Anthony Bourdain on why NYC’s restaurant scene would have been “unthinkable 20 years ago

Anthony Bourdain Food Hall
Anthony Bourdain

Anthony Bourdain has spent roughly the past 15 years in the limelight as a television personality exploring the world, but before that he spent two decades in New York City kitchens, culminating with a stint as the executive chef of Brasserie Les Halles.

Business Insider recently spoke with Bourdain, and he told us that when he looks at the New York restaurant scene today, he’s amazed.

“It’s come so, so, so, so far in just my lifetime,” he said. “So much of what we have now would have been unthinkable 20 years ago, 25 years ago when I was still in the business.”

He embraces what a generation of young hipsters have created in Manhattan and the outer boroughs, a culture that has also manifested in other parts of the country.

“You’ve got tattooed young people all over the city and all over the country making their own sausages, curing their own meat, and rotting things in their cellars, and they’re acutely aware of the seasons and are aping obscure subgenres of like Basque-specific restaurants,” he said. “It is a wonderful thing.”

When Bourdain looks at the New York food scene today, he sees a significant portion of customers who care about the chefs and cooks making their food, and this has in turn made these customers more adventurous.

Celebrity chef culture was in full swing in the ’90s, but not in the same way it is now. The 1991 novel “American Psycho” and its 2000 film adaptation, for example, famously satirizes the high-end restaurant culture of the time by having characters obsessed with getting a reservation at the latest hot restaurant, simply because it was the popular thing to do.

What Bourdain is saying is that the same fervor for restaurants exists now, but for better reasons.

He explained that the “admittedly bizarre and frequently hilarious celebrity-chef phenomenon” has allowed chefs “to cook as well as they know how, because people are interested in their best game now. They’re not showing up at their restaurant saying, ‘I’d like the chicken.’ They come in wanting to try Eric Ripert‘s food or Daniel Boulud’s food and they don’t go in there with a specific menu item in mind. I think that’s a really important change in the landscape over the last 20 years.”

Contributing to this change in tastes is the fact that the current batch of 18-35-year olds, millennials, are more interested in “experiences” like a meal at a fine restaurant than a big purchase like a luxury handbag, studies like one from Eventbrite have found. And New York City, with its endless supply of restaurants and young people with disposable income, is the perfect breeding ground for a new wave of foodies.

This generation has also grown up with fears of processed and genetically modified foods, stoked by books like “Fast Food Nation” and films like “Food, Inc.,” which has enhanced the power of buzzwords like “artisanal,” “locally sourced,” and “non-GMO organic.”

Bourdain finds this to be the main downside among hot places in New York. “You’ll hear the name of the farm, the name of the farmer, what my cattle was fed,” he said. “I don’t need to know all that.” But it’s a small price to pay, he said.

“I’m glad that people are aware and think about these things, and I’m glad when waiters and servers know,” Bourdain said. “And I’m glad that chefs are making the real effort to get the best quality ingredients and that the public is more and more likely to appreciate it and even understand it.”