.
How does craft scotch whiskey differentiate itself from other whiskey? This is what is interesting to me. I know it tastes good. I know for sure—I've a pretty good palate. I've had in my life various aged liquors. But that wasn't it—it was the fact that they go to such extreme lengths to stick to making it the way they used to, possibly unnecessarily. That really appealed to me.
I'm sure this isn't cost effective. You know the fact that they didn't succumb to what everyone else has succumbed too: "Let's outsource this. I'm sure if we got a conveyor belt in here, I'm sure we could save a lot of money. There's a quicker way to do this, under lamps and just let it sit up in the loft." I'm sure there's easier, faster, cheaper ways, but the fact that they maintained this system and this personnel, that they're loyal to their personnel as well—again, it appeals to my romantic illusions about how the world should and could be. I don't feel that we're ever gonna go back to the 19th century, and I don't think we should, but when you see some place that is kind of stuck there, proudly so, and doing well with it, there's something to like about that.
So you've been going around the world, finding these different craftsmen, seeing their stories, and many of them are kind of dying trades. I mean, some of them I didn't even know existed. This father-son team who make these origami sculptures—unspeakably beautiful. I mean, who cares about origami? I sure don't. I didn't really ever give it a thought and I saw these things and I thought, Oh my god, what is that? That must've been hard, yes, but why would you work so hard to make such a useless object? Because it's beautiful.
Interesting to call it useless. Well, you can't make a table out of it, it doesn't perform any function—it is just beautiful. It makes you happy to look at.
Isn't that the true definition of beauty? I know. When's the last time you had a conversation with someone who was talking about that kind of ideal? Seriously, with a straight face, in a non-ironic way?
Elizabeth Brim [from the show] bucked what her parents told her, buck everything, to go live up in the mountains in North Carolina, pounding hot metal. Making these beautiful things, or highly functioning things like the [Bob] Kramer knife. The market was not calling for a knife that good, and I don't think it is reasonable to expect that you get what you put into a knife if you're spending that much amount of time.
I've made compromises for much of my life, particularly my restaurant life. My whole career was a series of compromises: Ah, you have to have a chicken Caesar, you gotta have a hamburger, we gotta do brunch. That's the business, it requires those things. It's nice to see people who just said, "No, fuck it, I'm gonna do it as well as I know how." That's a beautiful thing.
Who are some of the culinary craftsmen out there that you admire? Victor Arguinzoniz at Etxebarri in San Sebastian up in the hills who has designed his own grills. He just serves very simple food, impeccably sourced, and he's built these special custom grills and builds special coal fires for each different item. If you were to ask ten chefs from Europe what restaurant they would like to have their last meal in, that would be it. It's so austere. Every dish is basically three ingredients. The principle: protein, olive oil, and salt. Very Japanese style. He's really focused on cooking it perfectly. He grills caviar. He designed a special device— it looks like a strainer. He puts a little oil in it, he just moistens it, and he puts the caviar in, and he toasts it. It's really freaky to see. He toasts it over the coals, and they swell just before they break onto the plate.
Jiro, of course, too. One of the things that Jiro does is that every fish he serves he serves it at a specific temperature. Like he leaves it out of the refrigerator and brings it to a particular point in its life—it's not about the freshness, it's at the perfect state at its decomposition that it's served. His rice—the precision with which he picks that rice up and shapes it. He looks at you and examines the shape of your mouth and your left hand and right hand as he forms his nigiri. He exercises every day so that he can stand erect so that he won't look pathetic.
So to answer your question: the people who've been doing something that looks really deceptively simple in an obsessively perfectionist way for a long period of time. That excites me. It's not people who try to do a lot of things brilliantly, or constantly, looking to innovate necessarily, or building towers. It's "how do I make that perfect single prawn the best goddamn prawn anyone has ever had?" There are people who actually think about that.
Thanks for speaking with me, Anthony.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.