Scott McDermott/Corbis Outline
American cuisine is seeing a return to its roots of humble comfort food. But as Anthony Bourdain points out, the trend is anything but traditional — or humble.

"I'm eating very light today,” Anthony Bourdain says as a waiter pours him some sparkling water. “I’m not even drinking.”

Wearing his trademark uniform of jeans, a casual jacket and an untucked dress shirt, Bourdain has just arrived at Boulud Sud, on New York City’s Upper West Side, following a meeting at CNN. And from here, the acclaimed television personality is heading to his Brazilian jujitsu class, where he’ll invariably be flipped, more than once, upside down onto the mat. So it’s best, he explains, if he doesn’t fill up first. 

Despite the promise of a light lunch, a plate of daintily round, herb-flecked falafel is placed on our table next to an arrangement of smoked-cod roe taramasalata, baba ghanoush and sheep’s-milk ricotta, and an array of olives and house-made bread.

Bourdain has long been circling the world in search of the best food, and one of his latest endeavors, Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown on CNN, has given as much airtime to spots across America, like the Mississippi Delta, Las Vegas and western Massachusetts, as any far-flung locale. This is because elements of traditional American cuisine, from Pennsylvania Dutch dumplings to the spreads of the Great Lakes supper clubs, are enjoying earnest revivals among serious chefs and restaurateurs. But it’s a resurgence of humble Americana paired with a blend of distinctly international flavors — think artisanal soy sauce from Louisville, Ky., or scrapple waffles served in a Tokyo-style izakaya in New York City. And that’s why I’m here today, to get Bourdain’s take on these shifting influences in American cuisine: big-picture stuff. Given the conversation, agreeing to meet at Daniel Boulud’s restaurant, Boulud Sud, which specializes in Mediterranean food with North African, Turkish and French accents, seemed like an obvious choice.

Lara Kastner
Bourdain is explaining that his wife is already an accomplished jujitsu and MMA fighter and that their 7-year-old daughter, Ariane, is learning how to grapple. “It’s a family thing,” he says, swabbing hummus with a wedge of focaccia and smiling. “Ariane’s really good. She’s so far ahead of me in rank. At practice, I’ll be trying to figure out a move, and I’ll look across the room and she’ll have mastered it.”

Granted, he’s at a disadvantage because he travels much of the year filming Parts Unknown, which has been renewed through 2016. Bourdain says the network has been “relentlessly awesome” in letting him tell stories, food-related or otherwise, and he’s traveled everywhere from Quebec to the Republic of Congo. Last season took him through northern Thailand and the Indian state of Punjab, and he recently flew portable drones over the Zanzibar wilderness in East Africa. It’s been a dream, he says, but the ultracaloric intake has spoiled his jujitsu regimen. “It makes it hard if I’m shoving food and liquor in my face for three weeks, and [then] I show up,” he says. The turn toward fitness is an odd new development for the former chef, who likes to say he has never seen the inside of a gym. “It’s just about everything I don’t believe in,” he explains. “[But] I’m sort of hooked.”

Of course, Bourdain has never followed a predictable path. In 2001, shortly after the publication of his groundbreaking 2000 memoir Kitchen Confidential, he left day-to-day work as a line cook at Brasserie Les Halles in New York and became a chef without a kitchen. Television shows soon followed, including A Cook’s Tour, the globe-trotting Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations and every frequent-flyer’s favorite, The Layover. By the time his third book, Medium Raw: A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food and the People Who Cook, came out in 2010, Bourdain was a cook without a country and an outspoken proponent of everything from Hainanese chicken rice to British chef Fergus Henderson’s signature bone marrow-and-parsley salad. Now, he wants to take all the foods he loves the most from his travels and put them under one roof in his hometown of New York City.

In Bourdain’s eyes, international flavors and techniques, as well as an appreciation for true street food — previously considered a lowbrow pursuit — are central to the future of American food. And if all goes well, 2015 will mark the debut of an immense food hall that Bourdain is developing with entrepreneur Stephen Werther. The exact location is yet to be determined (“It’ll be really big, or really, really big,” he says, alluding to continued discussions with property owners), but it will strive to be unlike any of the other recently opened upscale food halls, with inspirations running the gamut, from Syd Mead’s gritty and panoptical Blade Runner designs to versions of the Gustave Eiffel-designed central markets of Europe — albeit ones that are overrun by Asian hawker stands and Latin American mercado vendors. He envisions Ibérico hams hanging in a row and a guy behind a counter cooking seafood on planchas, the flat metal grill found in tapas bars. “I want it to be continually interesting on repeat visits,” he says.

As he’s speaking, a waiter appears with an order of lamb burgers while another refills our water glasses. An older gentleman, a lunch customer, approaches the table. “I enjoyed your show the other day with Daniel,” he says, placing a hand on Bourdain’s shoulder and leaning in. “You have to convince him to make that dish his father made on the show.”

Chef Grant Achatz
Eric Wolfinger
The man is referring to the Lyon episode of Parts Unknown, which was set in chef Daniel Boulud’s hometown in France. The episode was divided into two segments, the first of which focused on an opulent feast — think shaved black truffles and an enormous trolley freighted with pot-au-feu — overseen by Paul Bocuse, arguably one of the world’s greatest living chefs. The other centered on a trip to the rustic farmhouse where Boulud grew up and where, during one particular scene, Boulud’s father created a homey dish consisting of an entire pumpkin stuffed with bacon, cream, day-old bread and cheese, and then baked in a hearth. It’s this deeply countrified recipe that the man, later identified as a Boulud regular, really wanted to try, not the fussier white-tablecloth dishes.

Besides allowing him to fulfill his longtime dream of meeting the venerable ­Bocuse, the Lyon episode reminded Bourdain of the paradox of food, something he sees playing out in American cuisine: Even as it scales new heights of luxury, the more valuable cooking always involves some quotient of comfort. “The engine of gastronomy has always been necessity or need,” Bourdain says. “So even the fine-dining restaurants are becoming more casual, because that’s what people want."

“It used to be that no restaurant would even think of serving any steak other than sirloin,” Bourdain explains, pointing out that a kind of homogeneity was central to old menus. But now, he says, “Instead of sirloin, it’s as far away from that as you can get.”

I mention New York restaurants like The NoMad and Rotisserie Georgette, which have seemingly replaced their big-ticket steaks with bone marrow ravioli or deluxe takes on roast chicken — perhaps the most widely accepted comfort food there is — stuffed with wild mushrooms, truffles and foie gras. This is a departure from the tried-and-true formulas of red meat and Caesar salads tossed tableside.

“We’ve reached a really weird point in American cuisine, at least in the cities, where if you want to eat chicken or tripe, more often than not you go into a relatively expensive restaurant,” Bourdain says. The NoMad’s chicken for two, for example, costs $82.

the fact that chefs are willing to abandon the old rules — and get fantastic results — is one of the driving factors behind American food coming into its own. One theory holds that as food television transitioned from a couple of instructional shows on PBS to a plethora of cable channels saturated with celebrity chefs, it became harder for anyone’s cooking to stand out. As a result, chefs started to craft narratives through food: David Chang of New York’s Momofuku streamlined the kimchee he grew up eating into consommé served with carefully braised heritage pork; Grant Achatz brought the autumnal scent of raked leaves he remembered from his childhood into the dining room at Chicago’s Alinea by literally pairing burning leaves with pheasant and cider. While both became signature dishes 10 years ago, they have gone on to inspire even more chefs to tell deeply personal stories on the plate. “The re-examination of the immigrant experience, what chefs like Roy Choi and Edward Lee are doing,” Bourdain says, referencing two relative newcomers who’ve found success, “it’s going to be the transformative factor [that] redefines what American food is in 20 years. What we define as American food is going to change. It’ll change in big and delicious ways.”

Bourdain puts down his Laguiole knife as the waiter makes table space for an unannounced, extra course: a triangle of folded and fried dough known in Tunisia as brik. It’s stuffed with tuna confit, capers, Gruyère and an egg. Like the bright-green, herb-and-chickpea falafel that was delivered earlier, it proves Bourdain’s point: 25 years ago, Boulud was probably best known for dishes like the one in which he wrapped alternating layers of black truffle slices and sea scallops with demi-glace and puff pastry. He still cooks ornate French dishes like this, but he also does a fine job with lowbrow polenta fries and harissa.

Rather than your typical haute cuisine, restaurants are turning to fancier takes on traditional down-home dishes.
Daniel Krieger

The future, Bourdain hopes, is an ever-broadening palate and better-tasting food. “Look, we like fermented stuff now,” he says, gesturing at the polenta and Moroccan-style garlic-chile sauce, a sign that we’ve drifted far from the days of plain old ketchup and mashed potatoes. “We increasingly like funky cheese, kimchee, aged meats, spicier food,” says Bourdain, referring to the more complex flavors Americans once turned away from, which have now become mainstream, thanks to influential chefs like Chang, Lee, Choi and others. Their hyperpersonal cooking is changing the landscape of American cuisine, winning people over with strong flavors.

Boulud walks into the dining room wearing a blue blazer and a wide smile. His wife recently gave birth to a baby boy, and he wants to share some iPhone photos. “I see you all the time on TV,” he tells Bourdain. “Now that I’m home.”

“Ahh, beautiful,” says Bourdain, scrolling through the snapshots. “Awesome.”

The two make tentative plans to meet up, and Boulud asks if we have room for dessert. Bourdain explains he is due at jujitsu practice, but moments later a server brings over some grapefruit sorbet with a tangle of cotton candy-like sesame halvah and fragrant cubes of rosewater loukoum, harkening back to the ever-humble Turkish Delight.

Bourdain looks over into the open kitchen, where cooks plate the last few lunch orders. I ask him if he ever goes back to the stoves when he eats at restaurants. “I try to avoid it. I see all the young cooks sweating, and I feel like a traitor,” he says. “They’ve read Kitchen Confidential and I feel like I’m not worthy to be in there. They’re working so much harder than I am.”

It’s in kitchens such as these, though, that the engines of gastronomy will burn into new phases. If Bourdain’s theory is correct, American cuisine will have likely renovated and restocked its larder all over again by the time these young cooks are running their own restaurants.

Excusing himself so that he can head to his jujitsu class, Bourdain begins to walk away. At the door, he turns back with a final thought before disappearing onto the bustling Manhattan street.

“I think we’re all a work in progress as eaters,” he says. “I feel I am.” 

Looking Ahead 

Bourdain shares the three most popular trends he’s seeing in American dining today.

Chefs turning smaller cities into culinary destinations. “There’s no doubt that we’re seeing it everywhere,” Bourdain says. “We filmed in western Massachusetts, where a few restaurants do very good craft beer and have cured-meat programs [as well as] a very genuine and heartfelt aspiration toward farm-to-table food.” The chefs behind these restaurants are making their hometowns into destination-worthy food towns capable of holding their own against any of the usual-suspect cities. “They’re not copying dishes they had when they visited Boston or New York,” Bourdain says. “They’re doing it their own way.”

There’s less meat on the plate — and it’s not a problem. “Look at Ludo Lefebvre’s model,” Bourdain says, referring to Trois Mec in Los Angeles, which Lefebvre runs with chef-restaurateurs Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo. “It’s brilliant, because he knows exactly how many people are coming and it’s a tasting menu, so he knows exactly how much food he’s going to serve, practically down to the gram. He’s got a cheese course, but it’s one cheese — it happens to be a very good cheese. But after you eat there, three days later when you look back on it, you realize you ate about four ounces of protein, and it was awesome.”

Regional food gets moved to the center of the plate. Bourdain says that young chefs opening restaurants in a certain place — Detroit, for example — are more likely to pay attention to that area’s regional food traditions in their cooking. “Creative, go-getting people who come in and take something nobody wants and make something everybody wants,” he explains.

Hugh Merwin is the senior editor at New York Magazine’s Grub Street blog. He worked in restaurants for 15 years and currently lives in Red Hook, Brooklyn, N.Y.