It’s not easy to peg Anthony Bourdain in a single statement.
You can try the following: Chef. Nonfiction author. Fiction author. TV host. Consummate traveler. Father. Businessman. At times emboldened and outspoken. Within a moment’s notice, quiet, contemplative and humble. He’s all of that and more, which perhaps explains why the world is so fascinated by him.
WhereTraveler.com caught up with Bourdain for an interview as he was promoting his new graphic novel, “Get Jiro: Blood & Sushi.” And it is indeed graphic, not just in the fact that it is a story told via cartoons in traditional comic-book style, but right from the start, the subject matter is also graphic (the book cover features a sushi display case with decapitated heads). The sequel to 2012’s “Get Jiro!,” the new novel published by Vertigo traces back the story of sushi chef Jiro as he grows up in a Yakuza crime family and seeks his independence.
The connection between Bourdain and comic books might not be front and center for most of his fans, who typically know him for his book “Kitchen Confidential” or for a series of travel programming he’s done for the Travel Channel (“No Reservations” and “The Layover”) and now CNN (“Parts Unknown”). Nonetheless, he says that Japanese culture and graphic novels are part of his DNA.
“As a kid, I was reading comic books and watching early Japanese films, so that was in my DNA going way, way, way back,” Bourdain said. “I was an aspiring comic book collector. I was inspired to create underground cartoons until I was 14 or 15.”
With the “Get Jiro!” series, Bourdain said he had “an impetus to create a world where justice could be served.” The story concept of a sushi chef who defends food culture and preserves his independence came partly from a real-life situation Bourdain experienced.
“I was sitting at a particularly good one [sushi restaurant] by a really well-known chef years ago when a group of wealthy men came in. I saw them pour a dish of soy sauce, dump very high quality wasabi in it and then stir it up into a slurry. Then they started putting their ngiri into that slurry with the rice side down, and I thought, you know in a perfect world, the chef could reach over and slice their heads clean off.”
That idea for a chef’s murderous reaction turned into the opening of the first “Get Jiro!” novel, and in case you’re concerned, Bourdain is clear the Jiro character in his novels doesn’t really pick up any autobiographical elements.
“Look, I’m trying to create graphic novels I’d like to read. Jiro and I both have tattoos and we both like food, but I haven’t killed that many people.”
What he does hope readers pick up on is something that rings out in Bourdain’s travel shows and books—a respect and honor for cultural and cuisine traditions.
“If there is one thing I hope they take away [from “Get Jiro! Blood and Sushi”], it’s that this is a serious enterprise,” begins Bourdain. “If you’re at a really good sushi restaurant, you are seeing a guy who spent years making rice before he could even touch the fish. And you should honor that work. It’s also in your interest. If the first thing you do is mix wasabi into the soy sauce, you’re dead to the chef, and he’s not going to show you his best work.”
So besides avoiding the dreaded soy-wasabi slurry in your shoyu dish, Bourdain says the best experience for sushi if you don’t know all the customs is to ask for an “omakase” service.
“You ask them how to enjoy it best,” he says. “You say ‘Omakase’ and it means ‘You decide.’ The chef will instruct you. Sushi was traditionally a fairly interactive experience. They see what you like and tailor the sushi. The chefs would sometimes even size the sushi based on the shape of your mouth.
"So I always ask the chef, just like I would in any culture, ‘Should I dip this in sauce?’ or ‘How should I taste this?’ It would be unreasonable to expect any Westerner to know all the formalities [of traditional sushi service], so just be polite, be appreciative, and ask the chef to lead you.”
Any final tips?
“Approach it like a tasting menu, but don’t ever ask for a California roll, because that’s not sushi.”
And because your head might roll.
“Get Jiro: Blood & Sushi”, authored by Anthony Bourdain and Joel Rose, illustrated by Ale Garza and José Villarrubia and published by Vertigo (a subsidiary of DC Entertainment/DC Comics), is due out Oct. 27, 2015.
Travel Deeper: Want to learn more about sushi and the real-life sushi master Jiro (certainly one level of inspiration for Bourdain’s character)? Then check out the highly acclaimed documentary “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” from Magnolia Pictures. Available for rental from Netflix and Amazon Prime.
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