Anthony Bourdain with Adem Redzovic after class at the jiu jitsu academy in Lincoln Square. (Team Redzovic)
LINCOLN SQUARE — Famed New York food and travel enthusiast Anthony Bourdain, host of CNN’s Emmy Award-winning television show “Parts Unknown,” spent Wednesday morning wrestling on the jiu jitsu mats at Team Redzovic, 4900 N. Lincoln Ave. in Lincoln Square.
Bourdain, 59, blew into Chicago for the last night of his “Close to the Bone” live speaking tour, which has him performing Thursday night at the Auditorium Theater, 50 E. Congress Pkwy.
While Bourdain hasn’t showcased a jiu jitsu battle on his show yet, he said an upcoming episode from San Francisco will “feature me getting my a-- kicked," which, as a white belt, is part of life.
An enthusiastic novice jiu jitsu player, Bourdain told DNAinfo Chicago he was seduced by his wife, Ottavia, a serious jiu jitsu competitor and purple belt, to try out the mats, where he’s been ever since.
“The gimmick [for an article] was she’d bribe four of her least likely associates, guys who had never seen the inside of a gym, and take them to a free class at Renzo Gracie New York. So she bribed me to do it for purposes of comedy and to everyone’s surprise, I kind of liked it. Eventually, once I could handle the warmups,” Bourdain said with a laugh. “I started joining classes.”
As Bourdain became “addicted” — both to the mental and physical challenge of the art — he began popping into local jiu jitsu schools almost everywhere he went. He even massages his television shooting schedule around his visits to various academies.
“Jiu jitsu is a problem-solving exercise that really appeals to me, and it’s a steep learning curve that I will never reach the end of,” he says. “I know I won’t be a black belt ever in my life. But my goals are to suck a little less at this every day, to get a little bit better every month, and keep having as much fun as I am. It’s a challenge and I like that.”
Thursday's speaking event in Chicago is the last stop in a 10-city tour.
“I like doing it. It’s pretty terrifying to do but also exciting,” he said of being center stage in front of a theater full of people who have paid to be entertained. “To a great extent it’s almost standup; if you’re there for an hour and a half there better be some d--- jokes.”
As for his favorite Chicago things, Bourdain was cagey, making the "smart move" in jiu jitsu terms, when asked about his favorite neighborhood.
“No, no, you know, I’m not touching that. I know enough about Chicago to not get involved in that — I’m not choosing the Cubs or Sox, either,” he said, smiling.
But there are a few places he’s likely to see and food he’s almost certain to eat when he’s here.
“Bars, blues, food and restaurants,” was how Bourdain described Chicago. “Did I mention bars?”
“I like the Old Town Ale House, the saloon,” he says. “It’s both a convivial drinking establishment and home to the magnificent and erudite Bruce Cameron Elliott. He’s proprietor, bon vivant and observer of life’s comedies and tragedies. ... He’s also a terrific writer.”
Bourdain likes Italian beef sandwiches — he couldn't recall his favorite because he's had so many good ones — and believes Chicago hot dogs are “the finest in America.”
But maybe don’t ask about the Chicago's deep dish pizza.
“I hate it. I think it’s an abomination. There are so many awesome things here, I don’t know why that should be featured. It’s leading with your weakness. So much other great stuff, a lot of fine restaurants, a lot of great chefs. What do they call it? The ‘City of Big Shoulders’? Yeah, no doubt.”
Bourdain said Chicago is a restaurant destination city — “a powerhouse.”
“It’s a big city with big city restaurants and you don’t mess around here.”
Beyond the live tour and TV show, Bourdain is putting together a second cookbook and has a new season of “Parts Unknown” coming up this fall. He said as a chef and eater, his tastes are getting simpler as he gets older.
“I like simple food out of a bowl. A good bowl of noodles and I’m happy. Pasta in a bowl, I’m happy.”
A man whose life embodies the concept of wanderlust, Bourdain says outside of the United States, he especially likes traveling through southern and eastern Asia.
“I like Vietnam a whole hell of a lot. It’s beautiful; great food; great people. I keep going back whenever I can. Tokyo, too. Japan is awesome, especially for food. But you know, Spain, Italy, Brazil — it’s big world and a lot of great things in it.”
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