At this point in Anthony Bourdain’s career, public insult is pretty much par for the course. Even so, Bourdain’s loathing for Alan Richman is almost unparalleled: Not content to nominate him for a “Douchebag of the Year” award two years ago, he’s dedicated an entire chapter of his latest book, Medium Raw, to the GQ critic. It’s titled, somewhat predictably, “Alan Richman Is a Douchebag.”
In it, Bourdain slams Richman for his decidedly unfavorable review of Les Halles, which was published weeks after Bourdain nominated him for the aforementioned dubious honor. Bourdain describes the critic’s decision to review the restaurant, where he was once the chef and still acted as a consultant, as, metaphorically speaking, “a vicious sucker punch” to “my old girlfriend from junior high — whom I haven’t seen in years.” At the conclusion of the chapter, after tallying Richman’s other crimes (unfavorably reviewing New Orleans’ post-Katrina restaurant scene, etc.), Bourdain writes, “Alan Richman is not a douchebag. He’s a cunt.”
When we contacted Richman to get his thoughts on the matter, he would not comment directly about Bourdain’s book, except to say, via email, “Bourdain is beneath contempt, and his book is beneath commentary.” However, he was interested in addressing a question we had: Why had he chosen to do that Les Halles review in the first place? His answer to that question — and his answers to several others — follows after the jump.
Why did you choose to review Les Halles, which was not a new restaurant or even a particularly distinguished one?
You know, dozens of journalists commented on and speculated about that review when it came out two years ago, but you’re the first to ask me why I wrote it. That was the blog world mentality in action — opinion is better than information.
I clearly had one motive in mind when I set out to write about a restaurant in which Bourdain was involved — to comment on Bourdain. Even back then I felt he shouldn’t be allowed to get away with his unending onslaught of slurs and insults, not just at me. For better or worse, I believe in an old-world system of honor, which doesn’t involve turning the other cheek. At the time, and maybe even now, Les Halles was listing him as its chef-at-large. When I telephoned the restaurant, I was told he acted as a “consultant.” And, finally, he had just filmed a segment of his show in the restaurant. Certainly, that made the place fair game.
I wrote the piece with the intention of getting even with Bourdain. I admit that. But I had no ill-will towards Les Halles. To be honest, Bourdain is such an untalented cook that I expected it to be better than it was when he worked there. Instead, I found an appalling restaurant, one of the worst in New York. Read the review. Even more disgusting than the food was its dishonorable exploitation of Bourdain’s fame. It was serving 600 meals a day, an unimaginable total, and if they were all like mine, nearly inedible. I think, in retrospect, it was one of the most useful and serviceable reviews I’ve written — nobody else had said how dreadful one of the most crowded restaurants in New York had become.
Why did you fail to mention Bourdain’s Douchebag Award in your review?
It was not Bourdain’s invective that I found insulting. It is Bourdain the person that I found (and continue to find) offensive. That’s what I was countering, not his idiotic words. I didn’t care then and I don’t care now what he calls me — he is a man without a vocabulary, capable of nothing except name-calling. Because that word at that time had flashed through his infantile mind was of no concern to me.
Do you think a critic is obligated to mention this sort of thing?
If this were about almost anyone else, I would agree. But almost anybody else would have criticized me intelligently. Bourdain only understands how to call people names. I have no interest in playing by his rules, his words, his mentality. I’m not sure he even has rules. He just randomly insults people. I decided to play this particular game by my rules. Nothing I wrote in that review was untrue, unfair, or uncalled for. My conscience soared.
… Or, for that matter, any past personal history with a chef, whether good or bad?
I think we’re leaving the Bourdain world now, no? That would be a joy if it were so. That’s an interesting question. If we’re talking restaurant reviews, I’d like to think nothing I write about a restaurant has anything to do with prior words I’ve had with a chef, positive or negative. Maybe that’s an impossible ideal. But I try — as I did with Les Halles. Nothing I wrote about the food or the service or the ambience is based on what I thought of Bourdain. Everything is based on what I experienced. I think that’s clear.
But were we to establish your guideline, every story written by every writer would come with a string of footnotes. (e.g. “In 1987, I violently criticized Chef Joe’s spaghetti sauce.”) What would be much more useful, a service to the food world, is for every writer to state how he went about writing his or her review. Did he get his food free? Did he make a reservation through the PR agency? Was the chef called in to cook personally for him? I’d be thrilled with this sort of disclosure. That would be a service.
Do you think you would have written the same review had Bourdain not called you a douchebag?
Absolutely — although I never would have thought to go to Les Halles.
Would you have written the review at all?
If somebody had told me that Les Halles had become one of the busiest restaurants in New York, serving 600 people a day, I absolutely would have reviewed it. I had thought it was a totally insignificant restaurant. I never realized it was packed because of Bourdain’s show and his well-publicized involvement with it.
What were you trying to accomplish by writing the review?
As I said, I had every intention of not letting Bourdain get away with his slurs toward me and others. That comes under the category of “somebody had to do it.” The review was secondary. I admit that. But ultimately it was something I’m pleased I did. I hope it convinced potential customers to stay away and not be taken advantage of by the restaurant and by Bourdain’s fame. For me, it delivered personal pleasure. I know for a fact that for the last two years Bourdain has been seething, waiting to get even, which he attempted to do in his book. His discomfiture, which I always knew existed, has pleased me no end.
Do you feel like you accomplished what you set out to accomplish?
Brilliantly, if I may be modest.
How do you respond to any charges that the review was at worst unethical and at best a low blow?
Is it possible to deal somebody like Bourdain a “low blow”? He is a living, breathing, low blow. That’s all he does. He lives it, exults in it, profits from it. I think my entire story was a towering piece of journalism compared to any written words that emanate from him. Unethical? I should be carried around on the shoulders of chefs for standing up against Bourdain.
In hindsight, would you do it again?
I would be remiss in my duties as a decent human being if I did not.