Felicity Monk talks to Anthony Bourdain about the cult of celebrity chef – and why he might be one.
Anthony Bourdain can't stand the phrase "celebrity chef", despite grudgingly admitting that he probably is one.
"It's just two words that don't feel right together. Habitual wanker would be a more attractive job description on a passport," he snorts down the phone from his hotel room in Melbourne. He is there promoting his latest book* and television series, both called A Cook's Tour.
Like it or not, Bourdain has joined the ranks of cooking superstars ... Gordon Ramsay: "He's a hustler, operator, media-savvy extraordinaire - he's got it all figured out." Nigella Lawson: "She's one daring eater, there is nothing that I've eaten that she wouldn't." And Jamie Oliver: "Don't know him, hate the show - and he's so adorable, I hate that."
It all started for Bourdain when he wrote an article about life behind the scenes in the restaurant kitchens of New York. He submitted it to the New Yorker and in an unusual move the magazine published his unsolicited manuscript. "Within 24 hours of it hitting the news-stands, I had an offer for a book deal." He admits that before his international bestseller Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly came out, his profile didn't even stretch to "respected chef" - "more like working cook".
His previous four books - three crime novels and a biography of Typhoid Mary - had largely been ignored, or, as he puts it, "failed spectacularly", but not Kitchen Confidential. People loved it. It was raw, it was gritty, it wasn't pretty. He has even sold the film rights to Hollywood. "I always talked a good game," he says. "I was always good with language. I used it to get into trouble, out of trouble, to manipulate events to my liking. I write like I talk, so it's pretty easy for me to tell you the truth. I'm going to keep writing as long as they let me."
Next came A Cook's Tour (Discovery Channel and TV1). "I found myself in the absolutely, ridiculously luxurious position of being able to go to a publisher and say, 'Hey, I've got a great idea for a book and I can satisfy my curiosity about the world of which I've only ever dreamt about or seen in movies, and you pay.'" His idea? To gallivant all over the world, sampling traditional local cuisine and talking shop with the local chefs. Then, a TV crew approached him wanting to make A Cook's Tour into a television series. So, in the spring of 2000 he and a camera crew headed off to South-east Asia to begin the tour.
Bourdain has now eaten his way through Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Japan, Singapore, Australia, Mexico, Russia, Portugal, Spain, France and the Caribbean. "Before I set out on A Cook's Tour, I'd seen almost nothing of the world. I had spent my whole life standing up in a kitchen in New York. I didn't even have an expectation that I would be able to see the world ever, so it's a dream come true." He is about to start filming the third series.
Born in New York in 1956 and raised over the river in New Jersey, Bourdain recalls that it was during his first dishwashing job that he decided he wanted to become a chef. He liked the life and wanted to be a part of their "community". Had he not become a chef? "I probably would have fallen into unsuccessful petty criminality and would probably be in prison or rehab. Any useful skills or important values I ever learnt, I learnt in the restaurant business."
Cooking hardly kept him out of trouble, though. In Kitchen Confidential he talks frankly about the drugs - heroin, acid, cocaine, alcohol - that were readily at his disposal. And there was the sex: "The cuter and more degenerate members of the floor staff would hang with us, so there was a lot of humping in the dry goods area and on the banquettes, 50-pound flour sacks being popular staging areas for after-work copulation."
Since graduating from the Culinary Institute of America in New York, Bourdain has spent more than two decades working in professional kitchens. Some posh and high profile, and some not, such as Billy's, the mob-run chicken joint. He is currently the executive chef at brasserie Les Halles in New York. Sounds expensive. "No, it's not. It's moderately priced, serving very traditional working-class cuisine bourgeoisie." Mains start at around $45.
These days he has little time to spend in the kitchen. "I feel like I've left my family," he says, "But on the other hand, I'm living a dream life and I get to hang out with chefs all over the world and live vicariously through them. I'm still in the mix."
His advice to wannabe chefs? "Work as a dishwasher in a very busy restaurant for six months, because at the end of that period you will know if you really do want to be a chef."
Bourdain once said that he would hire a Mexican dishwasher before a kid out of culinary school. "They come from a culture where food is important and they understand hard work. They have a deep cultural understanding of pain, inequity and irony. I admire the people who come to America, often illegally, and who work their way up in the restaurant business and become successes. Life hasn't been handed to them on a silver platter. I think cooking well is very much a character issue."
The grossest thing Bourdain has ever eaten? "The Chicken McNugget." This from a man who, while on A Cook's Tour in Vietnam, swallowed a still-beating cobra heart and munched his way through a half-cooked foetal duck egg. His hatred of fast-food restaurant chains runs deep. "I see them as the enemy."
He understands why we increasingly consume fast foods - people are working longer and harder, both parents work. "Unfortunately, fast-food chains are the only answer to real problems of real working people. But fast food can be good food." He says in countries such as Vietnam and Mexico there is an abundance of individually owned and operated shops and cafés and vendors who make fresh, beautiful food that is "expressive of a place, an individual, a culture, a tradition.
"It's the terrible appalling sameness and mediocrity of the chain restaurants that I hate, the food tastes the same in McDonald's in Australia as it does in California - it is anonymous and soul-destroying."
Back to the cobra heart - has he had any backlash from animal rights groups? "No, I haven't, fortunately, and I'm grateful for that because they have been terrorising some friends of mine."
Bourdain describes how his Gascon mate in San Francisco had his delicatessen trashed, his car destroyed and his family's lives threatened because he sold foie gras. "A number of chefs are now taking it off their menu out of fear, which I think is just shameful beyond words. It is one of life's most delicious culinary pleasures. At this point, I almost feel compelled to continue serving it out of spite."
His opinion of GE food? "I'd like to see the research. I like to keep an open mind. While in principle it sounds a little frightening, and the idea of genetic engineering is a little science-fiction, there are a lot of hungry people in the world who desperately need food and who can't afford to get in their SUV and drive down to the green market for an organic tomato."
Bourdain says his own taste in food is simple. If he were getting the electric chair tomorrow, tonight he would probably be eating "roasted bone marrow on toast sprinkled with a little sea salt - very simple". So no hotdog and ketchup for this Yankees fan, then? Apparently not. "Ketchup on a hotdog is a sin against God."
And if he were a food, he would be: "Feijoada. It's a Brazilian dish made up of all the nasty bits, slowly stewed in beans. It's like a heart stew that descended from slave food. The slaves used to gather the scraps off their cruel master's table and stew them in beans. It's absolutely delicious, it's cooking at its finest, it's all the ugly, tough, unlovely bits that no one else wanted and it's transformed through skill into something worthwhile."
And that's what he would be? "In my most charitable-to-myself moments, I would aspire to that."
Sampled any New Zealand cuisine? "I've had abalone, and the whitebait, the whitebait is fantastic." No pork and puha yet, then? "Nope, clearly I have unfinished business."
A Cook's Tour, Bloomsbury, $27.95.