Behind the Scenes: Anthony Bourdain Visits Cleveland

Both cameras go in tight on Anthony Bourdain’s greasy lips, Michael Symon’s sauce-slopped fingers and the heaping plates of ribs, fried chicken and baked beans in front of them. Symon worries aloud that they’re “under-napkined.”
Bourdain gets all territorial about his mac-n-cheese, refusing to share.

It’s 10 p.m. and the two famous chefs are chowing down and cracking up at Hot Sauce Williams on Carnegie Avenue. The meal, along with the rest of Bourdain’s January visit here, is being filmed for the Aug. 27 episode of his
Travel Channel show “Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations,” an eat-a-thon that takes him around the world.

Bourdain, 51 years old and greyhound thin except for an incipient middle-aged paunch, is always slipping out for a cigarette
between takes. “I’m on the Keith Richards diet,” he announces, “eat everything, drink a lot and smoke often.”

Remarks like this are part of his bad-boy persona. On camera and off, the guy, who’s also smart, thoughtful and thoroughly engaging, is quite full of himself and shamelessly addicted to his image.

He’s come to town, along with his three-man crew, at the goading of local author Michael Ruhlman, who challenged Bourdain to meet him on the mean streets of his hometown for a true taste of Cleveland. It’s really an excuse
for the two food-world celebrities to engage in their habitual, highly public and always entertaining name-calling, insult-slinging face off. The merciless teasing, immortalized in print and on television, pits the dependably outrageous Bourdain,
notorious for his X-rated rants, against the prep-school proper Ruhlman, who seems to be wearing a blue blazer even when he isn’t. That’s why Bourdain insists the two of them lunch at Skyline Chili. “He knew I wouldn’t like
it and chose it for comic effect,” Ruhlman says. “He tries to make me out as a snob. But I don’t dismiss the place just because it’s a chain serving mass-produced food. I dismiss it because I ate the chili.”

Happily, the rest of Bourdain’s tour focuses on the city’s more unique destinations, including the West Side Market, Lola and Sokolowski’s. During a stop at The Sausage Shoppe on Memphis Avenue, owner Norm Heinle gives
his celebrity guest a guided tour of the hams, salamis and bratwursts he makes, explaining that he’s one of the few butchers still curing meat the traditional European way — by hand, on site and in his own smoker. Bourdain gets giddy when
he tastes Norm’s headcheese and kielbasa, calling him a national treasure.

He keeps eating the feast Norm’s wife, Carol, spent two days preparing, even when the cameras stop, a sure sign the stuff is beyond good, says Bourdain’s producer Diane Schutz.

While we’re there, an old guy comes in to buy Slovenian sausage, sees the equipment, and wants to know what’s going on. The answer doesn’t impress him: He’s never heard of Anthony Bourdain (so much for star power).
But Bourdain is not insulted. He crows with delight, reveling in the Rust Belt realness of the moment. Our rich ethnic heritage, kept alive in places like this, is exactly what he loves about Cleveland, and he worries that we don’t value it
enough. But not all of Bourdain’s local destinations involve forks.

“American Splendor” creator Harvey Pekar, a local icon if ever there was one, takes Bourdain and Ruhlman to Zubal’s Books on West 25th Street. It’s a warehouse for one of the largest online antiquarian booksellers,
and the building was part of the Hostess manufacturing complex, which ceased operation before John Zubal moved there in 1994. Pipes still contain the cream filling that was injected into Twinkies. Though the scene might not make the editor’s
cut, Pekar got Bourdain to try some by saying, “Since it never goes bad, maybe it’s good for you. Maybe it’s the fountain of youth.”

Not to be outshone, Ruhlman followed suit, but only after his archival took the first taste.

This article originally appeared in our August 2007 issue.