At the age of 43, Anthony Bourdain had found a niche cooking traditional French food at a casual bistro in New York. Hard work paid his bills, but an appetite for the low life chained him to the stove. He wanted something better, so he decided to write about his life in the kitchen.
In April 1999, The New Yorker published his essay "Don't Eat Before Reading This," which Bourdain describes as "a short entertaining story meant to please my friends in the business." It extolled the virtues of traditional French cooking, told some unpleasant truths about the restaurant world, kicked up a media storm and led to a best-selling book, Kitchen Confidential.
That opened the doors for Bourdain. Now 58, his knowledge of food, passion for storytelling and intolerance of fakery make him one of America's best-known culinary personalities and, not incidentally, an astringent cultural commentator. Although he has written several well-received books, most of America knows him as the star and producer of several groundbreaking television series.
Bourdain's current show, Parts Unknown, airs on CNN, where it is the network's highest-rated series, no doubt because it goes well beyond standard foodie-travel fare. Using the shared experience of eating and drinking to draw out insights and information that traditional reporting often overlooks, Bourdain seems to have created a whole new genre of television journalism.
"I can't tell you how many times since the program's launch we have had other people come to CNN and say to us, ‘I want to do a show like Bourdain's,' " says Jeff Zucker, the network's president.
Chef José Andrés, who has made more than 300 TV episodes of his own, puts his finger on it: "He connects the dots in ways you don't always imagine."
"He speaks his mind, and since he's so damned smart, it's worth broadcasting," says Michael Ruhlman, who has co-authored cookbooks with Thomas Keller and Eric Ripert and appeared in several episodes with Bourdain. "He's also really funny, just naturally hilarious."
Ripert, the France-born chef of New York's Le Bernardin, says Kitchen Confidential was the first book he ever read in English. To express his gratitude for nice things Bourdain said about his restaurant in the book, he invited the author to lunch.
"That was the beginning of a great friendship," says Ripert. "Although we come from different backgrounds and different kitchens, we became close because we share the same values. We have the same admiration for craftsmanship. He's no-nonsense."
By his own admission, Bourdain wasted the first 44 years of his life. Drugs and alcohol kept him from rising beyond anonymous cooking jobs. As he worked his way up through kitchens of various levels of repute, he carried a huge chip on his shoulder, given to snide, often profane comments among friends and colleagues about trendy foods and celebrity chefs.
When he started to write and appear on television, he quickly earned a reputation as the bad boy of the food world for voicing those same thoughts. He would skewer television cooking shows mercilessly, especially those of Emeril Lagasse, Bobby Flay, Rachael Ray and Paula Deen.
Of late, having met some of the objects of his derision, he has mellowed. He now rubs shoulders with celebrity chefs. And he is often listed among them, not due to his cooking skills, which he downplays, but because he can describe their often-arcane food world in vivid terms even a noncook can understand.
Bourdain has also abandoned his rakish reputation, now leading a steadier life as a family man. In 2006, Ripert set him up on a blind date with Ottavia Busia. At the time, she was working 16 hours a day managing a restaurant for which Ripert was consulting, and Bourdain was traveling the world shooting for TV, keeping an apartment above a sandwich shop near the Port Authority Bus Terminal.
"I was home only three or four days a month," says Bourdain. His first marriage, to his high school sweetheart, had unraveled after 20 years under the strain of his extensive traveling. "I was lonely. I had nothing resembling a romantic life. I didn't have a social life."
Today, he lives in a posh apartment in New York's Upper East Side with Ottavia and their 7-year old daughter, Ariane. "When I am back in New York, it's for a week or 10 days a month, and I'm not going out," he says. "I'm home, I cook breakfast for my daughter, I walk her to school and pick her up when I can."
The whole family also does jiujitsu together, a competitive pursuit Ottavia took up after Ariane was born. "She does jiujitsu three or four hours a day, six days a week, working hard to master a skill that is mentally and physically demanding. She's not sitting at home filing her nails or shopping until I come home. She's just fine choking grown men unconscious."
Bourdain also insists on at least one family-friendly shoot a year. He may be abroad, sharing exotic dishes and insightful conversation with celebrated and offbeat characters, but Ottavia and Ariane will join him at the table.
Bourdain grew up in New Jersey, his father a classical-music executive for Columbia Records and his mother an editor for The New York Times. They made a comfortable home.
"Music was important," Bourdain says. "Words were important. Things that felt good were valued. Food was always a part of that. If food was delicious, there was value attached to it. I didn't realize my upbringing was different from other kids', but it was."
The house was filled with books. Bourdain was a good student, especially for English teachers "who gave me the idea that words were dangerous weapons. I learned to use words to get myself into trouble, out of trouble, and to get people to give me what I wanted."
While enrolled at Vassar College, Bourdain spent summer breaks in Provincetown, Mass., where he got jobs in restaurants. Starting as a dishwasher, he developed into a reliable line cook, then continued up the ranks. He soon discovered that the rock stars of the kitchen were not necessarily those who cooked better, but whoever could tell the most evocative stories.
"There's a rich and glorious tradition in professional kitchens of using words in an interesting, hyperbolic, lurid and, most importantly, entertaining way," he says. As a chef, he preferred cutting sarcasm to a full-on assault. "No matter how angry or disappointed I was, if you couldn't laugh about it later over a beer then I failed as a manager."
He also, he admits, squandered opportunity after opportunity. He dropped out of Vassar. Although he graduated in 1978 from the Culinary Institute of America, he never apprenticed in great kitchens. "I went right to work for as much money as I could get, with friends who did the sort of things that I liked to do, which was drugs. All my decisions were based on who could give me access to girls and drugs."
A chance encounter changed everything. Michael Batterberry, founder and editor of the influential culinary magazine Food Arts, became a regular at Manhattan restaurant Brasserie Les Halles, where Bourdain was cooking in the 1990s. Having read the chef's two detective novels (they were well-reviewed but not best-sellers), Batterberry assigned him a story for Food Arts. "Mission to Tokyo" presaged Bourdain's ability to find extra elements in travel.
Batterberry also encouraged the literate chef to write the New Yorker essay. Inspired by George Orwell's acerbic 1933 tell-all restaurant book Down and Out in Paris and London, "Don't Eat Before Reading This" explained why it wasn't a good idea to select fish from a menu on a Monday, and how chefs punish those who order well-done steaks by using the tougher examples "riddled with nerve and connective tissue, off the hip end of the loin, and maybe a little stinky from age."
"Within hours there were TV crews here at Les Halles," owner Philippe Lajaunie recalls. He actually welcomed the interruptions. "In those days, every book or article done by a chef was always glossy and fuzzy and warm," says Lajaunie. "This was totally different. The publicity was good for us."
Bourdain expanded the article into Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly. Published in 2000, the book's frank, raucous tone infuriated many old-guard French chefs, who did not want their clientele to know how many restaurants reused uneaten bread, or saved the worst ingredients for customers they did not like. Accounts of sex and drugs in their kitchens made them queasy. "Their reaction was, ‘Who is this asshole?' " Bourdain recalls, "because I'd never worked anyplace they knew."
His budding career might have died if Jacques Pépin had not stood up for him. A chef of the highest regard, mentor and teacher of professionals (and, via television, home cooks), Pépin did not know Bourdain personally, but defended him—even the bit about reusing bread. "Transforming leftovers into other dishes is the sign of a very good cook, actually," Pépin said in a CNN interview.
"All he said in Kitchen Confidential was what really happens in the kitchen," Pépin says today. "The drugs I don't know about, but reusing bread? Fish not fresh? It's something we all had to deal with. Most of all, chefs today are indebted to him for bringing our trade from the bottom of the social scale to where chefs are being called geniuses."
Even when the book was high on best-seller lists, Bourdain kept his chef job.
"The notion that I would ever make a living writing ... that seemed, generally speaking, crazy talk," he says. When the publisher asked for another book, Bourdain was stumped for a topic. "I only had one life, and I'd already written about it. I needed new stories."
He had hardly traveled outside the United States, so he proposed exploring the world's most interesting food cities and writing about his adventures. "To my utter shock, they bought it," he says.
Then two representatives from New York Times Television arrived at Les Halles to explore ideas for a TV show based on Kitchen Confidential. Having already sold the TV rights (for an ill-fated sitcom), he told them, "I apparently have to go eat my way around the world and write about it. How about that?"
Freelance producers Chris Collins and Lydia Tenaglia were assigned to shoot an 11-minute documentary in his kitchen at Les Halles as a pilot. Presently Bourdain found himself in a meeting with Food Network to pitch the show. He was in full bad-boy mode. "I horribly insulted them at every possibility," he recalls. "I didn't bother to shave or bathe for the meeting."
Nevertheless, Food Network ordered 23 half-hour episodes of A Cook's Tour, produced by New York Times Television.
The show would be a turning point not only for Bourdain but also for Collins and Tenaglia. The pair came to the project ignorant about food, fresh from producing and directing several documentary series on hospital emergency rooms. They had just been married. They joke today that Tony came with them on their honeymoon. They helped shape his unique approach, and have worked with him ever since. Their business partnership, Zero Point Zero, has made all of Bourdain's subsequent series (and other highly regarded series such as The Getaway on Esquire Network, Extra Virgin on Cooking Channel, The Mind of a Chef on PBS and The Hunt With John Walsh on CNN).
But the first stop did not go well. In Tokyo, Bourdain balked when Tenaglia asked him to turn to the camera and explain what he was doing. "I was stunned," he admits. "I had really thought I would walk down the street, go into a restaurant to eat, and somehow they would shoot over my shoulder. I knew how to write a story and I could talk a good game, but I had no clue about how to talk to a camera."
Bourdain struggled to find a rhythm in the first couple of episodes. "But the minute we got to the next location, Vietnam, he came alive," Tenaglia says. "Vietnam had—still has—resonance for him. He had read all the literature, had seen so many movies he could draw from."
After a long day shooting and eating, Bourdain was sitting at a bar in Nha Trang, staring up at a ceiling fan. It reminded him of Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now, a movie about the Vietnam War. In an early scene, the protagonist, perspiring in his hotel bed, fixates on a ceiling fan, the whirling blades a gesture to the omnipresent military helicopters. Bourdain suggested they finish the show with the camera shooting through the rotating fan, Bourdain moaning in bed from too much food and drink.
"That's where we found our groove," Collins says. "We had all seen Apocalypse Now and had those visual references to enhance the storytelling."
"Tony began to understand how pictures and sound interplay with the story to make it more powerful," adds Tenaglia.
After two seasons of A Cook's Tour, Bourdain received an unexpected invitation from Ferran Adrià, the superstar chef of Spain's El Bulli, at the time the world's most talked-about restaurant.
Typically for Bourdain, it all started with an off-the-cuff snarky comment. At the time, food insiders were divided on El Bulli, some in awe of its culinary magic, others dismissive. In a Kitchen Confidential chapter on the restaurant Veritas in New York, Bourdain asked the chef, Scott Bryan, about Adrià, calling him "the foam guy." Bryan smirked. "I ate there, dude—and it's like ... bogus. I had seawater sorbet!"
But later, on a book tour in Spain, Bourdain received a message through his publisher. Adrià had invited the writer to visit his workshop in northeastern Spain.
"We drank cava together and talked," Bourdain recounts. "We communicated in bad French. The next day he took me to his favorite ham place, called Jamonissimo, where we sat in the back and ate ham. I liked this man. He likes ham. He's talking about it in a way I can totally relate to. But I still hadn't eaten any of his food."
Adrià invited Bourdain to come back with a camera crew to film his whole process. He wanted to show that it came from a place in his heart, specific to who he was and where he was. Bourdain could not wait to share the news with Food Network: He had the greatest chef in the world to lead off the third season.
They weren't interested. "They said, ‘He doesn't talk English; it's too smart for us,' " Bourdain says, shaking his head. He was already chafing under Food Network's preference to limit A Cook's Tour to the United States and do more shows on barbecue and tailgating. So there would be no season three. Bourdain spent more time at Les Halles. Collins and Tenaglia freelanced on other documentaries.
But Bourdain could not forget Adrià's invitation. He circled back to New York Times Television. "I said, ‘I'll put up my own money. Chris and Lydia would put up their money. How about you put up $3,000 or $4,000?' Mmm, no."
Eventually, the three paid their way to Spain and shot a one-hour documentary, with no idea how to market it. Ecco Press, about to publish Adrià's lavish cookbook, agreed to buy 1,000 copies of the DVD, titled Decoding Ferran Adrià. Buoyed by the book, the DVD sold well overseas. Bourdain, Collins and Tenaglia also used it as a calling card to get a deal with Travel Channel for a new show, which debuted in 2005.
A one-hour show, No Reservations had time to go into more depth, depicting more of the cultures and the people involved. "I asked simple questions like, ‘Why are you eating this? Where do these things come from? What food makes you happy? What food do you miss most when you're away from home for a while?' " And, Bourdain noticed, "People would reveal extraordinary things about their lives."
Trapped in Beirut in July 2006 as the Israel-Lebanon war broke out, Bourdain and his crew drew out information and insights from people they had met, over lunches and dinners in their homes, that traditional news organizations were not getting.
He affects a deep, newsman voice: "I'm here to get the story. What do you think about the Middle East? Where's the front? Who's fighting? Who do you think's going to win? OK, thanks, bye." Continuing in a normal voice, "By being the guy who just shows up and says, ‘What's for dinner?' without malice and without an agenda, without being in a hurry, we got really incredible, often complicated, stories."
To develop these connections, Bourdain is willing to eat some things most people would shun, a list that includes sheep testicles in Morocco, ant eggs in Mexico, a raw seal eyeball as part of a traditional Inuit hunt in Alaska, and a cobra in Vietnam.
"Often the food can be delicious, or even if I don't think so, the people who are making it for me are proud and eager to share it, and much more open to talking about anything when a stranger expresses a willingness to sit down and eat with an open mind," Bourdain notes. "The minute you say, ‘Oh, no, that's OK, I won't have the sheep's eyeball or the shot of moonshine,' that pretty much shuts down the possibility of a deeper relationship."
These revelations increasingly became an important part of No Reservations, which ran for nine seasons on Travel Channel, winning two Emmy awards for cinematography. As Parts Unknown, his CNN show, enters its fifth season in April, viewers are already accustomed to topics that set it apart.
Season four examined how the people of Iran survive under their oppressive government, unraveled mysteries in today's Vietnam, and took a highly personal look at Massachusetts, where Bourdain, while reporting on a heroin epidemic in the bucolic western part of the state, revealed in horrifying detail his own struggles with drugs. Although occasional episodes still focus on gastronomy—a visit to Burgundy with chef Daniel Boulud was one standout—food is now only a starting point.
Bourdain was reluctant to be interviewed about wine. "I know almost nothing about it," he says. "I am not entirely ignorant on the subject, nor am I dismissive of its importance. But it's not what I do."
A revealing passage in Kitchen Confidential confides: I am not immune to the charms of wine. I've lived around it, enjoyed it, cooked with it all my life. I can tell the difference between good wine, bad wine and great wine. But I couldn't tell you grape variety with any more assurance than I could talk about stamp collecting or phrenology.
And to be truthful, I've always felt that I've survived enough dangerous obsessions in my life; the knowledgeable appreciation of fine wine has always seemed to me to hold potential for becoming yet another consuming habit—an expensive one. When you know what it's like to squat on a blanket on upper Broadway in the snow, selling off a lifetime's accumulation of rare books, records and comic books for drugs, the idea of spending next week's paycheck on a bottle of red seems like, well, something that I probably shouldn't be doing.
That was then. What about now?
Bourdain and I are settling down to lunch. He chose the restaurant—chef Michael White's recently opened Ristorante Morini, near Bourdain's East Side apartment. Having just come from a jiujitsu session with his wife and daughter, he was ready for a glass or two to ease the accumulated aches and fatigue. I hand him the wine list, hoping to get a handle on his wine tastes. "Oh, no," he protests, handing it back. "That will be your department."
"OK, what are you in the mood for?" I ask, opening the thick book.
"I'm having steak, and garganelli with a Bolognese, so definitely something red," he decides. "I don't like big Bordeaux anymore. That's a side of the spectrum I'm getting away from as I get older. I'm moving toward trashier, rougher Côtes du Rhône, wildly unpredictable Burgundies, and regional wines of Italy that I have absolutely no idea what the hell they are except they're from someplace I'm interested in. I've been drinking, what's the Sardinian wine, Cannonau?"
Clearly, he is not as clueless as he pretends. "You like funk?" I ask, "or fruit?"
"Either way," he replies.
I choose Ar.Pe.Pe Valtellina 1995, a Nebbiolo from Lombardy, in northern Italy, a mature red with a lovely sense of refinement and precision.
"Perfect," he declares. "That's where my wife is from. I'm happiest drinking wine when I am out with my wife's family. We go to the local agriturismo. We're drinking Lombardian wine, and I'll say, ‘This wine is really great, who made it?' And the answer is, ‘That guy—from those vines over there.' "
The wine arrives. He sips. "This wine makes me smile," he says. "What more need be said?"
Bourdain's travel series seldom focus on wine, except in European countries where a bottle of wine is simply another ingredient for lunch or dinner, not to be fussed over. The final season of No Reservations, however, included a segment on Ray Walker, an American using old-school methods to make his Maison Ilan Burgundies in Nuits-St.-Georges.
"He was amazing," Bourdain says. "He taught himself French by reading 19th-century winemaking texts. He doesn't top up the barrels as the wine evaporates, but puts marbles in instead [to raise the level]. Even the French just start weeping and say, no one has made wine like this in 300 years."
The segment, which aired in October 2012, was part of a Burgundy tour he made in a cramped, ancient Citroën with Ludovic Lefebvre, the bad-boy Los Angeles chef (and Burgundy native). We see Walker and Lefebvre haul a barrel up from the lower cellar and transfer wine into it through a large rectangular funnel. Bourdain's tasting note: "This is good shit."
Lefebvre now works with Bourdain on The Taste, the ABC network cooking competition show Bourdain co-produces and co-hosts with English food writer and television personality Nigella Lawson.
On the set, each of the four judges has a separate trailer and an individualized mise-en-scène where they can be shown meeting with the contestants they mentor. Lawson's is done up to look like an oyster bar; Lefebvre's, a bistro; Marcus Samuelsson's, a New Orleans-themed café. Bourdain's emulates a food market in Vietnam, where he first discovered his TV chops.
He has traversed a long, strange road since that first headiness of screen storytelling. His list of TV and writing credits is lengthy, and includes collaborations with many of the world's top chefs and restaurants (see "The Bourdain File").
To hear him tell it, however, the highlight of his writing career came when David Simon asked him for help with Treme, the HBO series (2010-2013) set in post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans. Treme needed someone to write scenes involving the chef character Janette Desautel, played by Kim Dickens. Bourdain consulted on a couple of episodes on season one and joined the writing staff for the last three seasons.
An outspoken fan of Simon's The Wire, Bourdain says of the experience, "It was like, you're a lifelong baseball fan and somewhere out of the mists Joe DiMaggio says, ‘Hey, you want to come to the backyard and throw the ball around—in fact, why don't you join the team?' I would have done it for free."
He was awed by the reverence his fellow travelers in the culinary world showed for the series. "I would suggest a David Chang-like character, and Simon responds, ‘Let's get David Chang,' " says Bourdain, enthusiastically ticking off an imposing list of star chefs who populated the second and third seasons—Chang, Ripert, Tom Colicchio, Wylie Dufresne, Boulud and Jonathan Waxman.
"These chefs, they're busy people. We could call any chef and say, you want to be on Treme? and in every single case they would be there."
Bourdain's star shines brightest, however, when he is sharing food with locals in Colombia, Jerusalem or Russia, satisfying his irrepressible urge to explore. His first time traveling abroad since he accompanied his parents on visits to France as a child was a 10-day trip to Tokyo in 1999 to help open a branch of Les Halles there, which also produced the "Mission to Tokyo" article. Retelling the story in Kitchen Confidential, he foreshadowed a compulsion to make his storytelling an endless search for the exotic, the strange, the unexpected. He wrote: I did not want to leave. I had only begun to eat. There were a million restaurants, bars, temples, back alleys, nightclubs, neighborhoods and markets to explore. Fully feeling the effects of the sake, I was seriously considering burning my passport, trading my jeans and leather jacket for a dirty seersucker suit and disappearing into the exotic East.
I pictured myself as a character like Greene's Scobie in Africa, or the narrator of The Quiet American in Saigon, even Kurtz in the Congo in Heart of Darkness, my head swimming with all sorts of romantically squalid notions.
Heart of Darkness was on his mind when Bourdain suggested the ceiling fan shot for the Cook's Tour episode on Vietnam. (The Joseph Conrad novel was an inspiration for Apocalypse Now.) The reference to a movie based on that book led, inevitably, to the devastating "Congo" episode in the first season of Parts Unknown. In it, Bourdain reenacts the book's odyssey up the Congo River. As the protagonist does in the book, he traces how the greed of many conquerors, including Congo's own homegrown leaders, had ravaged the country. It had little to do with food, but it was compelling journalism.
Bourdain's own story traces an arc from washing dishes in a Provincetown dive to running the kitchen of a successful bistro, putting substance abuse problems behind him to tell stories about the food world, and ultimately digging into deeper crannies of our human culture.
"I wasted a lot of my life, but it paid off in the end," he says, leaning back into Lawson's sofa on The Taste set. "Had I been a better chef, would I have written Kitchen Confidential? Would I be sitting here now? Would I have seen the world? Would I have had the life I've had the last 14 years, that I'm having now? Probably not."
So, after all that, how would he like to be remembered? "Maybe that I grew up a little," he suggests. "That I'm a dad, that I'm not a half-bad cook, that I can make a good coq au vin. That would be nice. And not such a bad bastard after all."