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Wednesday, May 30, 2007 11:47 pm

Hanging with a bad boy

Anthony Bourdain dishes on the secret lives of chefs

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Anthony Bourdain: “I had the luxury of honesty.”
PHOTO BY JOSE CARLOS FAJARDO/MCT
Untitled Document I have to admit, I was nervous. For me, having a private interview with Anthony Bourdain was the equivalent of a diehard Republican’s going quail hunting with Dick Cheney or a NASCAR fan’s getting some one-on-one time with Dale Earnhardt Jr. For those who’ve never heard of Bourdain, he’s a chef and author who for five years has had a “culinary and cultural adventure” television show. “Omigod! You are so lucky!” exclaimed my 22-year-old daughter, excitement vibrating through the phone from half a world away. Ashley, who has been in New Zealand for three years studying winemaking, has worked in professional kitchens and as a personal chef. “Listen,” she went on. “You have to tell him about me. He’s divorced, right? Tell him to come back to New Zealand — I’ll show him places he should have gone when he filmed here.” I reminded her that Bourdain is only a couple of years younger than me, but she couldn’t have cared less. It was astonishing; Ashley’s never been a giggly girl who’d swoon over film or music stars. Bourdain didn’t achieve iconic stature through his cooking. Brasserie Les Halles, the Manhattan restaurant where he’s been executive chef for years, is known for classic French bistro dishes, and though he’s regarded as an excellent, competent chef, he’s not at the same level as such creative luminaries as the Napa Valley’s Thomas Keller, Chicago’s Charlie Trotter, or New York’s Mario Batali. Bourdain cheerfully admits this: “It’s not Superchef talking to you here,” he writes. Bourdain attained stardom after writing about his “adventures in the culinary underbelly,” which also serves as the subtitle of his bestselling memoir, Kitchen Confidential. “In 1999, I was in my midforties, grilling steaks and dunking french fries,” he tells me. “I wrote a short article about life in a professional kitchen for a freebie paper, the New York Press. They were supposed to pay me a hundred bucks, but week after week it kept getting bumped. I got fed up, called them, and said I was pulling the article.” His mother told him to send it to The New Yorker. Finally one night he got drunk and did. Eight years later, Bourdain is still incredulous about what followed: “Who knew? They told me later that an unsolicited submission to The New Yorker has a 1-in-10,000 chance of being published.” He shakes his head, smiling ruefully: “They’re using me as a case study in college writing seminars.” Forty-eight hours after the article appeared, a publisher called, wanting to know whether Bourdain would write a book. Kitchen Confidential became a New York Times bestseller and has been published in 24 languages in 30 countries. Bourdain tells me that it was successful because “I didn’t give a s—-. The only people I thought would ever read it were fellow cooks, so I had the luxury of honesty. My dominating thought as I wrote was ‘Would my fry cook think this is funny and true?’ Suddenly I was getting calls from places like Australia and Peru. I found that cooks are basically the same everywhere.” World-famous chefs invited him to lunch and to go skiing: “This was like Joe DiMaggio calling up to say, ‘Let’s throw the ball around the back yard, sport.’ ”
There’s a gritty element to Kitchen Confidential that some can’t get past. Bourdain is “clever with obscenities,” says food writer Jeffrey Steingarten but has “the values and tastes of a British soccer hoodlum.” I love Steingarten’s writing and his acerbic wit as an Iron Chef judge, but he’s wrong about Bourdain — at least the “British hoodlum” part. Bourdain is much more than a trash-talking cynic. At its core, Kitchen Confidential is a morality tale: A wild, hedonistic kid becomes a chef, squanders his early career in a stoned haze, and eventually eschews hardcore drugs in large part because of the work ethic demanded by professional kitchens. “For me, at the beginning, the restaurant business was like running away with the circus, but it became the only discipline I enjoyed,” he says. “Kitchens are maybe the last meritocracy, the last workplace where your value is only in how well you do your job.”
“My naked contempt for the cooking of the Ewok-like Emeril Lagasse is not going to get me my own show on the Food Network,” Bourdain wrote in Kitchen Confidential — but it did just that. In 2001 the Food Network debuted A Cook’s Tour, which followed Bourdain as he traveled around the world to familiar and not-so-familiar places. Food was a major component of the show, but so were people, their customs, and their cultures. For Bourdain, the experience has been an eye-opener. “I’d been to France a couple times as a kid,” he says. (His father is French.) “I’d vacationed in the Caribbean for years, but I’ve lived in New York my whole life — that was all the traveling I’d done.” The show was highly successful, but after two seasons the network wanted only shows filmed in the United States on such topics as tailgating and barbecue competitions. (The network discontinued virtually all of its foreign/ethnic programming around this time.) Bourdain had become close to the independent filmmakers who produced the show, and they collectively decided to leave the network and invest their own money in programs they’d already planned. The show — now titled No Reservations — was quickly picked up by the Travel Channel and is the channel’s most highly rated series. The show’s format remains the same, and Bourdain continues to imbue it with the mix of cynicism, sensitivity, insight, and perspective that makes his writing so compelling. Most shows make me wish I were there, although occasionally I’m glad I’m not — such as the recent episode, set in Namibia, during which he ate what he tells me was the worst meal of his life: warthog thrown into a fire complete with fur, hacked up, and eaten complete with entrails. Bourdain’s written two more books — A Cook’s Tour and The Nasty Bits (it also contains periodical articles) — as companions to the shows, but each is entertaining on its own. Bourdain’s Les Halles Cookbook has good recipes and is a fun read. He’s also written three novels and a nonfiction work called Typhoid Mary: An Urban Historical. My conversation with Bourdain takes place before his appearance at a Rockford (Ill.) Public Library Foundation fundraiser. More than 1,000 people attend, and sponsors say that it is their only event for which tickets have been scalped. In person, Bourdain is charming, almost mellow. Remarried (sorry, Ashley), he is easily induced to display pictures of his 5-week-old daughter, Ariane. Bourdain readily admits that he was unfairly harsh about Lagasse and that parts of Kitchen Confidential display too much high-testosterone machismo bravado, but after a few minutes of conversation it’s clear that his opinions and perspective are as sharp as ever: “Bad food is fake food. Food that tastes the same in Singapore as it does in Butte, Mont. Generic food. Food that shows fear and lack of confidence in people’s ability to discern or to make decisions about their lives.”
Go get ’em, Tony!

No Reservations airs on Monday nights on the Travel Channel.
Contact Julianne Glatz at realcuisine@insightbb.com.
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