Anthony Bourdain: Living on a knife-edge

The Deborah Ross Interview: Anthony Bourdain is a former junkie turned bestselling chef, but he hates recipes, despises vegetarians and, burning with indignation, has revealed some of the fishy goings-on in the food industry. So what's cooking with this steamed-up New Yorker?
Click to follow
The Independent Online

How to describe Anthony Bourdain? Well, imagine Delia Smith, say. And then don't. Then, get her right out of your head. You can't? She's still in there, advising you how best to boil an egg ("First, with your fingers, which are on the end of your hands, get an egg... "), while wearing one of those dresses only Delia and lady cellists wear? OK, well try this. Imagine Delia, if you must, but imagine she's got a face like a big, dangerous cliff and loves Hunter S Thompson and The Clash and once had a heroin habit so bad that, one Christmas Eve, "I ended up sitting on a blanket, on Broadway, in the snow, selling my books and records to get money for drugs." Imagine, too, that she's got it in for vegetarians ­ as well as their "Hezbollah-like splinter faction, the vegans" ­ and has written a massive bestseller that has everything to do with advising people against ordering mussels in restaurants ("because they're allowed to wallow in their own foul-smelling piss at the bottom of the reach-in") and nothing to do with recipes, because "recipes are a prison. I hate fucking recipes." I hope this has done it. I hope you haven't got confused and are now imagining Anthony Bourdain in the sort of dress lady cellists wear. He'd look complete rubbish.

I meet Anthony at a hotel in Soho. There he is, in the lounge, his big, rather handsome cliff-face of a head looming up though a cloud of Lucky Strike smoke. He says that he's often asked how, as a chef, he keeps so beanpole-thin. "Well, three packs of cigarettes a day and plenty of neuroses help." We shake hands. I'd read that his hands were spooky things, covered in scars and thick, hard callouses from where the heels of knives have dug in over the years. I don't feel them. He says it's because he hasn't been cooking for a while. "The callouses have gone soft," he says. He is embarrassed, I think. Having calloused hands counts with him. They're like war wounds. Proof that he's been into battle and survived. He is full of zinging testosterone in this way. Perhaps, I suggest, you could get some stick-on callouses? "They'd be very useful," he agrees.

He's not been cooking because he's been writing, and he is in London to promote the paperback edition of his book, Kitchen Confidential. It's a great book, part scorchingly honest, knife-slashed, drug-addicted autobiography and part magnificently compelling exposure of the restaurant business. (Never order fish on a Monday. It won't be fresh.) He still can't quite get used to his success. "At book parties I always think I should be in the cloakroom, pilfering wallets." He's just, actually, returned from making a TV travelogue of unusual foods eaten around the world. He's tried fried worms, he says, and "baby birds, deep-fried whole, with their guts rupturing out".

"Oh... yum!" I exclaim, trying not to come across as the sort of wuss who faints at the sight of liver, even though I am.

"And have you ever tried the durian fruit?" he continues. "It's unbelievably smelly. It smells like Satan's rectum. Belch afterwards and you'll be evicted from a movie theatre."

However, by far his worst experience was the vegan potluck supper his producers forced him to attend in California. "They all turned up with their best dishes, which were horrible. Horrible. They murder their veg."

"Like my mother-in-law, who puts on the Brussels sprouts for Christmas dinner in October?"

"Exactly. And their knifework looked like Fred Flintstone carved it all. It was scum. I have no respect for vegetarians. They sit around saying: 'Did you see the TV last night? They've found PCBs in fish.' They're always looking for something to scare themselves with."

"Organic food?"

"I'm just as happy with an irradiated carrot, so long as it tastes good. Organic food is grown in shit by hippies."

As I said, imagine Delia. Then don't. Jamie Oliver? Ditto. Although, that said, I think Jamie Oliver would look quite fetching in the sort of dress lady cellists wear.

Although Anthony is now an established figure in New York ­ executive chef at Les Halles, a popular, well-rated faux-French diner serving up brasserie staples ­ for most of his career he was just a jobbing guy, tumbling from kitchen to kitchen, working in some awful joints. The worst? Being a short-order brunch cook at some West Greenwich dive. He still can't bear the smell of French toast, eggs, home fries and "all that gloopy stuff, because, to me, it smells of failure and defeat." He says that, as a cook, he sees himself more as a good mechanic than an artist. He did crave Michelin stars once, but after bankrupting the first restaurants he was put in charge of, he rather gave up on that. Still, he cares about good food and good ingredients very deeply. Too deeply, like some chefs? It is, after all... gulp... only food... He says he knows what I mean. He says if, 10 years ago, a customer had asked for the pheasant with the sauce from the scallops, "I'd have told the waiter to tell him to go fuck himself." But now? "I'll do it. It'll hurt, but I'll do it."

I don't know about Anthony Bourdain's cooking. But his writing is excellent. He loves language and uses it with enviable dexterity. What's it like having a big bestseller? "It's a mix of pleasure and terror, like when you were a kid at the seaside and your dad puts you on his shoulders and walks you out into the surf." I think it's this, probably, that saves him from being a kind of Gordon Ramsay with knobs on. Anthony's always been precocious with language. He remembers, when he was pre-kindergarten, finding a book in his parents' bedroom called Why Johnny Can't Read and "teaching myself to read to way beyond what should have been my level." He has always used language as a kind of weapon. He was a madly disturbed child, and his parents once "forced" him to see a psychiatrist. "I can't remember which outrage I'd just committed, but at the second meeting I turned the argument against him. He had a weight problem, and I compared my problem with drugs to his overeating. It was a cruel thing to do. He told my parents I didn't need to see him any more, that I was fine, because he just didn't want me to go back."

"Are you frightened of anything?" I ask.

"Shame. Genuine shame. The prospect of doing something so appalling, I'm ashamed."

"What have you done that you're most ashamed of, then?"

"Stealing from people who've trusted me. Letting people I love down. And all the casual cruelties."

"Such as?"

"When I was a kid, my parents took me out of public school and put me in a private school. My best friend at that time was Michael, a working-class kid who smelt of his parents' kitchen. But when I went to the private school, I turned my back on him. I still cringe when I think about that."

"Are you ever namby-pamby?"

"I'm actually very sentimental. I cry at long-distance-telephone-call commercials. And I'm a complete wuss around my cat."

He lives in Manhattan with his wife, Nancy, who was his high-school sweetheart and has always stuck by him. They have no children and don't plan to have any. "Being able to take care of myself is only a recent development. I couldn't bear the responsibility. I would be afraid all the time. I'm filled with terror enough at what might happen to my cat." He does love his cat, Molly. Molly hates people. Molly spits and scratches. Molly won't be stroked. The other day, he had to get the vet out, and "it took him three hours to take her temperature, then he gave her the kind of drops usually only given to feral cats. I'm very proud of Molly." As he would be.

Anthony ­ the oldest of two sons born to Pierre, a Columbia Records executive who died in 1988, and Gladys, an editor for The New York Times ­ was something of a feral child. Spitting, scratching, always angry; he's not sure why. Perhaps he was just born that way. "I was a terrible torment to my parents. A great disappointment. My mother hoped I'd be a lawyer." Even at the age of four, he was into drawing violent pictures and "got into trouble for telling the other kids at kindergarten I was a dinosaur and was going to eat them, which they believed." He was always being punished for something. Later, it would be the drugs his parents would find in his room and flush down the toilet. He found his escape through film. "I loved movies deeply. I liked lurid stuff that got a reaction. If it upset my mother, then it was all the more powerful." Anything you can't stomach in a film? "I do find extended rape scenes quite worrying."

What, I wonder, does his mother make of him now? "I had coffee with her the other day, and she said: 'Do you have to use such bad language in your books? Can't you be cleaner in the next one?' I told her that all my life I've only ever done the opposite of what she's ever told me, and it seems to be paying off. For once in her life, she had nothing to say."

He went to Vassar, never attending classes but writing essays for other students for drug money, as well as working in Provincetown kitchens in the holidays. Professional kitchens, I think, gave him a sense of belonging, being staffed with other piratical, testosterone-driven misfits. He dropped out of Vassar and went to the Culinary Institute of America, at a time when "the lemon wedge and sprig of parsley were seen as the definitive garnish". He came off heroin in the late Eighties. Was there a turning-point? "I couldn't stand the whine in my voice any more. You know, always whining for money. And being afraid to answer the phone or open the door, in case it was someone I owed money to. I was weak. I looked in the mirror and saw someone pathetic and needy." He went on to the government methadone programme, "which got me off the street overnight, but three times a week I had to queue up with other hideous junkies." Ultimately, he went cold turkey. "It feels like the marrow in your legs is going to explode. You lie there all night, your legs kicking and kicking. It sucks."

In the book, he says he always sought "to fill the empty spot in my soul". Has it been filled now? He's not sure, "although I know what won't make me happy. A new Jag won't make me happy." He isn't especially materialistic, no. "If I got a good car, I'd have to look after it, and wouldn't. It would get dirty and dented, and then I'd feel guilty. I do have a weakness for cowboy boots, though." What gives his life meaning now? "Not being such a bad person any more," he says. "And having other cooks tell me they like my book."

Our time is up. One last question, then. Anything you wouldn't eat, Anthony? Well, he could have tried live monkey brains in Asia. But? "I didn't want to look at the little monkey's face as they were popping his skull and getting his brains out." Honestly, what a big girl's blouse, after all. Perhaps, even, he could just about get away with wearing the sort of dress lady cellists wear.

'Kitchen Confidential' is published by Bloomsbury at £7.99

Comments