"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 Bourdain got 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.
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.
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He misses his kitchen, he says as we walk to the car. Not the cooking, necessarily, but the camaraderie after the cooking is done. He misses New York. "But you know," he adds, "no matter where I go, that scene is always the same." He jerks a thumb back over his shoulder, pointing not to a location, but to five minutes ago. "Every kitchen, every night, it ends the same way. In New York, California, Russia, Cambodia. It's always just a bunch of guys standing around in an alley or a parking lot somewhere, smoking dope, bullshitting with each other. Everywhere. It's always the same."
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