Editor’s note: Anthony Bourdain tragically took his own life on June 8, 2018. This story was first published in the December 2012 issue of Men’s Journal, and remains here in its original form.
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.”By the time he’d reached early middle age, Bourdain had more or less accepted his lot in life. Other than childhood visits to France with his family and brief jaunts to Mexico and the Caribbean, he’d never traveled anywhere. “If I was sure of anything at that point,” Bourdain says, “it was that I would never see Vietnam, much less Rome. My childhood dream was to travel, but I’d given up on that. And I was comfortable with the fact that, well, this is how it’s going to be. I had had a lot of hard times, so that I was gainfully employed and healthy at 44 was sort of a shock to me. I was just glad to be alive.”
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.”