Anthony Bourdain makes school lunches, builds the perfect burger, and doesn't put ketchup on hot dogs

Oct 25, 2016

Anthony Bourdain's new cookbook, Appetites, is a family-style cookbook, but since it's Anthony Bourdain's family, you're going to have some wild boar and octopus stock in there. He tells Lynne Rossetto Kasper about the stress of cooking for five people versus 500, making Spam musubi for his daughter's school lunch, and his Oval Office-approved opinion on the matter of ketchup on a hot dog.

Lynne Rossetto Kasper: We have a family cookbook that you've done, but I have to laugh, because this family cookbook has duck fat, wild boar, and about four tubs of different stocks in the fridge. Tell me about how you cook at home.

Anthony Bourdain: I have a very unusual, non-nuclear, dysfunctional extended family. My household is an absentee wife, who pretty much abandoned me to become a professional jiu-jitsu and grappling expert; a nine-year-old daughter who grew up eating very adventurously because her mother is Italian, and she was exposed to those kinds of food; a Filipino nanny and her son, who is my daughter's -- in all important ways but blood -- brother and best friend; and an extended family of Filipinos, visiting Brazilians, and various grapplers and martial arts professionals, as well as a bunch of other knuckleheads coming in and out.

I found myself, for the last nine years, cooking in a way that I never did as a professional and trying to live the role of the patriarch. This book reflects a guy who spent 30 years in the restaurant business preparing school lunches for his little girl and cooking Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners for this big, dysfunctional, messy group of people. I think the food is fairly straightforward. I don't want to give the impression that it's unapproachable. There's meatloaf and macaroni and cheese, and the sort of thing a nine year-old would like.

I do bring the organizational skills to it that I picked up over all those years, and I also think a cookbook -- and I hope I addressed this in the book -- should have reasonable expectations. Unfortunately, no matter how well-intentioned, most cookbooks aren't particularly honest in their expectations, and I think a perfect example is eggs Benedict. When you see a recipe for something like eggs Benedict, it always says, "Put the poached egg on top of the muffin and the Canadian bacon. Apply hollandaise sauce. Recipe on page 260." You go to page 260, and there's a recipe for hollandaise sauce.

What it never tells you is when professionals learn to make hollandaise sauce, they always screw it up the first time, the second time, and the third time. It requires repetition. There is a wide margin for error, and I try to address the things that may go wrong, how to correct them, not to get down on yourself if it does go wrong, and that you should allow extra time for screwing up once or twice. That way, you don't get that stress, shame, and self-loathing when it's not like it is in Ina (Garten)'s cookbook.

I don't live in an Ina Garten world. I love her work, but my apartment does not look like Ina's, and my food doesn't look like that. In some of the food photos in the book, there are plates where there's not even any food left on them. It looks more like my home after a meal than Martha Stewart land.

LRK: There is something you say that sort of stopped me for a moment. You say that you really hate to admit that there's more stress in cooking for a party of five at home than cranking out meals for 500 in a restaurant.


Appetites

AB: I can crank out 500 turkey dinners standing on my head, but Thanksgiving with five family members and all of that backstory, or five anybody--I get nervous. I have my prep and my mise en place. I am squared away.

I think one of my problems is that even when I cook my daughter's school lunches and her dinners every night, I'm away a lot, so I mitigate my guilt at being away so much by over-parenting when I'm home. I have a cycle menu on my refrigerator, like Tuesday will be this for the school lunch, and if there are leftovers, I'll turn those into a sensible dinner. When I'm on vacation with my daughter, I'm always trying to assault her with the greatest hits of my childhood. I want to give her the best. I'm like the maniacal Jewish mother chasing after a child, "Eat, eat, eat! Don't you love me?"

LRK: I can picture her lunchbox. Do the other kids want to trade?

AB: I'm like the chef in "Eat Drink Man Woman," where she's an object of curiosity at school because we play a game where I try not to repeat myself. She goes to an Italian school, and they don't see a lot of Spam musubi. I do some elaborate, kooky stuff. I actually take a perverse pleasure in sending my daughter to school with stuff that I know she loves, but that those other kids' moms are definitely not making.

LRK: You've gotten off a plane. You've been filming nonstop. You come home, but you want to make yourself something to eat. What would it be?

AB: No matter how well I've been eating in Asia or Europe, the first thing I want when I'm back in New York is a pastrami sandwich. I'm calling Pastrami Queen or Katz's, and I'm getting a good pastrami sandwich. Chances are, they don't do that right anywhere else, so that's the first thing.

If I'm cooking for myself, something comfortable -- I like making meatloaf. I like making cream of tomato soup that evokes the canned stuff that my mom would give me if I got bullied in school as a kid. Macaroni and cheese makes me happy. My daughter loves making ratatouille because she gets to cut vegetables with daddy and make him nervous.

LRK: You have a lot of opinions about a grilled cheese sandwich, if I remember.

AB: A grilled cheese sandwich is a thing of beauty. I'm okay with bacon or tomato, but I like processed cheese. It's a wonderful thing. I like goat cheese, too, I just don't want it in my sandwich. Does it improve it?

I think this is a constant struggle for the soul of cooking, particularly the hamburger. Ask yourself, does adding an avocado, truffle, or foie gras make it better? It might be interesting, but does it make it more enjoyable or more pleasurable? Cooks are supposed to be in the business of pleasure. It might be dazzling, but does it make it better?

I reached out to Nathan Myhrvold, a former chief technology officer for Microsoft, to ask him about the perfect burger, not just taste-wise and texturally, but structurally, which is something that everybody seems to overlook with a simple thing like a burger. Do you want a fat tomato slice? It ruins the experience. What is the perfect bun? What kind of cheese would be perfect? In my view, the perfect cheese for a cheeseburger is that cheese-like substance that comes in the bright orange don't-occur-in-nature squares. It holds your burger together.

LRK: I think of him as the father of, or at least the communicator about, modernist cuisine. What did he come up with? What was the structure that he felt worked best?

"Ketchup on a hot dog--personally, I find it deeply, deeply offensive."
-Anthony Bourdain

AB: The ideal burger holds together as you eat it. It doesn't squirt major ingredients onto your chest. Putting too much lettuce on, or any lettuce at all, is dangerous. Do you want aioli on your burger? Does it make it better? Is blue cheese a realistic expectation for a good burger-eating experience? Is the brioche bun good or evil? In my view, it's an evil thing.

I believe we arrived at the potato bun, one or two burgers -- we're both fans of the smashed burger -- and American or American-like cheese. If you're going to do tomato, maybe one slice, but thin because if it's too big...what you want to avoid is a tectonic slide, when your burger starts shifting around. You want a representative bite of every layer in each mouthful. You don't want to be deconstructing your burger, especially from your chest.

LRK: It's interesting what you say about the brioche bun. That, and doing a burger or a sandwich with a croissant, both of which are loaded with butter.

AB: It's grease on grease! I like a greasy burger, and I like lots of cheese, but you need something to counter that. I think this is why the pillowy potato roll is perfect, and Dr. Myrhvold, fortunately, agrees with me.

LRK: What is your take on ketchup, mustard, or mayonnaise, the California concept of a burger?

AB: To each their own. I'm not a fan of mustard on burgers, but it's not a food crime, in my view. Ketchup on a hot dog--personally, I find it deeply, deeply offensive. I asked President Obama about this. I shared a meal with him, and, as a Chicagoan and a lame duck president not running for office, I figured he'd give me a straight answer. I said, "Mr. President, as a true Chicagoan, is it ever acceptable to put ketchup on a hot dog?" Anyone running for office would say, "Well, you know, to each their own." "No," he said. "No, never!" I said, "You don't?" He said, "OK, up to the age of eight. After that, an intervention is required," and I agree. I don't think you should. I think there's a time and a place for ketchup, and I don't think a hot dog is one of them. That's my opinion.