It’s a Thursday night in New York City, and I’m sipping beer and chatting with chef Anthony Bourdain in his downtown restaurant Les Halles. Pretty typical night for a comic book reporter, right? Well, of course not – but this was a launch event held by Vertigo Comics for Bourdain’s new graphic novel ‘Get Jiro’. The OGN, co-written with Joel Rose, and art by Langdon Foss, takes the title character on an odyssey through a chef controlled apocalyptic future, where getting a reservation at the right restaurant is better than cash, and food is observed like sport.
So naturally, we were parked in a box looking over the masses eating Bourdain’s down to Earth take on French food, while chomping away on wild boar pate, and eating bone marrow flecked with large, tasty salt crystals. Oh, and drinking a beer with the most iron stomached man on television. After stowing a few snacks, and grabbing an extra drink, I sat down with Bourdain to chat about the book, his background in comics, and what the most cardinal sin you could commit to sushi is – and why it’ll make you lose your head:
MTV Geek: Why a comic book? Why a graphic novel?
Anthony Bourdain: I’m a comic nerd. I’m a former serious collector for much of my childhood and early teen years I wanted to draw underground comics. I worshipped R. Crumb, and the San Francisco underground artist who hit just as I was approaching puberty. It’s a dream come true! What red blooded American boy wouldn’t do a comic book if they could?
Geek: So why’d you give up comic books then?
AB: I couldn’t draw as well as I wanted to! My work suffered by comparison to my heroes.
Geek: Then how did ‘Get Jiro’ get set up? Did you approach DC and Vertigo, or did they approach you?
AB: Joel Rose, my co-author and I were talking for a long time, and we went to Vertigo with a number of extremely unreasonable demands about the kind of art and color we wanted, and the kind of package we were looking to do, and… They said yes. The end package – the work that the artist did – came out so much better than we could have hoped.
Geek: Where did the story come from? What was the genesis of the idea?
AB: I love Dashiell Hammett’s Harvest, classic spaghetti westerns, samurai flicks… And I also spent thirty years as a chef. So it’s a mash-up of interests. I wanted accurate depictions of food, and lots of violence! [Laughs] Very early on, I knew I wanted to really accurate, have something to do with a sushi chef, and I wanted there to be lots of blood. That required creating a world where those two could come together.
Geek: Talking about a specific sequence in the book, at the beginning three guys come into Jiro’s sushi restaurant, and let’s say… Order poorly. I actually had sushi right before reading the book, I read that, and thought, “I feel so bad right now.”
AB: Look, ordinary sushi bar, they’re used to it. But old school. Serious. Somebody who’s worked seven years just learning to cook rice, who takes pride in working and working and trying to perfect the same thirty cuts of sushi… That’s their life. They really don’t like it when you abuse their product. Most of them are polite about it, but there are a few notable cases… There’s a guy in LA who rather famously is unhappy if you order a California Roll. There’s a guy in New York, too. There are a few people like that, who make their unhappiness known.
I feel for them! Having been a chef for some many years, I understand what it’s like to work really, really hard to get good at something, only to have someone piss all over it. In my heart of hearts… Lopping somebody’s head off, for taking your first piece of nigiri and letting it soak in this slurry of wasabi and soy… That’s not an unreasonable reaction. I mean, in the little dark voice in my head? I can kind of understand that. I’ve sat in sushi bars, really fine ones, and I know how hard this guy worked, how proud he is. I know you don’t need sauce. I know he doesn’t even want you to pour sauce. And I’ve seen customers come in and do that, and I’ve seen him, as stoic as he tries to remain, I’ve seen him die a little inside.
So I think, wouldn’t it be cool if, without comment, he reached out and lopped that a**holes head clean off? And wouldn’t it even be cooler if the other two dutifully remained eating, rather than lose the possibility of returning for another visit.
Geek: Here at Les Halles, what would the cardinal sin be for customers?
AB: There are no sins here. This is a rustic, old school… There’s the French chef in the book, who runs a dirtier, sloppier version of this. This is old school French working class food. This is what I loved about it, and this is what I think Jiro loves about his friend in the book. This is the sort of place you can leave some sauce dribbling off the rim. You’re honoring traditions, you’re honoring old recipes, you’re honoring a style of restaurant that at one time was almost ubiquitous in France.
There’s almost something beautiful about that, too. I’m not saying you can behave as badly as you want here, but if you want to dump ketchup all over your steak taratre, no one is so far up their own a** here that they’re going to complain about, or even feel hurt – they’ll shrug.
Geek: Talking about the French restaurant in the book – as well as the end, with two chefs sitting on a beach enjoying a taco, it sort of felt like you were saying the simple pleasures are best… Is that sort of the moral of ‘Get Jiro’?
AB: Well, there’s definitely no moral in the book, but I think it’s a universal truth that most chefs I know are happiest eating simple, unadorned good things.
Geek: How about the warring factions in the book – the militant vegans, and the haughty-taughty restaurant… Is that where things are heading at all in real life?
AB: I don’t think so, it’s an exaggerated riff on the worst of douche culture. Any place there’s a velvet rope and bottle service, it’s not hard to imagine that kind of a world. [Laughs] I mean, we deliberately took it to extremes.
Geek: Regular people don’t get off too well in the book, either…
AB: Again, it’s a savage and unrealistic take on reality. But on the other hand, if you go to working class, and working poor areas of America, the food sources that are relegated to them are generally limited to unhealthy ones. There’s no doubt, it’s a mean take on what is left of the poor. But what is left of the poor? Try to buy a fresh f**king vegetable in West Baltimore. It is a not completely inconceivable scenario in the future, we’ll all look like that… Waddling from convenience store to fast food outlet, chewing mindlessly on 99 cent hamburgers.
Geek: The story gets wrapped up nicely in the book, but the world of Jiro is left pretty open. Would you want to come back for a sequel?
AB: Totally! Doing graphic novels is cool! It’s fun! You get to write something, and then see it visually page by page, panel by panel, working with the artist, you get to see it fleshed out. That was deeply satisfying. Most importantly, it was fun. Hell yeah, I’d do more.
Geek: So talk about the art a little bit, then.
AB: We had high expectations. We were d**ks about it. We wanted our choice of artist, and we wanted something good, and someone capable of the kind of detailed work – the attention to culture and culinary archania that we thought was important to the story. In no way were we prepared for awesome Langdon Foss’ work would end up being. It way above and beyond. He was hunting down historical details, adding things to the story… I can’t say enough how much, and how important his work is. It’s everything.
Geek: One of the things I’m a big fan of when I read cooking manga – and here in this book too – is the attention to detail with the food; that you almost stop the action dead in the middle of the book to present a few carefully done recipes.
AB: It’s clearly something that’s important to me. Getting it wrong, it offends me. If I see someone get it wrong in a movie, a book… Anything, it pisses me off. So we wanted to get that right. I ma who I am, there’s thirty years of it, I’ve got no excuse. I want certain things to be right. I’m also a guy who – I’m not going to say I’m particularly knowledgeable, or an expert on Japanese food – but I’m certainly enthusiastic about it, and I’ve had by most standards a lot of exposure to it here and in Japan. So I at least want to do the most I could to honor it. I’m sure one of the frustrations of being a Western enthusiast of Japanese food and culture is you’re confronted every day with the absolute certainty that you will die ignorant. [Laughs] But it’s a joy to scratch away at it.
Geek: If you could have people take away one thing from ‘Get Jiro,’ what would it be?
AB: Don’t dunk your nigiri in the soy sauce. Don’t mix your wasabi in the soy sauce. If the rice is good, complement your sushi chef on the rice.
Get Jiro hits comic shops Wednesday, June 27th from Vertigo!