So is there any way, I ask, to assess if he might've been great? Bourdain pauses. Finally he says, "I'm not going to delude myself about what I could have been. I'm sure that at no point in my life could I ever have shown the kind of focus and discipline and commitment necessary to work a station at elBulli or Le Bernardin. No. That ain't me."
Bourdain grew up in suburban New Jersey. His father, Pierre, was the director of merchandising for classical music at Columbia Masterworks. "It was a house filled with music," Bourdain recalls. "My dad was a guy who liked music no matter where it came from. He came home from work with Sgt. Pepper's, Disraeli Gears, Janis Joplin. He took me to shows at the Fillmore East – Hendrix, the Allman Brothers, Frank Zappa – and would sit there with me, surrounded by pot smoke."Bourdain dropped out of Vassar to attend the Culinary Institute of America. His heroes were legends of excess: Hunter S. Thompson, Lord Byron, Iggy Pop, William S. Burroughs, Malcolm Lowry.
Bourdain quickly got the excess part down but neglected the fact that the men he so idolized also worked incredibly hard at their crafts. The only thing approaching a recipe in 'Kitchen Confidential' is the list of key ingredients kept in the larder by Bourdain and his colleagues in the New York restaurant world of the '80s: "Pot, quaaludes, cocaine, LSD, psilocybin mushrooms soaked in honey and used to sweeten tea, Seconal, Tuinal, speed, codeine and, increasingly, heroin, which we'd send a Spanish-speaking busboy over to Alphabet City to get."
Although 'Kitchen Confidential' would impact his life in unimaginable ways, Bourdain was never very serious as a writer either. He'd cranked out a couple of crime thrillers for money. Later he wrote the article that would become the book, hoping it might be published in a free weekly like the 'New York Press'. It ended up in the 'New Yorker' – on a drunken whim, he had sent it cold to editor David Remnick – and that led to a book deal and then television fame, changing his entire world overnight when he was already in his mid-40s.
Suddenly he found himself becoming a sort of peer to the very chefs whose restaurants he'd been too lazy and undisciplined to ever get hired by in the first place, people like Mario Batali and Ferran Adrià and Eric Ripert. The irony of this career path might rattle a less confident person. It seems like a strange sort of metaphysical penance: the fuckup suddenly keeping company with the most successful figures of the world in which he'd labored for years – and now he's better known than most of them. Except – here's the catch – it's as a slightly ridiculous TV personality, not a chef! Bourdain doesn't believe in metaphysical penance, and at any rate, poking him on these points fails to elicit much in the way of tortured introspection. "That these guys feel any kinship with me at all is a shock and a fucking honor," he says, sounding endearingly sincere. "They're gods to me. I feel goofy around them. I'm a fan boy." He considers Ripert, the chef at Le Bernardin, one of New York's most acclaimed restaurants, his closest friend.
"I didn't know him at all when 'Kitchen Confidential' came out," Ripert tells me. "Part of the industry was fascinated by the book, and part of the industry was offended." Ripert read it and loved it and invited Bourdain for lunch at Le Bernardin, which turned out to be the first of many epic meals together, including an illegal feast at a secret location in which the pièce de résistance was ortolan, the (long outlawed) French delicacy that involves eating a roasted endangered songbird whole. "Some of our meals have ended fine," Ripert says drily, "and some have ended after too many tequilas." (Ripert insists Bourdain has trouble keeping up with him, which makes me want to eat at Le Bernardin while its executive chef still has a functioning liver.)
Bourdain has also been writing the restaurant scenes for David Simon's terrific HBO series 'Treme' – including a cameo by one of his old nemeses, the 'GQ' food critic Alan Richman, who, a little over a year after Hurricane Katrina, published a snide and frankly cruel take-down of the New Orleans restaurant scene. In 'Treme,' Richman ends up with a Sazerac thrown in his face; Bourdain also devoted an entire chapter of 'Medium Raw' to Richman. The title, "Alan Richman Is a Douchebag," is slightly misleading, as the chapter ends with the lines: "Alan Richman is not a douchebag. He's a cunt."
Bourdain first traveled to New Orleans while promoting 'Kitchen Confidential' and immediately fell in love with the place, finding an entire city of kindred spirits who welcomed him in return. "So now anybody who talks shit about New Orleans or seeks to hurt them or misunderstand or misrepresent them, if I can hurt you, I will," Bourdain says bluntly.
More recently, Bourdain went after Southern-food queen Paula Deen, the television chef who also runs the (incredibly delicious, actually) restaurant The Lady & Sons in Savannah. Surprisingly, and perhaps hypocritically, considering Bourdain's general celebration of all forms of excess, he recently attacked Deen in 'TV Guide' for promoting unhealthy cooking, calling her "the worst, most dangerous person to America" and insisting she "revels in unholy connections with evil corporations, and she's proud of the fact that her food is fucking bad for you."
Bourdain is uncharacteristically reticent when I bring up the Deen feud. "I've never had such a blowback," he confides. "It was frightening, honestly. I had never received scary e-mails like that." After pushing him on the topic, he reluctantly goes on: "Look, I definitely don't think she's the worst person in America. Never said it, never meant it. My feelings about the food that she demonstrates on television I think are a matter of record. I'll leave it at that."
To me, the Deen scuffle epitomizes the challenges of Late-Period Bourdain. Ten years ago he made a name for himself by mercilessly taking the piss out of cartoonish celebrity chefs like Emeril Lagasse and Wolfgang Puck. Now, though, he's tempered some of those early comments, having reached the position where he's actually met (and liked) people like Emeril. Picking on someone like Paula Deen, in this context, seems like an easy way to hang onto his cranky, shit-talking reputation and edges close to bullying, much in the way a rapper like 50 Cent picks a feud with an obvious target whenever he has a new album to promote. You certainly won't hear Bourdain say anything nasty or critical about cool-kid chefs he admires.
"I often disagree with him – I'm less extreme," says his friend Ripert. "Sometimes I tell him to be more diplomatic. And he tells me to fuck off. But Tony is still very much the same as when I first met him. Now the one thing that surprises me is sometimes a fruit basket can get him to change his mind."
Ask Bourdain what's changed in the restaurant business since he got started and he'll tell you: everything. No one gave a shit about the chef back then. No one cared if the chef thought you should eat something. The customers wanted to tell you what they wanted. Mostly Bourdain thinks the current trendiness of food culture is a good thing, that it might signify a step toward making food an integral part of American life, the way it's been for hundreds of years in countries like France and Italy. He likes the countercultural energy of certain hot, younger chefs who do things like cook out of food trucks, and he even gives grudging props to Brooklyn's hipster farm-to-table food scene. "I was young once," he says. "I might want to hit some of them with a shovel now and then, but come on. What they're doing is good for the world."
I ask him if he misses anything from the old restaurant days. He says not much, other than the certainty of sitting down at the bar after a busy night and knowing you did really well in a busy kitchen. That sort of battle survivor's camaraderie. "In our own world, we lived like rock stars. But it was all within a subculture. Civilians didn't want to have anything to do with us. For very good reason."
Bourdain hoists his fifth – or is it sixth? – Presidente. It's still about 20 minutes before happy hour. "The fact is, even if the celebrity-chef thing had never happened, it still would have been a pretty good life for a young man," he says. "Getting fed, stealing good shit, drinking for free, getting laid. In our own little world, each of us was either good on our guitar, or we weren't. And that was nice. That would have been enough."