By Jonathan Shikes
By Alex Brown
By Cafe Society
By Samantha Alviani
By Lori Midson
By Mark Antonation
By Loren Lorenzo
By Nate Hemmert
He's spent most of his life in the claustrophobic confines of one kitchen or another, and he's lived in the same New York apartment for twenty years without ever getting to know the names of his neighbors on either side. "It's just the couple with the ugly kid and the couple with the slightly less ugly kid," Bourdain says. "I don't know them. This is the first time I've been to New Mexico, you know?" He pauses. "This is the first time I've been anywhere."
Back at the table, he talks about travel. About what it's like suddenly becoming a celebrity ("It's better than brunch"), about things from his Food Network show that ended up on the cutting-room floor. "Pig fisting," he says. "American audiences weren't quite ready for that." Also scenes of him throwing up in Mexico, in France, "drooling bile into the black water" with his head hanging over the side of a sampan in Vietnam. And then there was the time in Russia when his cameramen forgot to get the shot of him and his translator, Zamir, walking into the big fancy restaurant and greeting the big fancy owner. Unfortunately, by the time his producers realized this, both Bourdain and Zamir were done with dinner and had already put away a couple of bottles of high-test Russian vodka. It took twenty takes for them to get it right, and even in the last one, "we were doing fine until the last second, when, mid-sentence, I disappeared out of the frame in a sudden exit, stage left." He'd fallen off the curb.
After everyone else leaves, Bourdain sits in a closed section of the restaurant with the kitchen crew, drinking lemon drops and draft beer out of plastic cups and talking food. He speaks of his passion for French charcuterie, for organ meats and all those nasty bits of an animal left over when the rich and powerful have had their fill. The Prairie Star's owner hands everyone another shot, and we all knock them down in one swallow, stacking the cups upside down on the table as has been done at every back-of-the-house drunken bull session that's ever happened anywhere for as long as there have been cooks and liquor.
One of the kitchen crew asks Bourdain whether he still cooks at Le Halle, the New York City brasserie where he continues to hold the title of executive chef. "No," he replies. "I'm useless now. My cooks, my carnales, they just make fun of me. Call me 'Pinchay Famoso' while I swan around the dining room signing autographs."
Laughing, he veers off on a rant about the most overused things in any kitchen and what people are really getting when they think they're getting thousand-dollar-a-pound shaved black truffles on their $6.99 field-green salad. "Portobello mushroom gills," he barks. "Am I right?" Every cook in the room grins and nods, every one of us guilty. "They're getting chunks of gill jacked up with truffle oil."
Everyone asks about the worst things he's had to eat -- the worms, the heads, the still-beating heart of a cobra -- and he obliges with suitably awful tales from across the globe. Then I ask him about one of the best: the epic tasting menu Thomas Keller served at the French Laundry. "That guy breathes different air," Bourdain says. "He's like Kane from Kung Fu. He just operates in a whole different world."
"It was the first time I ever saw you speechless," I say.
"Did you see Ripert?" Bourdain asks. Meaning Eric Ripert from Le Bernardin, in New York. "They barely shot him at all. He couldn't talk the whole night."
Bourdain knows he's on a limited run. That this -- the books, the TV show -- will go away soon and that two years from now, everyone will be saying, "Tony who?" So he's milking it for all it's worth, he says, having just signed another deal with the Food Network for twenty-some new episodes of A Cook's Tour.
While the party staggers outside to the parking lot behind the restaurant, Bourdain keeps talking about the show. He talks about getting stoned in Jamaica, an episode where he went to New Orleans and had "people coming up to me in the street. Like these little old ladies walking by who see me, then punch me in the nuts, saying, 'How could you be so mean to Emeril?' It's fucking funny. I'll tell you, we're doing some really wild shit this time."
There's this guy living in Pittsburgh who's an ethnic Pashtun warlord from Afghanistan, and he wants to find the guy and go back with him. "Thing is, the guy is also a huge Metallica fan," Bourdain says. "So I want to be sitting there with him, just eating warlord food and jamming out to Metallica in the middle of a war zone."
It's now after midnight, and Bourdain has a 5 a.m. flight to Austin. He shakes hands all round and tells the guys from the kitchen that he's had a great time. "Maybe I'll come back here to shoot a show in New Mexico," he says, and the boys cheer.