Anthony Bourdain has no reservations about almost anything. He digs into fermented shark meat with seemingly fervent gusto, he pens books on the culinary underbelly, he is candid about his cocaine-addled days, he lambasts vegans and minces few words while poking fun at celebrity chefs.
Apropos the culinary adventurer and writer, who hosts ‘No Reservations’ on Travel & Living, is one of the most entertaining watches on the channel. In it Bourdain gives a wide berth to fine dining restaurants. He drops into family weddings and local street stalls while travelling through exotic destinations of the likes of Namibia, Tahiti, Uzbekistan or even not so-exotic destinations such as New Orleans, Cleveland and Hudson River Valley.
I had the opportunity of an email interview of one of my favourite personalities when he was filming the fourth edition of his show when he took off to the Greek Islands, Connecticut, New Orleans, London, Scotland, Singapore, Berlin, Jamaica, Romania and Hawaii.
The celebrity chef does not find it exhaustive in the least. “It’s a big, big, big world. I can easily spend 10 years just shooting in China, it’s such a gigantic country with such a diverse culture. Or eat around Italy. Every little village is about an entirely different food culture. There are places that I’ve been before that I wasn’t able to do any kind of justice to in 42 minutes of television that I’d love to go back to,” he says.
Thirty-odd years in the kitchen and Bourdain is Chef-at-Large at New York’s famed bistro, Les Halles. However, he remains a figurehead at best. Notching up on the frequent-flier miles, as often as two to three weeks out of each month and ten months at a stretch through the year, Bourdain says that on the days that he is back home with his Italian wife and small daughter, he is more likely to call out for pizza than doing anything else.
He is breezing through life after having, at one point, spent 15-16 hours in the kitchen. In his blog the 52-year-old points out that it hurts his feelings when the occasional internet poster suggests that ‘whatever I might have to say about food, about travel–about anything–is somehow gravely diminished by the fact that I’m no longer working in a professional kitchen’.
His instinctive reaction is normally ‘a raised middle finger and a “I had twenty-eight years of standing behind a stove – while you were arguing over bundt cake recipes in a chat room, motherfucker! Now, kiss my ass!!”’ It is this colourful use of words that sets his show apart and makes it the only show on Travel & Living to be preceded by a parental warning. Admits Bourdain: “I bring all of my prejudices and preconceptions along with me.”
And even though he is a brand in himself, he likes to keep himself grounded, refusing to ‘sell out’ to commercials. As he introspects: “I was never a great chef. I don’t see myself like Gordon Ramsay or Thomas Keller. I mean I’m very aware of the fact that I’m lucky. I was a mediocre chef and I’m lucky enough to be able to go anywhere I want to go in the world and make television about it.”
Several interesting facets to him come across. Say his love affair with Asia or, for instance, his affiliation with punk bands and the influence in his life of Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones. Says Bourdain: “I try to follow his example. I’m trying to do it all, travel, write, do talks, be a chef as well as I can, but there is no balance in my life. I’m completely dysfunctional.”
He is nowadays busy penning his latest crime novel about a ‘former ’80s “it” boy writer’. Professional globetrotter apart, Bourdain who studied at VassarCollege and graduated from the Culinary Institute of America, is also a writer and a pretty acclaimed one at that. He has been declared international best-selling author of the foodie tomes — Kitchen Confidential (2000) and The Nasty Bits (2006).
It all started out with Don’t Eat Before Reading This, Bourdain’s exposé of NY restaurants in the New Yorker in 1999, which became the basis of the memoir Kitchen Confidential. It catapaulted him to fame almost overnight as it raced through dark secrets of the culinary world and his years as a chef including his addiction to cocaine, heroin and LSD.
Following this in late 2000, he set out across the globe, sampling the still-beating heart of a live cobra and dining with gangsters in Russia among others. He wrote A Cook’s Tour on it and chronicled it into a 22-part television series on the Food Network. In the meantime, he authored other books too including some crime fiction. A deal came about with Travel & Living in 2003 and along with his original handheld-camera crew, he hopped on board.
Maybe it is the salt-and-pepper hair crowning a tall and lean frame and the untamed ‘bad boy’ image or it is simply the fact that he does not go into raptures every time he takes a bite that his show draws one of the highest ratings on the channel. “I don’t try to be an authority or an expert. I come from an oral storytelling tradition in the kitchen. We tell stories to one another and in much the same way I write and talk about my experiences as I travel,” he notes.
Nothing is forbidden on the show. For instance, in an episode you see him all messed up after taking absinthe. He goes back to his Parisian hotel room at the L’Hôtel (famed as the place where Oscar Wilde died) tucked away in the Rue Des Beaux Arts, falls back on the bed, hallucinates and wonders aloud about Wilde staring at the ‘melting, buzzing walls’. In another, The Beirut episode, he and his crew get stuck there during the 2006 Israel-Lebanon conflict (it was nominated for an Emmy Award in 2007).
Now when Bourdain says he has a strong constitution, you believe him. He has tried out daring ethnic dishes like fermented shark in Iceland (they celebrate their Viking roots by eating rotted shark marinated in lactic acid for months), a warthog rectum in Namibia, sheep testicles in Morocco, ant eggs in Mexico, a raw seal eyeball as part of a traditional Inuit seal hunt, and a whole cobra in Vietnam. He has even has eaten a live octopus in Korea. “It grabs hold of your tongue and tries to cling to the side of your mouth as you’re chewing it. That was a little challenging,” he says.
A willingness to sit down with the locals and eat what they offer him is what makes it all so special, emphasizes Bourdain who also happens to be a rather vocal proponent of eating meat. In Kitchen Confidential he calls “vegetarians and their Hezbollah-like splinter faction the vegans”, “a persistent irritant to any chef worth a damn”.
So when he visited India a couple of years back, he did a double take as he came across theVada Pav. “The Bombay Burger, as I call it, doesn’t sound all that promising in theory, but that’s the best thing I have ever eaten. My favourite place though was Halal Market in Mumbai where I tried out street food of minced meat and eggs fried up in chapatti bread and brains,” he avers.
What if his current favourite restaurant is St. John in London, his best eating destination, Singapore, and his comfort food, sushi, he has arrived at a conclusion even while he travels extensively looking for the perfect food. As he puts it: “If I’ve learned anything, you can’t look for it. The perfect meal finds you.”
(A version of this story was published in The Telegraph on July 6, 2008)