If you happen to arrive in New York via a Greyhound bus, you might want to consider hanging a right onto Eighth Avenue after exiting the Port Authority and heading a few blocks south, where you will come upon the last weird bar in Manhattan, the Distinguished Wakamba Cocktail Lounge. Out front, on a recent weekday afternoon, a couple of stony-faced young men stand beside a young lady who looks like she might be auditioning for the Jodie Foster role in a Telemundo remake of 'Taxi Driver'. Inside, the walls are mostly mirrors, neon lightning bolts flash on the ceiling, loud salsa plays on a jukebox, and the bartenders wear tank tops sliced down to the size of sports bras and short shorts.
Anthony Bourdain, the former chef whose best-selling memoir, 'Kitchen Confidential,' made him a cable-television star, is seated at the bar when I arrive, happily accepting a shot of whiskey from a fan a few stools over. Two empty bottles of Presidente and two empty shot glasses sit in front of him. I glance at my watch. It is three on the dot. Bourdain orders another Presidente to go with the shot. The Distinguished Wakamba Cocktail Lounge was Bourdain's idea. He used to live a block away, above Manganaro's, an Italian sandwich shop that's been a Hell's Kitchen fixture since 1893. "When I was writing 'Kitchen Confidential,'" he says, "I was in my 40s, I had never paid rent on time, I was 10 years behind on my taxes, I had never owned my own furniture or a car." He takes a pull of beer, then continues, "I had never owned anything."
Now when Bourdain is in town at all, he lives on the Upper East Side with his Italian wife, Ottavia, and their four-year-old daughter. He has just flown in from Mozambique, and he is leaving the next day for Croatia. Both trips are for his long-running Travel Channel series, 'No Reservations,' in which he crisscrosses the globe sampling cuisines exotic to the Western palate. Bourdain was never much of a chef, and the genius of his series has been to dispense with the boring "cooking" parts of traditional celebrity-chef shows altogether, focusing instead on the sybaritic pleasures of the genre: that is, the actual eating and drinking. Describing Bourdain as a TV chef, then, is inaccurate; he's a television hedonist, luxuriating in the indulgences of an iron-stomached (and -livered) traveler, willing to make sure any insect- or offal-based local delicacy will not go unswallowed. Bourdain's fame coincided with the rise of the Food Network and the celebrity chef, and though he likes to mock both, he's become that world's top safari guide, a grizzled sensei for a new audience of adventurous carnivores.
"I wasn't that great a chef, and I don't think I'm that great a writer," Bourdain tells me. He shrugs, an indifferent expression on his delicately jowled face. He's not being falsely modest. "I made a number of really important decisions in my life very early on," he continues. "I didn't go to France. I didn't even bang on the doors of the best restaurants in New York, begging for a position. I took the money, I took the girls, I took the drugs. I had a hell of a good time."
We shift over to a table. The bartender brings us two more beers. Bourdain watches her walk away.
In the way that hearing about someone else's dream or crazy drug trip is almost guaranteed tedium, the act of watching a famous person take a decadent tour of a far-flung place you'll likely never visit could easily become an exercise in frustration. But Bourdain makes for a naturally appealing avatar, equal parts jaded war correspondent and drunken bachelor uncle, a rare television host who never comes across as unctuous or even particularly concerned if you're watching. He'd worked anonymously as a chef for years, eventually landing a gig as executive chef of New York's Brasserie Les Halles. Then 'Kitchen Confidential' broke. He was 44 – he's 55 now, with a head of wavy silver hair, a commanding but slightly nasal speaking voice, and dark eyes, alert and mischievous, that seem to moisten as the Presidente bottles stack up. Something about Bourdain is distinctly New York, reminiscent of that era in the '70s when Elliott Gould was considered leading-man material. Given his diet, Bourdain is surprisingly fit, today wearing skinny jeans and a snug T-shirt. Maybe all those years spent toiling in sauna-temperature kitchens gave him a freakish metabolism. In George Orwell's 'Down and Out in Paris and London' – one of Bourdain's favorite books and a model for 'Kitchen Confidential' – Orwell writes about his time doing scullery work in a Parisian restaurant, noting that "the power of swallowing quarts of wine, and then sweating it out before it can do much damage, is one of the compensations of [this] life."
Bourdain has a new cable show coming out, 'The Layover'. It's a more traditional travel series, with the added gimmick of Bourdain having only 24–48 hours to show the viewer his favorite places in any given city. Recently, he filmed an episode in Amsterdam. "Network policy, of course, absolutely precludes any of their talent getting high on camera," Bourdain tells me, smiling. "I'll be interested to see how my editors cut around that." Bourdain kicked hard drugs long ago, but he still loves smoking weed. "Chefs are in the pleasure business, and it's important to understand your subject," he says. "If you know what it's like to be stoned and hungry at one o'clock in the morning, it's helpful when you're trying to create a menu for people who are stoned and hungry at one o'clock in the fucking morning. How does it affect your palate? I'm going to try to be careful about this. If you look at the landscape of great chefs, top-tier chefs, it doesn't seem to hurt them too badly. It might even have helped."