Anthony Bourdain Does Not Taste Like Chicken
How could he? As host of the ribald series ‘No Reservations’, Bourdain is the ultimate adventure traveler, eating (and drinking) his way across the planet, courageously swallowing whatever the locals do. This has 1. Caused him to acquire a very funky flavor and 2. Seriously altered his mind.
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[Editors’ Note: On June 8, 2018, Anthony Bourdain was found dead of suicide in France. Bourdain was adventurous, fearless, charismatic, and inspiring. Perhaps most important, though, he was deeply empathetic to the places and people he encountered, which is exactly what made him such a good writer, chef, traveler, and human being. If you are having suicidal thoughts, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255 (TALK).]
It was due to a career change that New York chef Anthony Bourdain found himself sitting on a rock at the edge of the Kalahari Desert, waiting for the Bushmen to bring him the warthog rectum. It was May 2006, and Tony, as he’s known, had left the Manhattan restaurant business to reinvent himself as a television gastro-explorera man who would travel anywhere and eat anything for his Travel Channel show, No Reservations, which completed its third season in September. The warthog had been slathered in dirt and charcoal, then slow-cooked to moist perfection. The creature’s rectum—the “poop chute,” Tony would later call it—was an elongated, translucent tube that looked, if one were being optimistic, a bit like the manicotti you can procure in Little Italy. “The chief of the tribe is offering it to me, the fruit from three days of hunting,” Tony would later say. “The whole tribe is watching, his status is based on being a gatherer of meat, and here he’s giving me the best part. What am I going to do?” Tony was going to choke it down, his eyes glazing over. In typically wry narration recorded for the show after he returned home, he described his appetizer as “barely cleaned, lightly charred” and dubbed it—with all due respect to the Bushmen “the worst meal of my life.”
Not exactly Marlin Perkins, eh?
The exotic lump of flesh currently before Tony has been extracted from behind the gills of a yellowtail. This savory portioncalled the “collar” would be trashed at most American restaurants, but here at Sake Bar Hagi, the Japanese den in Midtown Manhattan that Tony and I have squeezed into this August evening, it’s a delicacy. In the spirit of culinary adventure, Tony brought me through a barely marked door, down a flight of stairs, and into this retreat of Japanese businessmen to sample a variety of challenging entrées. He is 51 years old and six foot five, a stork-like creature with salt-and-pepper hair and an ability to remain unnervingly lucid in almost any situation, like when he'll later go Colonel Kurtz on me and confess that No Reservations has so tweaked his outlook that he's ready to abandon America altogether.
Right now, though, he is craning his neck to catch a glimpse of the chef. “I still see the world from his perspective, the guy who’s standing back there through that window,” he says.
This is a fair distillation of Tony’s method of world exploration. In a rebuke to the lightweight hosts who populate travel and food TV, Tony has developed a more vigorous approach, one that dares you to stick with him for an hour as he learns about a people by eating and drinking what they do. No Reservations might be best summarized as Paul Theroux with more cigarettes. There is no set format, just a location—frequently exotic (Namibia, Uzbekistan, Polynesia), sometimes not (New Jersey, Ohio, South Carolina)—and Tony’s intrepid stomach. Mostly avoiding four-star restaurants, he turns up at market stalls, family weddings, and more primitive food stations to sample whatever’s being served. Each episode plays out like a digressive, impressionistic essay that can veer off in all manner of unusual directions. At times, Tony will be deliriously happy, as when munching on puffin meat in Iceland; at others, he can be inconsolably morose, as when receiving a full-body massage from a sparsely clothed Uzbek man, an experience he called “sexual humiliation.” The show draws the highest ratings on the Travel Channel, perhaps because it retains the giddy flavor of real traveling and eating. Thanks to heavy doses of alcohol and profanity, it’s also the only show on the network preceded by a parental warning.
“I have the luxury of being honest,” Tony says, holding a piece of yellowtail between his chopsticks. “I don't know many travel- or food-show hosts that could say that something sucks, that they never want to come back.”
Or, for that matter, decide to say nothing. During an episode in Belfast that aired in January, Tony had prepared for a standup in front of one of the city’s “peace walls,” which for years separated warring Catholics and Protestants. But when the tape started rolling, he looked uncertainly at the camera for a moment and said, “Anything I say on the subject is going to sound uninformed and idiotic.” Then he walked away.
Professional globetrotter is Tony’s second act. A native of New York City, he spent 28 years pinballing between restaurants on the East Coast, becoming a heroin addict and living hand to mouth before ascending to the position of executive chef at Les Halles, a French brasserie on Park Avenue South. In 2000, he published Kitchen Confidential, a joyous undressing of the restaurant business. (He had previously written two novels.) In it, Bourdain explained why you should never order fish on Mondays and why that hollandaise sauce drizzled over your eggs Benedict probably spent a frightening amount of its life at room temperature. The book dynamited more genteel notions of food writing and became a bestseller, earning Tony writing assignments from Gourmet, The New York Times, and others.
At 44, Tony was married, newly famous, and looking for a change of scenery. So he decided to accrue some frequent-flier miles and write A Cook's Tour (2001). He also let a camera crew tag along to film a companion series that aired on the Food Network. In 2003, he hopped to the Travel Channel to make No Reservations.
The running joke of the show is that Tony is trying to blend in with indigenous people, but his Gumby physique and innate surliness make this all but impossible. At the beginning, we typically see him roaming the streets and proposing some general theories about his destination. Then he embarks on a series of trials that inspire pithy punchlines. (After receiving a mud bath in Iceland: “I feel like drinking just out of spite.”) There are no breakthrough moments in which our protagonist announces he is one with an alien culture. (During a jungle hike on the island of Borneo with a former counterinsurgent: “My job is to keep the leftist rhetoric to a minimum and not to fall too far behind.”)
What Tony seems to spend most of his time doing is boozing with locals, throwing back shots of rice liquor, jungle moonshine, vodka, and all manner of beer. “It’s important that not just me but the whole crew drinks with them a lot prior to, during, and after the shooting period,” he says. “Otherwise, they freeze up. Everybody’s like ‘Welcome to our longhouse, freakish American.’” While everyone gets loose, Tony is often mapping out the show’s narration.
“I would never refer to him as the ‘host’ of the show,” says Chris Collins, who produces No Reservations with his wife, Lydia Tenaglia, and Myleeta Aga. “He’s a guy writing essays that we’re filming.”
Chicken skin, our second course at Hagi, has been cooked over charcoal until it is crispy, then wound around wooden skewers. Tony picks his clean almost instantly, refills his glass of Sapporo from the pitcher, and starts telling me that he has fallen in love with Asia. So far, he’s filmed eight episodes of No Reservations on the other side of the Pacific, on top of about ten he did for A Cook’s Tour. His newest book, No Reservations, a photocentric chronicle of the making of the show that will hit shelves at the end of October, contains the official declaration that he has “gone bamboo.”
“To be honest, when Chris, Lydia, and I went out to shoot the first episodes of A Cook’s Tour in Vietnam, that was it for me,” he says. “I didn’t care what it cost me. I would do anything to keep doing that, to keep feeling that, to keep seeing those colors. My expectations of life changed so much. My previous life was not enough anymore.”
Your previous life as a cook in America? “Even somebody else's life, somebody more successful and secure than I’d ever been. A nice house in Connecticut with savings and enough money to go on a nice vacation—that’s not enough! When you’ve been to the places I’ve been in Asia, that’s it. You want more.
“It's deeply traumatic,” he continues. “It’s like dropping acid. It really is. Your mind expands.”
Letting Tony loose on the world was easy. Reining him in—not so much. “I wouldn't pretend that there aren’t times when I hear something Tony says and I have a deep inhalation of breath,” says Pat Younge, president and general manager of the Travel Channel. On the rare occasion that Younge wants to tinker with an episode—to prune a bit of barnyard language, say, or lose some quip that's caused an uproar down in legal—there ensues a long and gladiatorial e-mail debate. “Once I wanted to change the title sequence,” Younge says, “and Tony sent me an e-mail saying he could feel the blood draining from his veins.”
The Travel Channel knew what they were getting. Tony has never shied away from verbal fisticuffs, and he seems to take particular joy in sniping at the rogue’s gallery of celebrity “chefs.” In Kitchen Confidential, he calls Emeril Lagasse “Ewok-like” and says that four-star gourmands like André Soltner would never invite Tony, a chef of minor repute, to go skiing. (As it happened, after Soltner read the book he did invite Tony to the slopes; Tony has also since developed a grudging respect for Lagasse, or at least his cooking.)
Tonight, he’ll take aim at Rachael Ray. “She’s got a magazine, a television empire, all these bestselling books—I'm guessing she’s not hurting for money,” Tony will say, his voice rising. “She’s hugely influential, particularly with children.
“And she’s endorsing Dunkin’ Donuts.”
“It’s like endorsing crack for kids! I’m not a very ethical guy. I don’t have a lot of principles. But somehow that seems to me over the line. Juvenile diabetes has exploded. Half of Americans don’t have necks. And she’s up there saying, ‘Eat some fuckin’ Dunkin’ Donuts. You look great in that swimsuit—eat another donut!’ That’s evil.”
The Sake Den has somehow grown more crowded, and the courses are coming one on top of another. Succulent, snow-white pork bellies lightly seasoned with salt. Thin slices of beef tongue. Liver on skewers. A second?—third? fourth?—pitcher of Sapporo. Now Tony is arguing that manning a sauce station in a restaurant like this, the career that left him broke and strung out, is more emotionally satisfying than writing books or making travel television, the career that has made him famous.
How can that possibly be true?
“Because you know exactly how well you did after 300 meals,” he says. “You know absolutely, positively.”
And you don’t know when you write a bestseller? When your show is a hit? You don’t get the same sense of approval?
“You don’t need approval after a busy week in the kitchen,” he says. “We all have a bunch of beers and tell each other how great we are. The waiters come over and say, ‘Big tips. Everybody loved it!’ The owner comes over and says, ‘Yeah, big take at the register today!’ You know. You sold all your specials. That’s it. Top of the world.”
If you really want to understand how much travel—and especially travel in Asia—has changed Anthony Bourdain, you need to watch the episode of No Reservations called “Into the Jungle,” which was filmed in Malaysia and aired in August 2005. Tony goes through the typical motions, huffing and puffing his way up hundreds of stairs to receive a blessing from a Hindu high priest, later washing down spicy bull-penis stew with a coffee concoction that's supposed to work like natural Viagra. But something is off. He appears uncertain, as if his usual life spark has been snuffed. Some days later (a few minutes in TV time), he makes his way upriver to a longhouse. He kills a pig with a spear and gulps down rice liquor with local villagers. But he still doesn’t seem to be fully Tony. The episode closes with a wistful monologue in which he asks if one can be “enriched and hollowed out at the same time.”
“Oooh, Malaysia,” he says when I bring it up, sitting back in his chair. “I was generally in a really dark place. I was really sad.”
What was going on?
“A lot of personal stuff had been going on. I was coming out of a marriage and I had other relationships out there,” he says. “And I had a lot of history in that part of the world by this point. My expectations for the day—my expectations of life—had been so altered that it happened to come home during the show. I looked around and realized that there’s no going home 100 percent anymore. I was never really going to go back and be a citizen of the USA the way I had been. It was a problem.”
Now he’s telling me that he and his second wife, Ottavia, an Italian whom he married in April and until recently the general manager of Manhattan Japanese-fusion restaurant Geisha, and their four-month-old daughter, Ariane, are moving to Southeast Asia in the next few years. He’s going to write a book about the experience. This is not a midlife crisis, exactly—more like an evolution. A catharsis. Once Tony was a creature that by his own reckoning could exist only in the closed ecosystem of a kitchen. Now he was seeing things—learning things—and Tony could see his own transformation right there in the jungle. The final shot of the Malaysia episode has Tony waving off the helicopter sent to fetch him back to civilization. It is about as close as No Reservations gets to a dramatic metaphor.
“No one will ever understand, or fully get, or be able to share—There’s no describing this,” he tells me. “The only people who understand me now are the people in my crew. I stepped outside of my life and not all of me could come back. I’ve defected, I’ve betrayed, I’ve crossed some line. I can go back and fake it, but there’s always going to be a piece of me that expects that of life. Visuals that lush. It’s like the movies, only better.”
Tasted & Approved
Bourdain reviews five of his favorite eateries, from Bali to Brazil
Warung Babi Guling (at Jalang Tegal San #2)
The best goddamn pig in the universe. Whole hog, stuffed with fresh herbs, then lovingly slow-roasted over a low flame and mopped with coconut milk. You will never be the same.
New York City
When visiting a strange city, eat what they do best. In New York, we do deli better than anyone. Katz’s is the top of the pile.
Au Pied de Cochon
At Martin Picard’s casual, no-bullshit sugar-shack-meets-French-classic, it’s about foie gras, and pork, and sausage, and all good things, in get-the-defibrillator abundance. This is a meal you have to train for.
This temple to cured meats is one of my Happy Places, and should be a damned national monument. Anything cured or braised—hell, anything they do—is worth trying.
Bar do Mané (at the Mercado Municipal Paulistano)
São Paulo, Brazil
Get the mortadella sandwich: a steaming heap of thinly sliced mortadella and gooey melted cheese in a soft roll. This and a cold beer are the breakfast of choice for travelers in the know.
Adapted from No Reservations: Around the World on an Empty Stomach, out in late October from Bloomsbury USA