For me, the privilege of attending an evening discussion between two of my heroes from the culinary world, is comparable to seeing Jay-Z, Paul McCartney or Michael Jordan in their heyday. When I heard that Anthony Bourdain and Eric Ripert were performing in Tampa, I had to go. I almost didn’t get my chance though. I didn’t know about the show until two days before the show. How could I have been so far out of the loop to have nearly missed an opportunity like this? None of that matters though, because I got my ticket thank goodness. Being of little means, I went with nosebleed seats. All the orchestra seats were sold long before, so that left me with the balcony. Besides this wasn’t Guns n’ Roses or anything, I didn’t need to be in the pit.
As I approached the theatre, a strange feeling came over me. It was like the feeling you get when you know you’re in the wrong place, like you don’t belong. This was an older crowd, people were scurrying around with both chefs cookbooks like little children trying to get a certain Mouse’s autograph at Disney World. I found my way to where the lame and infirm go to squint. These were my people, and broke or not, we were going to be a part of the festivities.
The lights dimmed and Anthony was introduced. He came out alone to a large spotlight shining down on two arm chairs and a folding metal chair in the front of the stage. He introduces Eric by giving him a good old Tony-roast, mercilessly delivering lines like, ” He’s got 4 stars from the New York Times, year after year after year, he gets 3 Michelin stars year after year after year. A close associate to the Dalai Lama or something. You know him you love him Eric Ripert!”
He comes out and sits down on the folding chair and immediately says, ” Why is it that usually, the most beautiful theatres stick me with the crappiest chair?” If the crowd wasn’t already enamored by Eric Ripert’s genius with seafood, then his charm sealed the deal. He went on to talk about his disdain of Gordon Ramsey’s television shows here in the States, how they’re scandalous and distasteful, promoting intolerance and humiliation. How they potentially inspire an entire generation of young chefs to act like idiots. He says, “If you want to be a chef, you have to be a leader. The only way now to be successful is to lead by example.” That to me was the most moving part of Mr Ripert’s interview. Mostly, because it came as a shock that he was being so outspoken and honest on the topic. After listening to Eric speak candidly and humourously for the better part of 30 minutes, about his restaurant, other chefs, eating Ortolan and punching guys in the face, anyone in the room saw that his passion for food as whole has never wavered through the years.
Then came Tony’s turn to be interrogated. First question?
Eric: Are you a chef?
Later, when discussing an incident on the Martha Stewart Show where Tony was unable to make pasta in a timely manner, Eric asked, “You went to the Culinary Institute of America right? You were a professional chef for 28 years? But you do not know how to make pasta? So I have a question. You say you’ve been in the Kitchen for 28 years. Did you ever work in a good restaurant?”
Tony took his punches like a champ, as he’s always done when his abilities are questioned. He said that the success of his book “Kitchen Confidential” came at just the right time, as he was 44. The two things he misses about the chefs life are the feelings of accomplishment and the beers after a hard dinner service. I adored his views on vegetarians, which he has stuck to since his first book which describes the “Hezbollah-like splinter faction, the enemy of everything good and decent in the human spirit.” He respects ones altered lifestyle in the privacy of their own home, but wonders how vegans travel to a place like Vietnam or Thailand and stay vegetarian. Humans, for the most part, are omnivores, out of necessity, and they’re not too freaking happy about it. The rest of the interview was Eric continually badgering Tony about some of the controversies stemming from No Reservations, politics, and his jealousy of the “stars” of the food network, as well as that “nice old lady with a basket of vegetables”, Alice Waters (owner of Chez Panisse). He insists he isn’t angry at any of their success, he’d just like them to stay on their side of the street and he’ll stay on his.
As the night began to wind down, Tony and Eric both stood up and stretched while showing half-nude photos they of themselves taken for different books and magazines to try and embarrass the other. Then the folding chair was removed and they sat down on the more comfy looking armchairs. What followed seemed like the least rehearsed and likely most heartfelt conversation. It was simply a 20 minute chat between the two friends about the responsibility a chef has to feed his customers good food. Again, they discuss the importance of being a role model to the new generation of cooks. A chef should care about the integrity of the ingredients that he or she cooks, while at the same time providing a memorable experience for their guests. It brought a smile to my face when they discussed something I’ve been trying to preach for a while, which is the cost of buying natural and organic to serve ourselves and loved ones, is far less than having health issues your whole life because of being pumped with growth hormones, additives, preservatives and chemicals. Gone are the days when a chefs only concern is delivering a great tasting meal, they must now seek out local, natural, and sustainable ingredients to create that meal. That means changing the way menus are thought out, which means more work. Next they started getting the crowd in a frenzy when they spoke out against the practices of the Monsanto Corp. and their seed peddling ways. Monsanto basically controls all the seed in our country, in an effort to remove all proprietary value a farmer would own of his crop. Not only are they in the practice of genetically modifying seeds, they do so in a way that causes the crops to be unable to reproduce more seeds. So farmers are forced to buy more seed every growing season, and if they to sidestep the process, Monsanto sues!
They followed the Monsanto bashing with some nauseating “Pink Slime” talk. I understand how anyone could eat a fast food burger if they actually knew what was in it. To make Pink Slime you basically take the most undesirable cuts of meat and fat that usually come in contact with feces, the cuts that used to be exclusively incorporated in pet food, and whip it with ammonia until it turns into a pink paste. As Mr. Bourdain stated, ” Industry analysts insist that Pink Slime is vital in keeping fast food costs down in this country. Americans are demanding low costs without sacrificing eating animal proteins.” Eric’s response was ” I don’t think you need to eat meat proteins everyday.” this was met with rousing applause.
They went back and forth about how most “gourmet” dishes used to be the food of the poor. Tony for instance said, “Escargot Bourguignon…do you really think it was a “gourmet” to eat snails for the first time? No it was a broke son of a gun! Sitting there starving, who a snail crawl by.” Then in a hilarious impersonation of Eric said, “Maaaybe, I puut a liitle beeet of gaaarliiic and buuudder on it?”. The point is that food can be delicious regardless of where it comes from, there’s a reason Tony and Eric have traveled the world in search of new and exciting foods, in hopes that it will inspire all of us to do the same.
Finally came a disaster of a Q&A segment that I wish I could have missed. This wasn’t Tony or Eric’s fault, but the idiot crowd members including those in the seats next to me. Just to give a few tips for potential Q&A participants.
1. If you want to humble brag and make it all about you when asking a question to a person who is proven more interesting than yourself, keep your mouth shut. We all dont care that your trip to Singapore last month was awesome or that you spent 65 days in India last year.
2. Ask a question. Do not make a statement promoting your own cause. You will get booed. By everyone. Including Tony Bourdain.
3. Don’t invite the speakers “out for a drink” in front of a few thousand people, because you know an epic dive bar in town they would love. We all know “The Hub” is cool dude.
4. Don’t cry.
Aside from a very timely and poignant question about Food Trucks made by a very nice lady, the people of the Bay area didn’t do themselves any favors in my mind. I doubt we will see a Tampa edition of “The Layover” in the near future.
It was very special night for me and I hope to do it again soon. If either Bourdain or Ripert or both are ever in your town to do any kind of performance and you are a lover of food culture, don’t pass up the chance.