Photo: Anthony Bourdain.
American chef, author, and television personality Anthony Bourdain is just as cool as he seems. Dressed in all black with a pair of well-worn Converse high tops, he sits comfortably at the Wythe Hotel in Brooklyn, musing upon the nature of rare craftsmanship.
Bourdain has partnered with The Balvenie Single Malt Scotch Whisky, arguably the finest in the industry, to host the 2017 American Craft Council Rare Craft Fellowship Awards. The event brings together craftspeople from all walks of life who share a love and passion for the mastery of age-old traditions that take time, patience, and skill, along with a gift for handwork that belies the illusions of progress.
Amara Hark-Weber, who hand-makes shoes and boots in her one-woman shop, was selected as the winner of the 2017 award. Bourdain, the lead juror, observed, “It’s always difficult to narrow it down to one winner, but what spoke to me about Amara is how she honors the tradition of her craft, while bringing exciting innovation to her designs. With only the use of her hands, leather and a knife she can create these shoes that are works of art.”
Bourdain sat down with Crave to share his thoughts on the art of craft, from scotch whisky to cowboy boots.
How did you come to partner with Balvenie?
Anthony Bourdain: They reached out to me and thought I had been approached with various opportunities to endorse or associate myself with products over the years, I always said no but this was a case where I liked and respected the whiskey, and it was a very cool project. To highlight people doing things the hard way: that appealed to my notion of the way the world should be.
Everything is against it. Everything we know, everything we hear teaches us the market forces in the world all tell us we are fools to do it the hard way when, “Look! Look what’s selling.” Why should anyone go against that tide but they do.
What do you most enjoy about the process of distilling, if you will, the people you selected as finalists for the ACC Rare Craft Fellowship Award?
Anthony Bourdain: I have a natural affinity for certain craftspeople. Like Frank Shattuck, the tailor: I knew of him long before he appeared on the series. I lusted after his suits since I was still a line cook and I met him at a bar and people were saying (Whispers), “That’s Frank the Tailor. He made the suits in Goodfellas.”
They’re all fools and romantics in the best sense of those words.
It’s a personal connection then?
Anthony Bourdain: Well, I see myself as a fool and a romantic so—YES!
So their passions overlap yours?
Anthony Bourdain: It’s perhaps more interesting when it’s a craft I never thought about before. You see something you never cared about and then you touch it and gaze upon it and realize, “Wow! I never thought I needed this but apparently I do!”
Someone who is really truly awesome at something, I respond to that, and physical beauty—even in a pair of shoes. I never really cared about shoes but now I do because I met some people who make incredible footwear. That’s something I never noticed.
What do you think distinguishes craft from art?
Anthony Bourdain: Art implies a provocative or innovative instinct. It’s not necessarily at the service of anyone. It’s a pure expression. To me, in a perfect work, art causes the people who look at it to run out in the street and get into fistfights over whether its art or not. There was a father/son team we highlighted who did origami: is it art or is it craft? These were incredibly elaborate pieces. Is it art or is it craft? Who cares! They are gorgeous!”
What are the qualities of personality, practice, and process that make a master craftsman?
Anthony Bourdain: I think a hopeless romanticism, these days in particular, you kind of have to be to do something by hand as opposed to doing it like everyone else. If you’re making shoes by hand from scratch, it’s a potentially unrewarding and foolish enterprise. The fact that you insist on doing it the hard way and adhering to the old school like that—that’s an instinct beyond the profit motive.
I think that’s a common thread with everyone we’ve been highlighting. They’re not in it for the money. Nobody told them, “Hey, here’s the fast track to success.” They’re all people who resisted that, in fact.
They’re all true believers?
Anthony Bourdain: You have to be.
Miss Rosen is a journalist covering art, photography, culture, and books. Her byline has appeared in L’Uomo Vogue, Vogue Online, Whitewall, The Undefeated, Dazed Digital, Jocks and Nerds, and L’Oeil de la Photographie. Follow her on Twitter @Miss_Rosen.