Anthony Bourdain is exactly what you’d expect.
In his private dressing room before his latest book tour appearance, Bourdain stands in the middle of the long, white space holding a nearly empty Red Stripe bottle. The room is mostly bare, save for a row of naked lightbulbs, a bucket of imported beers soaking in a bath of melting ice water, a potentially inebriated announcer pretending to sleep in the back of the room and, of course, Bourdain.
An unspoken cue. With one last swig of beer, the interview starts.
Bourdain is witty, charming, controversial and deep. Everything you would imagine him to be. A few references to food porn, a handful of f-bombs and nearly a tear shed when asked if he hates being away from his wife and daughter so often, but overall he is exactly the guy you know from his Travel Channel hit No Reservations and his new show, The Layover.
Then, after a quick iPhone picture, he gets up, walks a few steps away to the dressing room’s bathroom and haphazardly shuts the door. He only gives half a glance over his shoulder to see if anyone is around—and, of course, there is. But no matter. There’s a show about to start and who has time for closing doors?
As the lights dim in the sold-out theater, Bourdain nonchalantly strolls on stage in his gray shirt, sport coat and well-worn cowboy boots to significant applause from a crowd of obsessive foodies and viewers. After a quick shot of vodka with his Russian announcer and friend Zamir, he addresses his fans.
“I am a whore. I am, in every way, compromised, jaded, bought and paid for, including my nice f—ing jacket.”
It’s that honesty and raw authenticity that resonates with Bourdain’s loyal cohorts. Despite his overtly Hitchens’ stance on religion and profound usage of phrases that would make your grandma squirm in her knit socks, Anthony Bourdain may be one of the few men who truly “gets it.” Even the most prudish of his fans can’t help but respect his high level of honesty as he openly speaks about the mistakes he’s made and the lessons he’s learned from them.
It’s refreshing. Enigmatic, even.
Anthony Bourdain grew up the son of a New Jersey Columbia Records executive; his childhood was mildly spent listening to early Beatles albums and watching movies like The Red Balloon and Old Yeller.
“I did not want for love or attention,” he wrote in his latest book, Medium Raw. “My parents loved me. Neither of them drank to excess. Nobody beat me. God was never mentioned—so I was annoyed by neither religion nor church nor any notions of sin or damnation. Mine was a house filled with books, music—and, frequently, films … In school I was not bullied any more than the next kid—and maybe even a little less. I got the bike I wanted for Christmas … I was miserable. And angry.”
Bourdain’s ever-growing angst led him down a path of his own making. After summers spent working in resort-town kitchens in Cape Cod, experimenting with drugs and dropping out of Vassar College, he enrolled in the Culinary Institute of America (CIA). He worked his way up in the culinary world, starting as a dishwasher, a “prep drone,” a line-cook and, eventually, a sous chef. After graduating from the CIA, he landed jobs at the Supper Club, One Fifth Avenue and Sullivan’s before scoring a job as the head chef at Brasserie Les Halles in New York City, where he wrote his unintentionally-award-winning book Kitchen Confidential that took a stab at his profession with spilled secrets and witty, incisive commentary on the seedy underbelly of the food industry—plus a few blows to the personalities who litter the line-up of the Food Network.
The Best Job Ever
It was this book—and all its frankness—that truly started Bourdain’s career. His honesty was contagious. People couldn’t get enough of this lovable misanthrope. Book tours led to TV spots, which led to him getting his own show on the Travel Channel, No Reservations. Now in its eighth season, the show has transformed Bourdain from a struggling-to-pay-the-rent chef into a cult-culture celebrity with arguably the best job on the planet.
Bourdain travels the world eating amazing and exotic meals with interesting people in far-flung locations. He is given seemingly unprecedented freedom to speak his mind about whatever he wants. And the show affords him the opportunity to offer insightful commentary on the outrageous personalities and places defining the international cultural landscape. After all that, he comes home to a nice paycheck and a night spent with his wife and daughter in New York City, then does it all again.
His passion? Experiencing cultures—fully experiencing cultures. When asked about his favorite aspects of the job, a certain giddiness comes over this generally even-keeled man. “I like to eat what’s good and what’s considered good by the locals where it’s good,” Bourdain says. “If I’m eating pho, I like to eat a good bowl of pho in Vietnam, sitting on a little plastic stool with Vietnam in the background. I want to smell Vietnam, I want to hear it, and I’d like to see it in a perfect world. I think it is a major component of the experience.”
Through his travels, Bourdain reveals the secret to transcendent experiences and authentic community: the common table. Whether in Tuscany or Taiwan, more often than not he is filmed sharing a home-cooked meal with a group of similarly passionate hosts in their home. The conversation bounces between religion, culture and history as plates of hand-rolled pasta or garden-fresh vegetables are passed between glasses of some kind of local alcoholic beverage.
While Bourdain may not be searching for meaning in each situation, he inevitably finds it. In his book The Nasty Bits, he writes, “As you move through this life and this world you change things slightly, you leave marks behind, however small. And in return, life—and travel—leaves marks on you. Most of the time, those marks—on your body or on your heart—are beautiful. Often, though, they hurt.”
For Better or Worse
It’s obvious to see how much Bourdain has been changed throughout the years. Now on his fourth passport in a decade, a certain sense of purpose has taken over this once wild and untamed chef. For starters, he has been sober from illegal substances for a while and recently kicked his lifelong smoking habit. And most importantly, he has become a father.
“It’s all about the little girl,” Bourdain says of his 5-year-old daughter, Ariane. “I am acutely aware of both her littleness and the fact that she’s a blank page, her brain a soft surface waiting for the irreversible impressions of every raised voice, every gaffe and unguarded moment. The fact that she’s a girl requires, I believe, extra effort.”
While some may say his wife and daughter have caused Bourdain to “mellow,” Bourdain insists fatherhood has offered him a further sense of enlightenment.
“You’ll notice a suspiciously high number of shows filmed in Italy over the last few years,” Bourdain says as he reveals that he now brings his wife and daughter on as many trips as possible, especially trips to his wife’s homeland where they spend time with distant and immediate relatives. “We’ll stay in one place so I can go to work every day and come home to my family. It’s nice.”
Bourdain has never been what people want him to be, and he will continue to be so—unapologetically. So now, when people are wanting more than ever to see their bad-boy chef take on another Food Network star in a verbal battle of who-deserves-their-foodie-fame-more, he can be found instead sharing a meal and a glass of good wine around a common table with his wife and daughter, discussing their travels and adventures to come.
Would You Rather …
Anthony Bourdain is used to making quick decisions, whether it’s about travel or cuisine, so I put his quick-answer skills to the test in a random little game called “Would You Rather.”
*Rules: No saying “both” and no creating stipulations.
Would you rather sweat mustard or salivate mayonnaise?
Would you rather everything tasted like steak or jelly beans?
Would you rather have your flight delayed 12 hours or have your luggage lost?
Oh that’s a tough call. Generally speaking I would rather lose my luggage.
Would you rather have to fight Christopher Columbus or Ben Franklin?
Columbus for sure. I like Franklin, I have much more respect for Franklin.
Would you rather live a week without alcohol or meat?
Would you rather only be able to talk in 140 characters or less all the time or have to reference the Twilight series in every interview you give?
Oh I’d tweet for life. Oh God. That would be the absolute worst case scenario for me to have to mention Twilight or have to even think about it.
Would you rather be a vegetarian forever or eat meat but have to catch and kill it yourself?
I’d catch and kill for sure.
Would you rather have to sing everything you say or soil yourself every time you laugh?
Ha. Can I have a third option? [KA: That’s not how the game works Tony.] Soil myself every time I laugh? Oh that’s not good; I guess I’d have to learn karaoke. Boy that’s a tough one though.
Would you rather eat a pigeon or squeazle?
Pigeon, pigeon’s delicious.
Would you rather have the power to fly or the power to read minds?
Fly. I don’t want to read minds. That would be terrible.
Would you rather never show up in photographs or have no reflection in the mirror?
Oh I like the never showing up in photographs, that’d be totally cool. I would like that.