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Bite Me

Cook's Tour

"I wanted the perfect meal. I also wanted -- to be absolutely frank -- Col. Walter E. Kurtz, Lord Jim, Lawrence of Arabia, Kim Philby, the Consul, Fowler, Tony Po, B. Traven, Christopher Walken...I wanted to find -- no, I wanted to be -- one of those debauched heroes and villains out of Graham Greene, Joseph Conrad, Francis Coppola, and Michael Cimino. I wanted to wander the world in a dirty seersucker suit, getting into trouble."

-- Anthony Bourdain, A Cook's Tour

Anthony Bourdaingot his wish. From the neon-bright midnight pulquerías of Mexico to the clean white tablecloths of the French Laundry in Napa, from blazing away drunkenly with automatic weapons at the Gun Club in Phnom Penh to knocking back iced vodka shots at a traditional banya outside of Saint Petersburg to a failed attempt to recapture a moment of his youth in the tiny French oyster village of La Teste-de-buch, he's wandered the world getting dirty and causing trouble.

He's the host of A Cook's Tour, one of the Food Network's top-rated shows; a best-selling author; a reluctant celebrity. Before that, he did 25 years as a cook in some of the best and worst kitchens on the Eastern Seaboard. To much of America, he's just another funny New Yorker, a little scary, a little dangerous, entertaining as long as he's not sitting in their living rooms drinking their whisky and eying their house pets. To kitchen people, he's one of our own -- someone from the home team who finally made the bigs.

"I wanted to see the world, and I wanted the world to be just like the movies," he says. And when whatever God it is that handles the affairs of ex-junkie line cooks and itinerant pleasure-seekers decided it was time for Tony to be granted his wish, he milked it for every thrill it was worth. Like any good American, he did it with a camera crew in tow; like any good adventurer, when he came back, he came with a book: A Cook's Tour, the followup to his best-selling screed/memoir Kitchen Confidential.

Earlier this month, the Anthony Bourdain publicity machine rolled through my old home base of Albuquerque for a fancy-pants combination book-signing and wine-pairing dinner. "You're coming, right?" my former editor asked. "You've got to be there."

I didn't need much convincing. I also didn't need the stupid, twisting nervousness in my gut -- like some high school girl on prom night -- as I waited to meet the guy who'd walked point for me in the long, crooked crawl up from the rotten hell of utility chefdom into the weird world of food writing. As I lay on a hard bed in the Days Inn, watching the slowly rotating blades of a ceiling fan and counting the minutes, I relived the opening sequence from Apocalypse Now. "Everyone gets everything he wants," I heard Captain Willard saying. "I wanted a mission. And for my sins, they gave me one..."

The Vietnam references, the movie quotes, the wide-eyed, lobotomy-shock look of a little kid alone in the front row at the theater, overwhelmed by everything he sees on the screen -- all that is hard to get away from when you're dealing with Bourdain. Because he's that kid, too. Up at the podium at the Prairie Star restaurant, making his required speech to a packed house before dinner, he fidgets nervously, drumming his fingers, playing with the gold ring on his thumb. "People always ask me if this is hard," he says. "All this traveling and these dinners and the book signings, and I'm like, 'Compared to what?' Compared to cooking brunch for 500? To sitting in some septic basement prep kitchen fluting mushrooms for twelve hours for some drunken, psychotic French fascist?" And then he launches into his spiel about the places he's been and the people he's met and how lucky he was to get a shot at doing everything he'd ever dreamed of doing -- even when those dreams weren't terribly accurate.

"Like Morocco," he explains later at our table, between courses. "I wanted to ride a camel across the desert like Lawrence of Arabia in the movie, only to find out I'm in the wrong fucking country."

One minute he's at our table and the next he's across the room, shaking hands or trying to grab a quick smoke while some trollish little woman tries to get him to sign her boob. He's living like a rock star, in a different city every night. "Almost everywhere I go, there's some psychotic line cook or friendly bartender who recognizes me from the Food Network and wants to buy me a cocktail," he says. "I haven't paid for a drink in years."

In person, he's the same man you've seen on TV downing shots in some mobbed-up Russian nightclub or blowing things up in Cambodia. He's a foulmouthed, hard-drinking chain smoker; he's naive about anything outside of his native New York City but curious about everything. And he's also much more.

"He does this everywhere," one of his handlers tells me, gesturing at Bourdain working the room. "Everywhere we go, he shakes everyone's hand. He talks to everyone. He always goes back and meets the guys in the kitchen." He does the daily talk shows and spits out his standard three-minute clip, answering questions about fish on Mondays and the perils of Hollandaise sauce, but he can also sit at a table and quote from Shakespeare, GoodFellas and The Simpsons with equal facility. His photographer tells me that he reads a book a day.

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