Anthony Bourdain is sitting at the head of the table. Gathered around are several journalists, cooks and acquaintances of the author, who rose to international prominence with Kitchen Confidential – a bestselling memoir about his less-than-glamorous experiences as a chef.
“To get things started, I usually ask people what they would eat for their last meal on earth,” said Bourdain who is touring to promote this latest book, The Nasty Bits. I am sitting on his left and the chef-turned-author-turned-TV star turns to me.
Almost everyone at the table – except me – is a true ‘foodie’.
“I guess I’d go for some comfort food if it was my last meal,” I say, desperately trying to buy a few seconds to think. “Err, perhaps meatballs.”
“Meatballs,” says Anthony and smiles. Surely he knows I haven’t got a clue about food. The other guests reel off impressive dishes, most of which are beyond my comprehension, and I’m mighty relieved when someone says “a bacon and tomato sandwich.”
Me and millions of other ‘civilians’, as he describes people outside of the restaurant trade, might not know what it takes to become a three-star chef, but Bourdain has developed a huge worldwide following by telling it like it is.
He’s frank, often blunt, but always entertaining.
The Nasty Bits, which is dedicated to The Ramones punk band, is a collection of Bourdain’s journalism writing since rising to fame with Kitchen Confidential. The short, sharp articles range across fat Americans and fast food, the Las Vegas restaurant scene, ghastly gastro-pubs in the UK, the true art of improvisation at the stove, Woody Harrelson and raw food devotees, and traveling the world to promote books and make television programs.
He has clearly been in demand since spilling the beans on real kitchen life just as the sanitized celebrity chef phenomenon was reaching its zenith. The essays are easy to read even for non-foodies, although Bourdain remains a cheerleader for the unheralded heroes of the kitchen – the cooks and chefs who flock to his book signings.
“I’ve been on Oprah, and Letterman has been good to me a couple of times,” explains Bourdain. “I turned down Tony Danza. Oprah was a very strange experience. You go on because you sell 15,000 books for every minute that you are on the show.
“So I’m sitting on the stage and there’s an empty seat next to me. I look out into the crowd and I can see these women that bought their tickets two years ago, and they have all bought new dresses, got their hair done and have been dieting for two years. They all had this blissed out look. Suddenly, there is a roar as The Oprah appears. I could feel myself blowing in the wind. I can’t remember a single word that I said. God knows what I said. It was over in an instant.”
Bourdain is currently executive chef at Brasserie Les Halles in New York but admits he does not cook anymore and that his career now lies in writing and broadcasting.
“Do I miss it?” he laughs. “I miss the camaraderie, but do I miss the 16-hour days? I don’t think so. I was 43 when Kitchen Confidential hit and I wasn’t going to get any smarter or faster in the kitchen. I was slowing down.
“I had written a small article about the New York restaurant trade and the New York Press (a free newspaper) agreed to run it,” he said. “But they kept bumping the article and it never got printed. So I got drunk and stuffed the article into an envelope, and mailed it off to The New Yorker magazine. They ran it - what were the odds of that? - and 36 hours later a publisher called me and said, ‘Do you want to write a book?’
“The book was at the top of the bestseller lists and I was still doing shifts in the kitchen. It took two years before I realized that I would never have to cook again. I kept thinking that this is great but I’m going to have to go back in there and starting cooking again.”
Glancing knowingly at the chefs around the table, Bourdain says, “I still have that dream where you think you’ve left the duck in the oven.”
He followed Kitchen Confidential with A Cook’s Tour: In Search of the Perfect Meal and then the Les Halles Cookbook. He loves books and professes to be able to read very quickly. “I’ve just finished Choke by Chuck Palahniuk. When I was young, I was a huge William Burroughs fan – imagine being 13 years old and wanting to be William Burroughs. That probably explains a few things about me.
“I’d love to spend a month in the Caribbean and get a crate of books shipped out there. Read, beer, pass out, read, beer, pass out. I wouldn’t eat any meals where footwear was required – just get food from roadside stands and barbecues. That would be nice.”