We agree to meet at three, so I turn up at five to, and he’s already there, leaning against a lamppost on West 39th Street, reading something on his phone. Anthony Bourdain learned to be on time when he was a heroin addict knocking out steak frites for minimum wage, and although he has since learned to wait, on his island time travels to India and Brazil and Jamaica, he still hates it when people are late.
His hair is salt grey, his skin on the spectrum between raw steak and ripe plum. Tattoos of Japanese wraiths begin below the elbow and disappear under rolled up sleeves. In his denim shirt, jeans and battered Converse trainers, he looks like the last Ramone standing.
His idols Joey, Johnny and Dee Dee all died young, and in his crack-smoking, hash-slinging days Bourdain assumed he would too. Then at forty-two he wrote his ticket out, Kitchen Confidential, and at fifty he became a father, took up jiu-jitsu and gave up everything but the booze. He appears as indefatigable in person as he does on screen.
Lan Sheng, his chosen restaurant, is shuttered, but Szechuan Zest across the street advertises blood cake, so it must be alright, he reckons, although we will be the only late lunch customers.
Bourdain has a jiu-jitsu tournament coming up against other blue belts in his age and weight class, and a week of intense training has left him bruised. This morning, he saw a doctor to have some fluid in his elbow drained and a stitch put in his head where “a chunk of something was jammed in there from rolling around on the mat.”
His second wife, former restaurant manager Ottavia Busia Bourdain, is a mixed martial arts champion. Their daughter, Ariane, is a blue belt at nine years old. “She’s a very physically tough little girl. She’s not afraid of or intimidated by boys,” Bourdain says. When he over-exerts himself, she reminds him: “Dad, you’re old.”
Appetites, his new cookbook, is presented as a collection of family-friendly recipes, but he rarely cooks at home. Filming his CNN series, Parts Unknown, keeps him on the road nine months a year and his marriage is breaking up as a result – amicably, he says. “My wife and I live, have lived, very separate lives for years,” he told People magazine. “There’s no injured party here, nobody’s angry, nobody feels like the injured party, nobody feels like a victim.”
Ariane’s hands appear in Appetites, but not her face, to protect her from unwanted celebrity. Bourdain enjoys cooking with her, but would be “horrified” if she decided to become a chef. “It’s a brutal business. I would fear for her,” he says.
He had been toiling in restaurants for twenty years by the time he wrote Kitchen Confidential, working in mediocre bistros, run-down hotels, shellfish shacks and Chinese canteens, making tacos, noodles and fried chicken for a living. Eventually, he got got his act together and was appointed Executive Chef at Brasserie Les Halles on Park Avenue South.
His tell-all about the “wacked-out moral degenerates, dope fiends, refugees… drunks, sneak thieves, sluts and psychopaths” he worked with was an instant hit. It was not without critics – in the New York Times, chef Tamar Adler complained that Bourdain has “left a crude hickey on this country’s food culture” – but it has done more to define the popular image of restaurant cooks than any other book.
“A lot of knuckleheads thought ‘getting high, screwing waitresses, smoking in the kitchen, being a pirate, that sounds good.’ They’re ignoring the fact that things didn’t end up so well for me in the book,” says Bourdain. On the tour to promote it, people would occasionally try to slip him packets of cocaine.
“Anybody who expected me to be the bad boy, coke-snorting, man-slut whatever… That wasn’t me,” he continues. “I wasn’t walking round in a denim jacket for long, let’s put it that way. I understood that that was going to be a funeral shroud.” He invokes Hunter S Thompson as a cautionary tale about the perils of staying too gonzo for too long.
Bourdain tells his daughter “that’s who daddy was,” as if he has become a different person, but his image remains self-consciously unrepentant and profane. “Fuck brunch,” advises Appetites, but if you must have Eggs Benedict, “toast the goddamn muffins.” The book’s cover is by longtime Thompson collaborator Ralph Steadman.
Is he doing chefs a disservice by casting them as social misfits? The profession has changed, he says. Restaurants are introducing service charges to pay kitchen staff as much as waiters. Talented cooks can start a food truck for a few thousand dollars and earn a reputation that way. Shows like Top Chef and Chopped provide exposure that wasn’t available to the strivers in Michelin-starred sweat shops.
“Chefs had no hope. You weren’t gonna rise up in the world. They were all ground under the fucken wheel,” Bourdain says. “Now there’s some prestige attached. People will be interested in your life.” For all his spats with celebrity chefs Guy Fieri, Bobby Flay and Emeril Lagasse, he believes that inviting cameras into the kitchen and treating chefs like rock stars has had a positive impact.
“As much as you should mock this phenomena, and as silly and over the top and pompous and preposterous as it does get, generally speaking the fact that people walk into restaurants and think about who is cooking… that is surely good,” he says.
Lunch arrives: Spotted Grandma Tofu, named for the smallpox survivor who created the dish, and Twice-Cooked Pork Belly, braised then deep fried, garnished with leeks and spring onions. It is delicious, if a little heavy on the chili oil. Bourdain tucks in enthusiastically but pronounces it mild for his tastes.
He learned to love food on a family holiday to France when he was nine years old, where he ate oysters fresh off the boat, marvelled that vichyssoise was served cold, and wondered what was so special about La Pyramide that his parents, a Columbia Records executive and New York Times editor, felt the need to leave him and his brother reading Tintin in the car while they dined.
Through two seasons of A Cook’s Tour, nine seasons of No Reservations and now seven seasons of Parts Unknown, he has played with the same format: an intrepid American eating his way to cultural enlightenment. A glutton for experience, he has sampled raw seal eyeball, rotten shark, bull penis and warthog arsehole, and declares them all preferable to the Johnnie Rockets burger with lukewarm chips he had at the airport last week.
“I wanted the perfect meal,” he writes in A Cook’s Tour. “I also 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.”
Switching to CNN has enabled him to do this as never before, switching the focus from gastronomy to reportage. The camera still savours exotic food in close-up, and impromptu drinking sessions remain Bourdain’s favoured mode of interrogation, but the network’s news operation has made countries that were off-limits accessible: Cuba, Congo, Iran and Palestine.
“I don’t see myself as a journalist… I’m not interested in capturing images of myself in a flak jacket,” Bourdain says. In Beirut, he had to leave in a hurry when Israeli forces began shelling Lebanon. In Libya, two years after the fall of Gaddafi, he narrowly avoided getting kidnapped by jihadis.
Bourdain is a movie junkie, the kid with the Janus Films collection, and he’s recruited a crew of fellow obsessives to plunder the arthouse for ideas. There’s a Wong Kar-Wai episode of Parts Unknown, a trip to Miami in the style of Michael Mann, a visit to Copenhagen shot like The Tree of Life by Terrence Malick. The show has won three Emmys for Best Informational Series and one, so far, for its cinematography.
Season Eight kicked off with the sort of unscripted but minutely managed encounter that Barack Obama has made a habit of in the legacy years of his presidency. The two men sat on plastic stools in a Hanoi canteen, drank beer, ate bún chả – grilled pork with noodles – and talked about the fragrant scent of south-east Asia and their hopes for their daughters. Look me in the eye and tell me it’s going to be alright, Bourdain asked Obama, as if the President could make it so.
He has turned down product endorsement deals from luggage companies, diarrhoea medications and airport restaurants, among others. “I do stuff because it’s fun and interesting. I have a very rigid ‘no asshole’ rule that has served me well,” he says. Other than an embarrassing bit of product placement, paying with a Chase Sapphire credit card in No Reservations, he’s made his fortune pursuing his enthusiasms.
At the last count this includes writing two graphic novels about a murderous sushi chef, launching a travel website, Roads and Kingdoms, a cameo in The Big Short comparing a Collateralized Debt Obligation to seafood stew made with old fish, some scripts for David Simon’s New Orleans series, Treme, and a publishing imprint for books about unheralded culinary geniuses.
His latest and largest venture is an East Asian-style food hall on the western edge of midtown Manhattan, in a long vacant pier. When it opens, three years and something like $60 million hence, Bourdain Market will cater to 20,000 visitors a day.
Bourdain is a consultant partner, meaning he’s putting up his name but not his money. His main role appears to be bringing in vendors from overseas to make dishes he’s tried personally, such as La Guerrerense tostadas from Mexico and Geylang Claypot Rice from Singapore. Sydney’s own Victor Churchill will be the in-house butcher.
“To want to own a restaurant can be a strange and terrible affliction,” Bourdain writes in Kitchen Confidential. “What causes such a destructive urge in so many otherwise sensible people?” The market is the sort of passion project he warns against: an attempt to bring something intangible back from his travels.
Maybe it will turn out to be something genuinely new in New York, where the best street food is found in the outer boroughs. Maybe he’ll get his midnight bowl of bánh canh in the chaotic, democratic environment he craves. Maybe it will prove impossible to replicate in one of the most expensive cities in the world. He’s not betting the house, but it is a risk.
“It is vitally important that we are not selling $19 bowls of noodles,” he says. “Our target customer would be a young, second-generation Chinese or Korean hipster and their grandmother, and they’d both better like it, because if the grandmother doesn’t like it, we’re fucked, and if the kid doesn’t like it, we’re fucked.”
Our plates are cleared, and the owner, a Chinese granny herself, comes over to request a photograph. The head chef comes out to pose, too, then another chef, then the waiter, all beaming more than necessary for a celebrity endorsement to hang over the cash register.
Out on the street, Bourdain is asked for another selfie by a passing fan and obliges smilingly. He asks if I clocked the owner’s arms, covered in burn marks and scars: “She has spent a long, fucking hard life in restaurants, and not just front of house.”
I didn’t notice her hands, but I’d like to see his, having read about them: the callous below the forefinger where knives rest, the arthritic whisking pinkie, the scar caused by the jagged edge of a can of mustard and the fingertip lopped off cutting peppers.
“Soft as a baby,” he says, turning his palms up like a conjuror, but before I can inspect them, he grabs my hand, nods goodbye and strides away.