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Jul 31, 2000 12:10 AM

A few questions for Anthony Bourdain

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This may not be the appropriate forum for this, but forgive me if I'm straying off-topic too far. Anthony, I just finished KC, and your over-the-top style is truly hilarious. For such an obviously talented writer, you barely touch on that aspect of your life in the book. As both an aspiring writer and a budding gourmet, I'm really curious to find out when you started writing, when you have the TIME to write given your hellish schedule, and how, being a chef for the past two decades, you managed to acquire the skills to write such good stuff. If you could take a moment to address these questions and anything else about your "second career", I'd really be appreciative. Thanks.

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  1. "when you have the TIME to write given your hellish schedule"

    Sorry, Alex, but surely part of his answer would be: by not taking time to answer questions like these (except for the five hundred times he's had to answer 'em in press interviews in the past few weeks).

    So I'll step in to answer at least the writing part of your question: the trick to good writing is the same as good cooking. Take time and care to ensure that nothing leaves the prep stage until it's as polished and clear as you can make it. It's got to be properly done, and you need taste, judgement, and experience to gauge that.

    For this reason, it's only natural for chefs (and composers...and painters) to be good writers, if they really apply themselves to the task.


    13 Replies
    1. re: Jim leff

      I'm rather surprised at the responses Jim got to this post, because he was obviously trying to both explain why Mr. Bourdain might not respond here, and to give his own two cents regarding the original question, from his perspective as a writer.

      Two thoughts of mine:

      I read Anthony Bourdain saying that he worked on the book early in the morning, before heading off to his "other" job--thereby further elongating his long days.

      Other thought, following Jim's words on writing and the need to be polished and complete: one of the best things a writer can do is to find some good readers. Some writers are happy to hand their work to anyone and everyone to critique, and some are very self-conscious. Either way, you have to do it, and you have to find people who can do it constructively. People who have respect for what you are trying to do, can read objectively, have a good eye and ear, and who care about making good writing (or good work in general, because good readers need not be writers) better. Yes, as Jim says, developing taste, judgment, and experience is crucial to writing well, but feedback from other with those qualities can take your good writing farther.

      1. re: Caitlin

        Writing is hard work, and to do it well takes a little of everything mentioned so far.

        But from my perspective (as a writer, about food and other things, who's been published for more than 20 years), there are two distinct elements in good writing.

        One is craft, the ability to organize thoughts and put them down in words that comprise clear, interesting sentences and paragraphs. Developing craft takes lots of practice and the feedback of editors and readers.

        The other is more slippery, but it's about that creative spark that makes writing come alive. I'm still not sure where it comes from, or why one day I can sit down and pound out a 1000-word review that my readers tell me made them hungry, but the next day I sweat blood writing and the outcome sucks.

        Aspiring writers need to develop the craft, of course. Nothing blows your credibility faster than a dangling modifier (and I'm guilty, too). Finding the art requires a more personal search, and it will be different for everybody.


        1. re: Jim Dixon

          Very good point about the two aspects of writing ("craft" and the more elusive quality of creativity). I've taught a bit of writing (expository, not "creative") and also written professionally for some years, and I know I can teach a certain level of competence in writing to most people if they're willing to work at it, but when it comes to great writing, it's a different story. In my experience, there's no teaching someone the rhythms of beautiful writing if that persom has no ear for language.

          And here I would draw an analogy between writing and cooking -- I'd say you can teach most people how to be competent cooks if they're willing to put in the time, but that you can't teach someone to be a great chef if they don't have the talent to start with.

          1. re: Janet

            that's just it. Only the willing write. Anmd you must be VERY willing. No wishy washy musician ever wrote anything great. If you're not interested and committed, then forget it. Oh yeah, and reading helps, too. I don't know how many aspiring writers i've met that don't even like to read. Reading is as important as listening to language. Otherwise, you are like a chef who never eats!

            1. re: andy huse

              "No wishy washy musician ever wrote anything great."

              Hey! I resent that!

              ; )

              1. re: Jim Leff

                I want to add that I feel you can't be a good writer if you're not a reader. That "ear" can be learned by reading.

          2. re: Jim Dixon

            As Jim said, anyone literate can write. Yet writing is probably the toughest form of expression there is, especially when done solely to transmit information.
            I usually organize my research, make an outline on the computer, then type in all the info from my notes into the appropriate categories. Then i brainstorm, make connections between my thoughts and my previous notes, write without editing, just get it onto the page. I can organize, edit, and clean it up later.

            The important thing is not to become attached to this first string of material. It is just a second draft of your notes, really. Then write with more thought in a new file, using your outline as notes, write a piece at a time and connect it all later.

            i'm still quite new to writing, though i've been prolific (tho mostly drivel) for 10-15 years. Grad school really whipped me into shape.

            on when to write: I'm a night owl, so i work at night. I get off work, swim, eat, then go to the computer whther i like it or not. Even if i only work for an hour, it was worth it. I often get tired of it and do something else for an hour or so, then go back to it for as long as i can stand. I'm working on a book that seems to eat up time like a black hole!

            1. re: Jim Dixon

              I would also add the advice that Robert Heinlein always gave - "Write, write, then write some more." Much like an artist needs to practice the fundamentals of perspective and sketching until they become inate, good writing only comes from having pounded out thousands of words of copy a week for long periods of time to work out the sheer mechanics of grammar, spelling, punctuation and style (as in Chicago Manual of Style - not as in individual panache). It is very difficult to write graceful prose until you have the nuts and bolts down and that only comes after producing stunningly large piles of copy.

              (Having just proof-read the preceding run-on sentences, it would seem that I need to pound out some more words. Grace seems to be eluding me.)

          3. re: Jim leff

            "the trick to good writing is the same as good cooking. Take time and care to ensure that nothing leaves the prep stage until it's as polished and clear as you can make it. It's got to be properly done, and you need taste, judgement, and experience to gauge that.

            For this reason, it's only natural for chefs (and composers...and painters) to be good writers, if they really apply themselves to the task."

            Interesting idea, but I think it's only a small part of the story...

            Of course time, care, dedication and polish are necessary for good writing and good cooking (good music and painting too for that matter) but they're certainly not sufficient.

            Also, I find it quite odd that you assume that skill in one area would necessarily spill into another art form. Would you make the reverse statement -- that any good writer (or painter) can be a good chef? I've known many a chef who can barely write an intelligible headnote, or artists who can't write a simple note, and although a little practice might help them reach a level of competence, they're never going to be anything more than proficient. Likewise, I know a lot of writers who won't ever be good chefs, or even decent home cooks, regardless of the care they take.

            I think the element you're overlooking (or maybe it's just so obvious to you that you don't think it bears mentioning) is talent. I know it's unfashionable to mention talent these days (not PC, somehow, to imply that we aren't all equal) but not everyone has it, nor do we have it in the same areas.

            1. re: Janet

              "Also, I find it quite odd that you assume that skill in one area would necessarily spill into another art form. Would you make the reverse statement -- that any good writer (or painter) can be a good chef?"

              No. Different thing entirely. Because every intelligent person is, to some extent, a writer. Anyone can make words communicate to some extent, but nobody has an innate ability to baste a goose.

              So while becoming a chef (or painter or composer) requires a great deal of training and knowledge to even take the first step, anyone who's willing to take copious time and care to hone their writing can simply do so. You don't need to take classes, there aren't a ton of little facts and matters of manual coordination you have to master. It's just a matter of hard work.

              Of course, if you're not intelligent (or educated), it will be even MORE work to polish your scribblings into good writing. But the illiterate awfulness of my first drafts are testament to the potential for just about anyone to wrestle salable prose out of a confused and jumbled pile of words.

              The thing is, if you're a good chef (or other artist) you understand the hard work (and possess the taste and judgement skills) necessary to produce a final product of a high level of quality. That's key. I've gotten a lot faster over the years, but I still put more time and hard work into my writing than many amateurs, who tend to dash stuff off in one or two (mostly unconscious) drafts and expect praise to rain from the sky. Chefs and other artists understand it's not so easy! Their discipline, plus their good taste and discernment, gives them a major advantage.

              As for talent, I'm kind of in agreement with Edison's statement about inspiration and perspiration. I know lots of naturally talented people who are lousy at what they do, and lots of hard-working ungifted people who excel. In fact, I'm not even sure there's any correlation!

              1. re: Jim Leff

                I'm with Janet on this one -- while practice, persistence, education, etc. can help anyone improve their skills in writing, cooking, or almost any area, people do have different innate abilities. Perfect pitch, for example, cannot be taught. I believe that there is some "creative genius quality" which makes a Picasso different than the best forger of his work. The forger has a certain skill -- he can copy the work, but could he generate it from nothing?

                While the best chefs and writers share this quality, I don't think that the key creative aspects that makes someone a great chef -- having to do with a sense of taste, an understanding of ingredients and how they interact, etc. -- are at all related to what it takes to be a great writer.

                As far as the connection between "intelligence" and writing/communication ability, there are definitely people who are brilliant in one field who have great difficulty expressing themselves verbally (certain math and physics professors come to mind).

                Conversely, some people with little formal education can write amazingly well -- usually when they simply put down their words in their own unique voices. (I think this is where so many people who struggle with writing get bogged down -- they try to "write", and they come up with forced, awkward sentences that sound nothing like how they speak.)

                Additionally, even people who are great speakers can have trouble with writing. If you know what you're aiming for, re-writing and editing will definitely make a difference (and I agree that most people underestimate how much of this good writers do), but if you don't have a sense of the rhythm of how sentences read (ug, that was a clunker), of how to organize your thoughts logically, of how different words can convey subtle differences in meaning, of how to structure a sentence properly, etc. etc., all the re-writing in the world isn't likely to produce something that anyone would want to slog through. This stuff can be taught in classes and can be learned by reading good writing and by obtaining constructive criticism from good writers and editors.

                1. re: Jim Leff

                  Since I would like to read some more about Chef Bourdains findings I am trying to locate the article 'Don't Eat Anything Before You Read This', which was apparantly published in last summers New Yorker. However I can't find it. Can anyone help me find it either on the internet on in hard copy? I already tried the New Yorkers email, but no luck!

              2. re: Jim leff

                My first response to Sharon looked, to a lot of people, like I was trying to stifle the conversation and generally be mean and hornery. I'm sorry that I phrased it really badly. Let me be clear: if Bourdain DOES have a sec to reply, that'd be great! Of course he's welcome to! Everyone's always invited to chime in around here. I was just trying to step in and stir up some good discussion in the meantime.

                I'm sparing everyone the rather tedious long string of messages regarding my intentions in my reply (no message on topic of Bourdain, food, or writing was deleted) in the interest of not boring the pants out of you all. Meanwhile, I'm awfully sorry to have given the wrong impression, and I appreciate everyone's bringing it to my attention.

                Back to the chow!


              3. In a recent interview I heard him say that he makes sure he gets his writing done by putting it on his prep list. At the end of the day, he will somehow have accomplished everything on the list.