Lucky Peach #12 is our SEASHORE issue. It is all about food from littoral realms—the spaces where land meets sea. We dive for abalone and gather seaweed off the California coast; we harvest honey in the Bangladeshi Sundarbans; we go behind the scenes at a shrimp farm in Indonesia, and spend a Sunday at the cockle sheds in Leigh-on-Sea. We learn lots about edible sea beasts, from clams to hagfish to sea squirts. Anthony Bourdain takes us on a stroll down a beach town’s memory lane; Robert Sietsema samples practically all the clams on Long Island; Stuart Dybek catches himself a perfect breakfast in the Florida keys. We share recipes from Vietnam and Portugal and the Oregon coast—we aren’t shellfish. Also in this issue: a special, detachable sixteen-page BEACH READS comic book to take on your seaside jaunts, featuring Jason Jägel, Tony Millionaire, and more. It’s summertime and the reading is easy.
The Seashore issue hits newsstands on August 19th. Subscribe now to receive it as the first in your subscription!
Cover art by Robert Beatty
I try and go to Brazil whenever I can find an excuse—and the fact that I haven’t made a show in the city of Salvador since A COOK’S TOUR, over 12 years ago, seemed like reason enough for another one. It’s all the best things about the country, boiled down into a thick, spicy, African stew. It’s mystical, magical, incredibly colorful and has its own choreography that we worked very hard to capture.
I asked the crew to shoot at hip level as much as possible, to move the cameras, to try and convey the sense that, unique to Salvador, everybody is beautiful. Young, old, fat, thin, every hue, every shade on its extraordinarily diverse and randomly mixed up color spectrum, absolutely everybody in Salvador is beautiful. Even ugly people are beautiful. Everybody seems likely to start dancing at any minute—and often do. There’s drums and music everywhere. Large and very cold beers and powerful beverages of crushed limes and sugar cane liquor, spicy fried things, seem to appear from all directions. It seems, from a visitor’s point of view, Utopian.
It’s not, of course, Utopia at all. Brazil in general, and Salvador in particular, face enormous problems—and how they are going to handle the hundreds of thousands of foreign visitors attending the World Cup is going to be…interesting. There will be, for sure, many adventures, but most of them will surely be good.
I stopped trying to figure out Brazil years ago and after many visits, just decided to go with the flow. The show we came back with, I hope, reflects that attitude. After nearly a year on the road, a solid block of shooting on 5 continents, this is the last new episode of the season. Given the rigors of all those miles and all those airports, I felt a “low impact” one was appropriate. Someplace warm where the music is always good and the water’s fine. Someplace that definitely doesn’t suck.
A frequent comment on food websites is that I should avoid discussion of politics or social conditions and concentrate on the food. My host, serving me a humble but tasty Lao style laarb could be missing three out of four of his limbs but God forbid I ask the question: “Hey there, fella…what happened to your arm and legs?” The answer might intrude on someone’s vicarious eating experience.
In the Congo, the bucket of water used to boil my pounded cassava might well have been transported the 2 miles from the nearest river on top of a small child’s head. Some very unpleasant militias have been known to interrupt such journeys. This, it would seem, is also worth mentioning.
There is, of course, nothing more political than food. Food itself. Who’s got it, who doesn’t. “What’s” cooking is usually the end of a long, often violent story. That can be a bummer for some—who’d rather be fondling themselves while perusing recipes for bundt cake than thinking about what Burroughs called the “frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork.”
So there should be much rejoicing in chowland that this Sunday’s episode of PARTS UNKNOWN is “all about the food.” Ironically enough, it takes place in one of the most politicized environments on earth: Thailand—where, it seems, every time we go, there are civil actions, military coups, changes of government. I’d like to say that the politics of Thailand are just too complicated, too fast changing, too impenetrable for me to ever understand much less explain, hence my focus on food and drink. I’d like to say it was because the latest military takeover happened after we were there—rather than just before—or during. But that wouldn’t be true.
Fact is, I chose to focus on eating—and specifically drinking in Northern Thailand around Chiang Mai simply because I was fortunate enough to go there with a uniquely qualified guide. Chef Andy Ricker of Portland and New York’s “Pok Pok” restaurants. He may be a farang, but he’s been moving back and forth between Thailand and America for 20 years or more and…well…just eat his food sometime and you’ll know what I’m talking about.
Basically, it’s an entire hour of prolonged bender, an increasingly addled tuk-tuk ride from place to place shoving delicious things into my face, washed down with (variously) Thai “whiskey”, moonshine, and beer. Naturally, things ended badly.
Have you ever been spanked by a supermodel? Carefully but aggressively tortured with nipple clamps, riding crop and handfuls of crushed ice by a statuesque beauty in skin tight vinyl? Me neither. I frankly don’t care if it’s my pick of the Victoria’s Secret catalog coming my way with a paddle, I’m not interested. I don’t care in what context, I don’t like pain. I don’t even like minor discomfort.
Except when we are talking food, where the older I get, the spicier and more painful I want it. It’s one of the things that hooked me earliest and most irrevocably about Southeast Asia: the spices, the chiles, the funky, mouth searing sauces and dips. Any idiot, of course, can dump enough cayenne or hot sauce into a bowl of ground beef and ignite your head. But it takes a master to build the deeply pleasurable slow boil you find in some Thai dishes: the delicate interplay between sweet and sour and spicy, the gradual build up of pleasure/pain to the point that you feel your vision starting to get weird. Numerous times during my most recent trip, I’d be halfway through a delicious table top full of food and feel my eyesight closing down: first getting fuzzy around the edges of the frame like a Vaseline smeared lens, Andy starting to look like Barbara Walters on The View—then, gradually, closing down to full on tunnel vision, tongue burning on all sides, lips inflamed, back of neck and forehead beaded with sweat—an otherworldly sense of elation coming over me as my brain became flooded with endorphins.
I offer this—an overdose of endorphins—leading to a false sense of well being—and the presence of what was probably more alcohol than advisable—as a mitigating factor in the how and why I ended up kissing Ernest Borgnine on the lips. He was apparently wearing a clingy cocktail dress at the time.
Northern Thailand, by the way, offers some of the best reasons for why, when traveling at least, a vegan might consider suspending their restrictions. Because to experience the place without trying the splendiferous variety of pork products would be sad enough. To ignore the end result of a heavily protein based cuisine shaped, over centuries by influences Lao, Chinese, Burmese and Indian, a missed opportunity. But to avoid the deep, ubiquitous, mysterious funk of the local shrimp pastes would be to turn one’s back on the totality of human endeavor.
I say this without malice.
To be fortunate enough to be able to visit Thailand, to eat in Thailand, is a deep dive into a rich, many textured, very old culture containing flavors and colors that go far beyond the familiar spectrum. Given our limited time on this earth, and the sheer magnificence, the near limitless variety of sensory experiences readily available, you don’t want to miss ANY of it.
What do I—a pig ignorant Yankee—know about Mississippi? What could I ever understand about growing up in the Delta, that peculiar and heavy mix of guilt, rough pride, obstinacy, sentimentality and cynicism?
(Answer: Next to nothing)
Let me be honest about this right up front: before I started traveling the world extensively, seeing many foreign countries and cultures very different than my own, I would never even have considered visiting Mississippi.
As a New Yorker, with the drearily predictable worldview of my tribe, I took a dim view of Mississippi. Mississippi was the deep South. It was where they shot Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper in “Easy Rider”, wasn’t it? The history was not pretty—a fact reinforced by just about every film ever set in the state. It’s near the poorest performer on every metric of a state’s health: income, education, healthcare.
But I have long since learned to find myself comfortable in as “foreign” an environment as Saudi Arabia, Liberia, or Cambodia. Why can’t I get to know and love this part of my own country? Particularly when what we love about our country—what is undeniably great about America, its most powerful and persuasive export and gift to the world—comes from the state of Mississippi. It changed the world like nothing else American.
Somebody else would have invented and marketed the automobile eventually. But no one would, could or did invent The Blues and Rock and Roll. That uniquely strange mutation could have come from nowhere else.
It’s also the home of perhaps the most uniquely awesome and uniquely American drinking institutions, juke joints.
The past, of course, like a constant accusation, hangs over everything in Mississippi. And those born and bred have gotten used to having to account for it, talk about it. Like I said, it’s a poor state—and investment in infrastructure—whether renovating your home, modernizing your restaurant dining room, redeveloping an abandoned section of town is not much of a priority or even an option much of the time. So it looks much as it did in the movies you’ve seen. That’s both curse and blessing. If you are focused on change? You will likely be frustrated. But if you like the good, old school shit—you will find it in Mississippi.
We sure as Hell didn’t “explain” Mississippi in this episode. I doubt I left the state much smarter than I entered it. It’s not a representative overview of “what you should know or see while in Mississippi”. But I hope that viewers will get a taste of a uniquely beautiful place –where some of the last of some truly great American institutions are still alive. Where you can hear the blues performed where it was born—in exactly the same surroundings, the same kind of bar, as when it all began. Where you can have an irony free pigs ear sandwich that will make you weep for joy.
“Who is the man that would risk his neck for his brother man?
Who’s the cat that won’t cop out, when there’s danger all about?
You see this cat Zamir is a bad mother-“
With tanks massing by the Ukraine border, the region in turmoil, and the Russian bear once again flexing his muscle, there’s only one man for the job, a very special man, a man named Zamir.
In this episode of PARTS UNKNOWN, we take a look at Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Not Russia, the country of Tolstoy and Gogol, poetry and great sacrifice, forests of birch. Nor the Russia haunted by the Great War, Lenin and Stalin, terrors, gulags and purges. The Cold War does not feature in this story—nor what immediately followed. We’re looking at Putin’s Russia, the country he’s made—is making, right there, in full view of the world. We look at who’s doing well—and who is not.
Putin appears to see himself as a manly man of the old school. By old school, I mean mid-period Stallone. He is fond of appearing in public with his shirt off while riding a horse or standing in front of a tank or holding a large gun. A Freudian might be inclined to quip ”sorry about your penis” but there is no hard information as relates to Mr. Putin’s length or girth in that department. For reasons of good diplomatic relations, the West has been inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt. Extending the benefit of the doubt has been something of a reflex when it comes to Putin. When a loud critic of Putin’s was poisoned by a radioactive polonium (a wildly expensive and nearly impossible to obtain substance outside of restricted military circles) in the center of London, the attitude was very much, “WHO could possibly have done such a thing?” In the run up to the annexation of Crimea, there was similarly disingenuous hand wringing in the press and by public officials: “What, oh, what will Putin do next?” And, “Who could those pro-Russian insurgents be?” Though, the question probably should have been, “Was there ever ANY doubt?” Perhaps there are other priorities at work in the West’s apparent credulousness. About 50% of the oil used by Europe comes from Russia these days. And Vladimir Putin has demonstrated before that he will not hesitate to turn off the tap.
Putin’s rule has been marked by official attitudes of xenophobia, homophobia and paranoia. He likes power and, as we’ve seen with the Sochi Olympics, is not shy about projecting it. Though a former officer in the Soviet intelligence services, he is certainly comfortable with 80’s style go-go capitalism. The people close to him tend to make a lot of money. He’s not afraid of doing what he sees as being in his interests—or the interests of his country—and the Hell with what anybody else thinks. He’s no pussy. He espouses, when convenient, anyway, traditional Christian values. Thinking about it, he could probably get elected to Congress in this country. Though his face is as taut and devoid of expression as a Real Housewife, it holds, based on past behaviors, little mystery, one would think. Yet here we are, only now, finding out who Vladimir Putin really is.
But who, who is Zamir Gotta? This man who has, at various times tried to sell me a Transylvanian fixer-upper, a decommissioned Russian submarine, taken me foraging for mushrooms with the former KGB counterintelligence officer who ‘ran’ Aldrich Ames and Robert Hansen, made me a public enemy in Romania? Sidekick, entrepreneur, literary agent, film producer, broker of deals, would-be vendor of military hardware, cult hero, friend—he is all of those things and more.
I met Zamir in St. Petersburg in the winter of 2002. He’d been hired as a fixer, the sort of type one needs—particularly in Russia—when trying to make television. Someone had to arrange permits, navigate the bureaucracy, deal with any “non-official” bodies who might have had their hands out or who might threaten to make things “difficult”. And Zamir, it turned out, had a startlingly wide and deep number of contacts: writers, dissidents, chefs, former officers of the KGB and FSB, beauty queens, and associates of what, for lack of a better term, one might call “mafiya”.
The last thing in the world we had planned for this very capable, international man of mystery was for him to become on-camera “talent” and my most enduring, best loved sidekick. But it was our first trip to Russia and things were not going well. A locally hired cameraman had wandered off, never to be heard from again. Chris Collins, the now lone cameraman/producer, was struggling for scenes. Planned sidekicks had either failed to materialize or proved themselves less than outgoing. I found myself in country where I didn’t speak the language, knew no one, had few realistic plans—and under the gun to provide an hour of television entertainment worthy of the Food Network’s undoubtedly high standards.
At the very last second, we threw a mic on Zamir, fed him some vodka, and sat him on a park bench. I then walked up to him while the camera rolled—and we winged it. The rest, as they say, is history. We have had many, many good times making television together over the years, in St. Petersberg, Moscow, Ukraine, Kansas City, Uzbekistan and Buffalo. Our infamous Romania show was not such a good time, however—a hideous, infamous, cruel goat rodeo of epic proportions. I blame Zamir. Or the vodka.
Maybe I’m just trying to be polite, observe local customs. Or maybe we are just disgusting, horrible people, but whenever we get together, we seem to knock off at least a bottle of vodka in a sitting. I assure you, I don’t drink like this at home. As incredible as it may seem, I am not an alcoholic. I don’t even keep beer in my fridge. When I’m back in New York, rare is the time I even go out to a bar for a leisurely cocktail. But when Zamir is around? It’s like nuclear fission. Two elements who, when they get together, blow shit up. It’s why I do shows with Zamir so infrequently. Because after drinking vodka so steadily, and in such quantities, for a week or more, I need a few years off.
So enjoy this one. It’s rude. It’s boozy. Vladimir Putin won’t like it. And there won’t be another one like it for some time to come—or until my liver forgives me.
Americans love Mexican food. We consume nachos, tacos, burritos, tortas, enchiladas, tamales and anything resembling Mexican in enormous quantities. We love Mexican beverages, happily knocking back huge amounts of tequila, mezcal and Mexican beer every year. We love Mexican people—as we sure employ a lot of them. Despite our ridiculously hypocritical attitudes towards immigration, we demand that Mexicans cook a large percentage of the food we eat, grow the ingredients we need to make that food, clean our houses, mow our lawns, wash our dishes, look after our children. As any chef will tell you, our entire service economy—the restaurant business as we know it—in most American cities, would collapse overnight without Mexican workers. Some, of course, like to claim that Mexicans are “stealing American jobs”. But in two decades as a chef and employer, I never had ONE American kid walk in my door and apply for a dishwashing job, a porter’s position—or even a job as prep cook. Mexicans do much of the work in this country that Americans, provably, simply won’t do.
We love Mexican drugs. Maybe not you personally, but “we”, as a nation, certainly consume titanic amounts of them—and go to extraordinary lengths and expense to acquire them. We love Mexican music, Mexican beaches, Mexican architecture, interior design, Mexican films.
So, why don’t we love Mexico?
We throw up our hands and shrug at what happens and what is happening just across the border. Maybe we are embarrassed. Mexico, after all, has always been there for us, to service our darkest needs and desires. Whether it’s dress up like fools and get pass-out drunk and sun burned on Spring break in Cancun, throw pesos at strippers in Tijuana, or get toasted on Mexican drugs, we are seldom on our best behavior in Mexico. They have seen many of us at our worst. They know our darkest desires.
In the service of our appetites, we spend billions and billions of dollars each year on Mexican drugs—while at the same time spending billions and billions more trying to prevent those drugs from reaching us. The effect on our society is everywhere to be seen. Whether it’s kids nodding off and overdosing in small town Vermont, gang violence in LA, burned out neighborhoods in Detroit— it’s there to see. What we don’t see, however, haven’t really noticed, and don’t seem to much care about, is the 80,000 dead—mostly innocent victims in Mexico, just in the past few years. 80,000 dead. 80,000 families who’ve been touched directly by the so-called “War On Drugs”.
Mexico. Our brother from another mother. A country, with whom, like it or not, we are inexorably, deeply involved, in a close but often uncomfortable embrace. Look at it. It’s beautiful. It has some of the most ravishingly beautiful beaches on earth. Mountains, desert, jungle. Beautiful colonial architecture, a tragic, elegant, violent, ludicrous, heroic, lamentable, heartbreaking history. Mexican wine country rivals Tuscany for gorgeousness. Its archeological sites—the remnants of great empires, unrivaled anywhere. And as much as we think we know and love it, we have barely scratched the surface of what Mexican food really is. It is NOT melted cheese over a tortilla chip. It is not simple, or easy. It is not simply ‘bro food’ halftime. It is in fact, old— older even than the great cuisines of Europe and often deeply complex, refined, subtle, and sophisticated. A true mole sauce, for instance, can take DAYS to make, a balance of freshly (always fresh) ingredients, painstakingly prepared by hand. It could be, should be, one of the most exciting cuisines on the planet. If we paid attention. The old school cooks of Oaxaca make some of the more difficult to make and nuanced sauces in gastronomy. And some of the new generation, many of whom have trained in the kitchens of America and Europe have returned home to take Mexican food to new and thrilling new heights.
It’s a country I feel particularly attached to and grateful for. In nearly 30 years of cooking professionally, just about every time I walked into a new kitchen, it was a Mexican guy who looked after me, had my back, showed me what was what, was there—and on the case—when the cooks more like me, with backgrounds like mine—ran away to go skiing or surfing—or simply “flaked.” I have been fortunate to track where some of those cooks come from, to go back home with them. To small towns populated mostly by women—where in the evening, families gather at the town’s phone kiosk, waiting for calls from their husbands, sons and brothers who have left to work in our kitchens in the cities of the North. I have been fortunate enough to see where that affinity for cooking comes from, to experience moms and grandmothers preparing many delicious things, with pride and real love, passing that food made by hand, passed from their hands to mine.
In years of making television in Mexico, it’s one of the places we, as a crew, are happiest when the day’s work is over. We’ll gather round a street stall and order soft tacos with fresh, bright, delicious tasting salsas—drink cold Mexican beer, sip smoky mezcals, listen with moist eyes to sentimental songs from street musicians. We will look around and remark, for the hundredth time, what an extraordinary place this is.
The received wisdom is that Mexico will never change. That is hopelessly corrupt, from top to bottom. That it is useless to resist—to care, to hope for a happier future. But there are heroes out there who refuse to go along. On this episode of PARTS UNKNOWN, we meet a few of them. People who are standing up against overwhelming odds, demanding accountability, demanding change—at great, even horrifying personal cost.
This show is for them.
This Sunday, we take a trip back to childhood with one of America’s greatest chefs, Daniel Boulud, to look at one of the most important figures in his life and career, Paul Bocuse—and at the system, the place and the culture of food that raised both of them.
Where do great chefs come from?
They do not emerge, fully formed, in crisp Egyptian cotton whites, towering toques, an imperious attitude, into their dining rooms. In France, in and around Lyon, where this episode of PARTS UNKNOWN takes place, a region famous for its food, chances are they were farm boys, the children of fathers already in the industry, the working poor. They were survivors of “the System”, products of a very old, entrenched military style hierarchy which relied on methods which we would now, rightly call abuse.
Back in the day—the years that my guide, the great chef Daniel Boulud peeled his first carrot—you started early. Daniel’s childhood was dedicated to work on the family farm: milking cows, working the fields. Childhood ended for him, as it did for many chefs of that generation, at age 14, when he went to work in professional kitchens.
Things were harder then. Demanding a 12-16 hour work day of cooks was common practice. As was manhandling them. Slapping—even beating a cook was not unheard of, nor necessarily frowned upon. And if you worked with the best—as Daniel did, as a young Paul Bocuse did, as they ALL did, who rose through the French system to become what for a lack of a better word, we have come to call “Celebrity chefs”, the pressure—night after night, day after day, year after year, was enormous.
Every chef I’ve ever spoken to has one mentor who inhabits their dreams, who remains, years later, their personal nightmare. There is always someone whose disappointed or angry face, appearing in a dream, causes successful, world famous chefs to, decades later, sit bolt upright in bed from a dead sleep, mouth open in mute terror, certain they’ve left something in the oven, messed up a sauce, forgotten an instruction—somehow drawn the wrath of “Chef”.
For Eric Ripert, I suspect, it’s Joel Robuchon who still visits him at night. For Gordon Ramsay? Marco Pierre White, looming over him again and again, crawling inside his head, driving him to tears. I asked the “Lion of Lyon”, Paul Bocuse, perhaps the most famous and respected chef of the last 100 years, a man now in his 80’s, if there was someone in his past, some mentor of long ago, who still disturbed his dreams.
“La Mere Brazier,” he responded without having to reflect for a second.
When tracking it all back—the recipes, the traditions, the structure, behaviors, the genealogy of haute cuisine…when we look at the sleek fine dining rooms of the 1%ers we love to loathe, and we look back at where those techniques, those presentations, the combinations of ingredients came from—we find, largely, a group of women in Lyon between the wars, called “Les Meres”. Most famously, the fearsome Mere Brazier. These were women cooks who moved out of the houses of the rich to fill the vacuum left by males departing for the war. They opened restaurants, bouchons and bistros across Lyon, adapted dishes created for their previous clients—along with the best of what they’d grown up with—refined them to satisfy the demands of a very discerning public. Searching the mostly male kitchens of modern Lyon for where it all came from, the roots of what became, in the 60’s and 70’s, “la Nouvelle Cuisine”, —we found again and again that all roads seemed to lead back to them.
La Mere Brazier, was, by the way, not just the first woman to be awarded 3 Michelin Stars—but the first CHEF—period—to hold SIX (between two restaurants).
Times were often very tough in France. Many of the principles of the grand kitchens came directly from the imperatives of survival on the farm: “Use Everything.”. “Waste Nothing”. These are dictums familiar to any culinary student today. So, what we’re talking about, when we look back for the source of all this “frippery” and “frou-frou”, the luxuries and excesses of fine dining, we find, much of the time, dishes whose inspiration began with a broke-ass farmer trying to figure out how to feed his family from a single bony rooster, and generations of abused, overworked, underpaid children—none of whom were allowed, much less able to afford to eat—ever—in their own dining rooms.
So, if you look at Daniel Boulud, who now runs some of the greatest restaurants in the country (and beyond), and you think you see a guy who lives in some aspirational fantasyland—keep in mind, he had his teeth kicked in every day for three decades or so before getting here. When you see the simple looking preparation of Salmon in Sorrel sauce in the kitchen of les frères Troisgros, try and understand that what you are seeing changed the way ALL of us now order and eat our fish today, that it marked a tectonic shift as important to the craft of cooking as the invention of the electric guitar to music.
Lastly, when looking at where it all comes from, know that it comes from a culture where food is, simply put, important. Because it IS important
In the episode, we go back to Daniel’s primary school, where, for a fraction of what we spend in this country to feed our kids horrifying, processed slop, kids get to eat a healthy, delicious and relatively adventurous meal. Eating well, in France, as in Italy, Spain, most of Asia, much of Latin America, is a point of pride—an expression of identity—a birthright. Whether it’s simply a bowl of beans or a bony fish grilled over wood, its preparation is worth talking about, it’s worth arguing about passionately.
Our newfound American obsession with all things food and chefs may veer frequently into the silly zone—but we are, in our own awkward way, lurching towards what others have had for centuries: a basic understanding that food—GOOD food—is a fundamental, hugely important part of life well lived, at whatever income bracket.
When I was a young cook, getting MY ass kicked on a regular basis, or bouncing from one never-gonna-happen kitchen to another, I owned a treasured copy of Paul Bocuse’s “La Cuisine de Marche”. I’d stare for hours at a time at the photos of dishes like Truffle Soup Elysee en croute, Lievre a la Royale, his incredible whole fish in pastry, trying to figure out how, how anyone could make such beautiful things. Struggling through the recipes with my rudimentary French skills didn’t help much in solving the mystery or lessening the wonder. The dishes remained, for all my life, unapproachable—a lost ideal, legendary creations of another time that I. sadly, would never see.
On this episode, I finally got to see them. Better yet, to eat all of them, the Greatest Hits of the Glorious career of Paul Bocuse—while he sat next to me. It was an amazing, unexpected, never-dreamed of, late in life windfall. Like a lifelong Yankee fan, somehow finding himself throwing the ball around the backyard with Joe DiMaggio.
“With a bit of luck, his life was ruined forever. Always thinking that just behind some narrow door in all his favorite bars, men in red woolen shirts are getting incredible kicks from things he’ll never know.”
—Hunter S. Thompson
What is the promise of Las Vegas? What are people looking for in this place in the desert? What are they selling that brings people across the oceans, the mountains, the parched wasteland?
Sure. You can see Celine Dion belting out your favorite movie anthem, eat food from Bobby or Emeril or Jimmy Buffet. There’s the Cirque de Soleil thing—or the Blue dudes. And there’s money. It’s always possible—however remotely—that you’ll leave Vegas with more money than you came with.
But that’s not why you come here is it, you filthy pig?
You came here because Las Vegas promised, with a wink and a nudge, that “What Happens In Vegas Stays in Vegas.” That’s what Vegas has ALWAYS promised, implicitly—or explicitly, as when Nick Tosches asked his hotel manager if he could smoke in his room: “Buddy, you can kill your wife in this room,” was the response. That promise of Vegas confidentiality is not true by the way. Maybe when the mob ran things, when an act of indiscretion might lead directly to a hole in the desert. When Vegas was truly a Company town.
But today, I’m guessing, if Justin Bieber found himself (hypothetically) splashing around the fountain at the Bellagio with a platoon of hookers in various states of disarray, somebody would be instagramming that shit right quick. If he (hypothetically) made a late night call down to the concierge for a band saw, a 55 gallon drum of Astro-Glide, a bucket of Hot Wings and a tarpaulin, I doubt very much he could be assured of absolute discretion.
But that’s what they’re selling with a catch phrase like that. Dark dreams. They’re saying, “Come! Behave badly! In fact, Behave REALLY badly! We won’t tell!” Gamble money you probably should be using to pay off your loan! Stand ankle deep in water with your shirt off, a plastic cup filled with alcohol hanging from a lanyard round your neck! Eat all you like at our groaning buffets—have MORE—it’s okay! We won’t judge you! Enjoy the services of our fine prostitutes! Make bad decisions you won’t remember! Please! Your boss will never know. Your wife will never know. Your hideous urges, repressed all the rest of the year, your most unlovely appetites, your secrets are safe with us.
We know, or we suspect how the winners live in Vegas, the terrible things they do behind the doors of their comped suites, the alleged benefits of being a valued customer, a whale gambler. And I thought I’d take a look at that—the kind of ultra luxury available only to those who can afford a private jet into Vegas, who think nothing of leaving a few million dollars on the tables after a night of gambling.
I knew I’d need a companion, a trusted friend, for perspective—someone well known to security staff and local law enforcement. Someone for whom The Evil That Men Do holds no mystery, a man well acquainted with both the high life of the Vegas Strip—and the dank odor of a holding cell. So I reached out to Ruhlman.
The very nice people at Caesars Palace, well acquainted, no doubt, with Ruhlman’s reckless ways at the blackjack tables, gave us a “villa” for a week. If you don’t know what those are—don’t worry, I didn’t either. You can’t rent them. They don’t “exist” on the web site. When my wife paid me a surprise visit in the middle of the shoot, the front desk expressed total ignorance of even the existence of such structures. But they are there. Massive, colossal maximally luxurious homes, buried right under the noses of the unwitting masses. Multiple bedrooms, living areas, game room, screening room, outdoor fire pits, pools, hot tubs, silent butlers who appear from nowhere to inquire if the gentlemen would like a cocktail, a snack, a couple of giant porterhouses.
Ruhlman, of course, set right to work abusing his privileges. Fine bourbons began appearing regularly. I’d wake to find a trail of spilled beluga leading to the veranda, where a hungover Ruhlman was being simultaneously massaged and manicured, an aromatherapist wafting the oils of rare Himalayan flowers under his nose. Swaddled in newly acquired Hermes bath towels, he’d lounge around the house, calling out for oysters on the halfshell, spaghetti from Raos, blender drinks, steak tartare. I found a half eaten platter of Truffled Lark’s Tongues in Aspic next to the Jacuzzi, the remote control for the giant sized television floating in the dying bubbles on the surface. Under such circumstances, I had a hard time tearing him away for purposes of television.
Who cleans all this shit up, I asked him? “Who is fully knowledgable of whatever it is you’re getting up to, Ruhlman? Who is in ‘the know’? And what do you plan to do to them when you’re done here? If they find out about this back in Cleveland, any plans of running for office are over.”
Noticing the steady stream of people slipping in and out of service entrances of the casinos, I began to wonder what it was like working in Vegas. What was it like dealing the cards, serving the meals, driving the town cars, pouring drinks—stripping the sheets, mopping up the spray after all that bad behavior—in a town that invites bad behavior? What must it be like, day after day, night after night, year after year, witnessing close up the full sweep of human folly—man at his very worst?
What does that do to a person?
So, in addition to immersing myself fully in the delights of high thread count sheets, personal service from Guy Savoy, all the undeserved perks otherwise reserved for oligarchs, I thought I’d look at the Other Vegas. The Vegas people live in year round. The Vegas I’ve always loved.
The Huntridge Tavern, The Double Down, The Peppermill, The Atomic. A nice plate of non-ironic meatballs and spaghetti in red sauce at Bootlegger. Some Northern Thai food at Lotus of Siam. Places where, over a beer or some food, you can get an honest answer to the question: “What’s it like to SEE all that you see?” and “Given what you’ve seen; how do you feel about the human race as a whole?”
Finally, I looked into the relatively new economic engine driving Vegas—one that, shockingly, often outpaces even the slot machines for revenue: I’m talking about the EDM (Electronic Dance Music) scene. I am not surprised that people spend millions of dollars betting on the turn of a few cards or the roll of a pair of dice. There is, at least, the possibility, of a return. But it stunned me to hear of the amounts spent nightly by customers at the larger clubs in Vegas. 5000 dollars simply to sit at a table by the dance floor in many cases. Bar tabs of 10, 20, 30—FIFTY thousand dollars. Oversize bottles of champagne bedazzled with glitter and sparklers sold for 50 and 100,000 dollars, to be sprayed over the heads of total strangers. Star DJ’s who get paid 250,000 dollars for a few hours work a night! (and earn out every penny by bringing in thousands and thousands of knuckleheads eager to spend crazy amounts of money for liquor they hardly touch, shared with people they often don’t know—and couldn’t hear or talk with even if they wanted to). It’s an economy that is fast outpacing gambling—and as only a DJ, a laptop and a sound system are required to pack the clubs, it’s also squeezing out Vegas’ traditional forms of entertainment. Why hire a marquee singer, a troupe of dancers, musicians, acrobats when one guy in a dark booth can generate more excitement and far more money? I wanted to know what kind of sick freaks would spend 25,000 dollars to spray champagne on strangers. I never really found out—but apparently, there are a lot of them.
I couldn’t ask such Big Questions of Ruhlman. When he wasn’t racking up room charges to CNN (he kept calling down, claiming to be Wolf Blitzer), I’d find him at the Gun Store, unloading belt after belt of high caliber projectiles at paper targets. That too, is kind of concerning.
Michael Ruhlman’s latest book: “EGG; A Culinary Exploration of the World’s Most Versatile Ingredient“ is available in fine bookstores everywhere. His most excellent previous works, “CHARCUTERIE”, “RUHLMAN’S TWENTY”, “RATIO”, “THE SOUL OF A CHEF” and others are also available in stores and from Amazon.
“He gave the impression that very many cities had rubbed him smooth.”
The pool at the Grand Hotel del Paraguay is, best as I can tell, unused. Maybe it’s the heat—and the humidity—which are considerable and relentless. Or the lack of a bar, or towels, or staff. But nobody else seems to come. I am alone, waist deep, mesmerized by the heat, torpor, and the thin, black hose that dances around the bottom like a serpent as it pumps fresh water into the deep end. There is a very large parrot in a cage nearby. Occasionally, he screeches at me.
As I’m standing here, too tired to swim, too jet-lagged to sleep, I’m trying to put some thoughts together about Punjab—about the show I filmed months, many airports, many planes, many miles ago, my sun-baked brain, further addled, no doubt by many excellent Paraguayan beers last night, the Vietnamese pain medication I’ve been taking for my back and the anti-malarials I’ve been on since Tanzania (which I’m convinced are making me psychotic. Last night, I dreamed I was being chased by a chain saw wielding Joe Pesci through a convenience store. He was wearing a cocktail dress.) I try to shuffle through my memory file, the highlight reel, for images of India, the foothills of the Himalayas. The Golden Temple. Amritsar…The former hill station of Shimla…
Bit by bit, it seeps back:
First? The colors. In India— Punjab in particular, the thing you notice first, the thing that stays with you is the colors. They pop, they LEAP right out at you. It’s like somebody, just before you got off the plane, changed the lenses in your head, turned up your color receptors from 7 to like…14. You completely understand why The Beatles would want to drop acid, come here—and stare at stuff. Because it’s beautiful and the colors…the colors, man, burn right through your eyeballs and into your brain. No Maharishi needed.
Recognizing this, we made sure, when setting the various color balances for this show, to jack things up, make SURE that it will look for you like it looked for us. Electric. Trippy. And always beautiful. We will be forgiven, I hope, for (yet again), ripping off a favorite director in an early sequence. Call it an homage.
I generally don’t care much what people take away from my shows. Of course, I hope people like what they see. I hope they are entertained—and interested. That they find the images beautiful or striking. It’s nice—very nice—when people notice the good technical work of the directors of photography and the editors and producers. But, I’m not much for attempting to inspire or “enlighten” or educate. That’s far, far from what I’m thinking about when I make sure my carry-on is free of liquids or gels, that my laptop is out of my bag and in the plastic tray, shoes and belt off.
But with this episode, Punjab, it would make me very happy if a few more people out there got a clearer picture of the Sikh religion is. WHO Sikhs are and who they are not. A little about the central concepts and intent and principles of their faith. The degree to which we in the West (myself included) are ignorant of such things is pretty spectacular.
I’ve made much fun of vegetarians over the years and am said, frequently, to “hate” them. This is not true. I am dismissive and (okay) contemptuous of food that is made with ideology or a narrow world view as its first priority. I am made unhappy and even angry when a restaurant that claims to celebrate the vegetable in fact, utterly ignores the seasons, the conditions of ripeness that make vegetables interesting and wonderful in the first place—when such places, with determination and malice aforethought, MURDER vegetable after vegetable, sacrificing carrot after carrot, soybean after soybean to a sludgy, monochromatic, mush.
NOT so in India.
In India, to eat vegetarian is usually a joyous and joyful thing. Bright colors, wildly varying textures, huge selections, thrilling blends of spices and assertive, delicious flavors. Accompanied always by wonderful, freshly made breads. I could happily go veg for a week—or even weeks at a time.
Hope you enjoy the show. Our first of the new season.
And remember: EAT YOUR VEGETABLES!
On Wednesday, December 11th, join anthonybourdain in a conversation with Albert Maysles on food and the art of auteur filmmaking at the New York Society for Ethical Culture. Introduction by Marcus Samuelsson.
Screening clips from Albert’s documentaries and Parts Unknown, including clip from the director’s cut of Tokyo episode!
Proceeds will benefit the Maysles Documentary Center, a not for profit organization dedicated to the exhibition and production of documentary films that inspire dialogue and action.
This is it.
The last episode of our second season of PARTS UNKNOWN.
And I’m glad it’s set in Detroit. Because Detroit, for many Americans, is an abstraction—truly, if incredibly, a part unknown.
One only need look at some of our representatives who, a while back, were actually suggesting that it might be okay to let the beleaguered auto industry fend for itself, to leave Detroit to its fate to see how blithely willing much of America would be to point the gun straight at their own heads and pull the trigger.
Detroit isn’t just a national treasure. It IS America. And wherever you may live, you wouldn’t be there—and wouldn’t be who you are in the same way—without Detroit.
Detroiters hate what they call “ruin porn.” And it’s understandable the unease and even anger that must come with seeing tourists, gawkers, (and television crews) come to your city to pose giddily in front of abandoned factories, public buildings, the symbols of former empire.
I, too, I’m afraid, am guilty of wallowing in ruin porn, of making sure we pointed our cameras, lingered even, in the waist high grass, overgrown gardens, abandoned mansions, crumbling towers, denuded neighborhoods of what was once an all powerful metropolis, the engine of capitalism.
But there was no turning away. It’s there—everywhere you look, right in your face, taking up skyline, dead center: the things that were left after Everything Went Terribly Wrong. These aren’t just empty buildings—they’re monuments. And we shot them, illuminated them like monuments, with, I hope, the same respect as the Parthenon, the Coliseum, the remains of a magnificent—if ancient—civilization.
As much as many of our Detroit fans might have wanted this show to be about what’s going right in their city, neither is it particularly about what went wrong.
We know what went wrong.
The fall of the automobile industry, the shrinkage of population, flight of the middle class, drugs… and some of the most spectacularly, unapologetically rapacious, incompetent and corrupt leadership imaginable.
But I love Detroit. I think it’s beautiful. I think it’s one of the most beautiful cities in America—still. The same incompetence and neglect that led to its current state of affairs has, at least, left us with a cityscape that even now, taunts us with the memories of our once outsized dreams. Unlike most other cities who ran into trouble when steel or textiles or industry left town, Detroit didn’t (or couldn’t ) go on the usual idiot building spree, tearing down old buildings and paving over city center as “pedestrian malls”, ruining the city’s character and stripping its center in favor of the “shopping districts”, convention centers and faux “ye Olde Towne” hubs that so many places imagined would revive their fortunes and instead left their city centers empty, characterless and without heart—looking like everyplace else.
Detroit looks like nowhere else. Detroit looks like motherfuckin’ Detroit. As it should.
I’ll say it again. And again.
I love Detroit. I love Detroiters. You’ve got to have a sense of humor to live in a city so relentlessly fucked. You’ve got to be tough—and occasionally even devious. And Detroiters are funny, tough—and supreme improvisers. They are also among the best and most fun drinkers in the country.
A few years ago, for another series, we filmed a show called “The Rust Belt” but which we jokingly referred to as “The Fucked Up Cities Show. We spent time in Buffalo, Baltimore and Detroit. When the show aired, the responses from Baltimore and Buffalo were mostly outrage:
“Why didn’t you show our new symphony Hall?”
“That’s not the city I live in! Why didn’t you show the positive side? There are great craft breweries in the hipster district!”
Detroiters however, reacted differently.
“We’re WAY more fucked up than those punks,” many told me, with the straight on, confrontational, slightly injured pride that makes Detroiters so..well…awesome. “What are THEY whining about?”
Consensus seemed to be that Baltimore and Buffalo didn’t deserve to be on the same hour of television as their beloved— if deeply afflicted city—because their problems weren’t nearly as massive—and the strength, toughness and sense of humor required to stay loyal to Detroit was of another level entirely.
Looking back, if I were to compare Detroit’s mentality to any other city, I’d look to New Orleans. Both city’s hardcore, born and bred “ain’t never leaving” home teams refuse to even consider living anywhere else—no matter what happens. It takes a special breed.
So, this show is not about what went wrong. Or how bad things are. It’s about improvisers. About what it takes to dig in and stay. I hope, that even among ruins, audiences will see what I see: an extraordinarily beautiful city—unlike any other in America—still. It’s where so many of our uniquely American hopes and dreams were forged—the things that make us who we are: the automobile, the highway—the dream of mobility— for ALL Americans. Credit. Music. It’s where the American Dream was created. And it’s STILL the American Dream—if a different one that we are, all of us, together, sooner or later, going to have to figure out.
Detroit is shrinking.
The artists and innovators, activists, and artisans who are coming in will no doubt, do much to transform the city—mostly in very positive ways.
But who will live in the Detroit of 25 years in the future?
It will still be beautiful. That’s for sure.
It will certainly be smaller.
But will all the tough bastards who stuck it out for so long—against ridiculous odds—who fought and continue to fight for their neighborhoods and their homes—will they still be there?
Those who watch this show, smugly thinking, “that could never happen to my city” are dreaming. Detroit’s problems are America’s problems.
One only need look at New York’s Lower East Side, or Meat District to see what’s possibly coming down the pike for Detroit when it inevitably “recovers”. What’s coming down the pike for all of us.
Empty lots and burned out buildings are bad. But are cupcake shops, galleries and artisanal baristas necessarily better?
Maybe, probably, but maybe not.
And we better ask ourselves if that’s what we want.
Oh. And before I forget. Every time I visit Detroit, somebody asks me if I’ve had a good Coney yet.
Apparently, I never had a great one.
I finally got one.
I understand now.
I love Tokyo. If I had to eat only in one city for the rest of my life, Tokyo would be it. Most chefs I know would agree with me.
For those with restless, curious minds, fascinated by layer upon layer of things, flavors, tastes and customs, which we will never fully be able to understand, Tokyo is deliciously unknowable. I’m sure I could spend the rest of my life there, learn the language, and still die happily ignorant.
It’s that densely packed, impenetrable layer cake of the strange, wonderful and awful that thrills. It’s mesmerizing. Intimidating. Disorienting. Upsetting. Poignant. And yes, beautiful.
Like many of our shows, our Tokyo episode is really not about Tokyo, though it takes place there. It tells two, very different stories:
Naomichi Yasuda is my master, my mentor as far as all things related to sushi, and my friend. For almost two decades, he was the man around whom the eponymous Sushi Yasuda in NewYork City revolved; one of the first, greatest and most important sushi chefs in America. Over many epically delicious meals at his restaurant, he taught me everything I know about sushi. How to eat it. Where it comes from. Which is more important, the fish or the rice? Is fresher necessarily better? Everything. He is also a fan of classic cinema, an intellectual, a deep thinker, and a lifelong practitioner of and competitor in bare knuckle (Kyokushin) karate, both sanctioned fights—and underground matches. His massive fists, enlarged knuckles (from years of pounding cinderblock walls) and terrifying forearms are, to say the least, unusual for a sushi chef.
He is unusual in other ways as well. He was among the first to employ female sushi chefs at his restaurant, a diversion from accepted practice once unthinkable. (Women’s hands were believed, by old school dudes, to be “too hot” to handle sushi without “ruining” it). He was among the first real masters to employ Westerners behind the bar. He was certainly the first acclaimed sushi chef I know of who not only admitted, but proudly boasted of freezing some of his fish, (much of the fish you eat in sushi bars is, in fact, at one point, frozen), giving the dates or “vintage” of each fish he’d blast frozen in a medical freezer to “cure” it in a desirable way. Many varieties of fish, Yasuda taught me, are in fact, improved by freezing.
Perhaps the most unconventional thing he did was disappear. A few years ago, at the top of his game, his always-packed restaurant considered among the best—if not THE best—sushi bar in New York, he announced he would, in his fifties, be leaving for Japan, to start all over again, at the bottom, opening a tiny, modest, low overhead sushi bar in Tokyo, where he could prove himself anew, show Japanese that what he had done in America, he could do in Japan. Sushi Yasuda still runs quite nicely in New York. It still bears his name. It is still excellent. Naomichi Yasuda, incredibly enough, though, says he has nothing to do with it.
He is a fascinating subject and a great chef—with an engrossing story. In this episode, we get to know him a bit, and explore where his unique style comes from. Can the very different disciplines of fighting and sushi making be said to connect? You will be surprised, I think, at the answer.
Like a lot of non-Japanese, obsessed with Japan, Japanese food and Japanese culture, I’ve always been amused, occasionally appalled, and always befuddled by the more lurid aspects of Japanese fantasy, pop culture and expressions of fetishistic desire. Popular comic books, (manga), toys, films, advertisements and entertainments are loaded with images of bondage (shibari), hyper-sexualized schoolgirls, rape, homoeroticism, violation by demons and tentacles—and more (all generally referred to as “hentai”). The honky tonk Shinjuku district of Tokyo seems to promise galaxies of gratification—for flavors of desire that range from the simply eccentric to the absolutely horrifying.
What might this mean? Is Japan simpler crazier and kinkier than we are? Does this detail oriented Sodom and Gomorrah relate somehow to their incredible and varied perfectionist cuisine? And is anyone, in the middle off all this madness, actually getting laid?
On one hand, the Japanese seem to have a much more open, non-judgmental, less puritanical view of sex. Attitudes towards women’s roles in the workplace and elsewhere, however, remain largely mired in the long ago past. Rigorously conventional on one hand, batshit crazy party animals on the other, Japan will always confuse outsiders looking in. Even from close up.
Interestingly, in a recent London Observer article, it is claimed that 61% of unmarried Japanese men and 49% of unmarried women are not involved in any kind of a romantic relationship. 45% of Japanese women polled said they were “not interested in or despised sexual contact”.
With the statistical rise in numbers of “hikikimori”, shut-ins or recluses who have given up on the outside world and live largely on line as avatars, “shingurus” (parasite singles) who continue to live with their parents well into their thirties, and “otaku”, proud members of the growing “geek” culture, fewer and fewer young Japanese seem to be having actual sex—living out their fantasy sexual lives vicariously. Virtual girlfriends, lifelike, custom designed dolls, pillows designed to “hug” lonely singles, all play a part in a broader spectrum of loneliness and desire.
Afraid of rejection, uninterested in the complications of involvement, many Japanese are happy to pay intimidating sums of money simply to be flirted with, assured that they are interesting and amusing, made to feel special—often at “hostess bars” where no actual sex ever occurs.
So in many ways, this show is about fantasy—as much as anything else.
I hope this news will temper, slightly, the reaction of the more easily offended who watch this episode as it contains images and subject matter of a decidedly “mature” and even offensive nature.
This is a “difficult” show. And I hope it doesn’t frighten anyone away from one of the most fascinating and deeply enjoyable places to visit, experience and learn a little about on earth.
It’s easily one of the most brilliantly shot and edited episodes we’ve ever done. Tasked with evoking the work of Japanese auteur Shin’ya Tsukamoto, (“Tokyo Fist” and “Tetsuo, Iron Man”), the ZPZ crew came up with something truly mind-boggling.
If you ever saw the uncut version, your heads would explode.