A decade after his explosive memoir, Kitchen Confidential, laid bare the underbelly of the restaurant scene, the celebrated chef and food writer Anthony Bourdain is back for a second helping. But now he has hung up his apron, has he any plans to stop being a “loud, egotistical, one-note asshole”?
At one point in his new book Medium Raw, the American chef turned food writer Anthony Bourdain imagines a cussing contest with a critic of his work. If somebody really wanted to put the boot in, he says, they could call him “a loud, egotistical, one-note asshole who’s been cruising on the reputation of one obnoxious, over-testosteroned book for way too long and who should just shut the fuck up”. Ah yes, the over-testosteroned book, or Kitchen Confidential, as it said on the cover. Published a decade ago, it was a rollicking, boisterous read which gave voice to a once-silent tribe: the tattooed madmen and drug fiends, the knife-wielding obsessives and compulsives and cutthroats who work the kitchens of a great city’s great restaurants, in this case New York. It has been credited with freeing food writing from the confines of the genteel and the prissy; with giving it cojones and a racing pulse.
What it did was free Bourdain, then a whip-thin fortysomething ex-junkie, from the gruelling life of the kitchen that he had written about. He was lauded for his authenticity. He was the man who had swapped his blade for a pen. (The fact that he had already written a couple of rather good, jaunty kitchen-based crime novels with names such as Bone in the Throat was conveniently overlooked, because it diluted the tale of breakthrough and arrival.) Even though there has been a whole bunch of Bourdain books since Kitchen Confidential – travel writing; a cookbook from Les Halles, the New York French brasserie where he was last employed; collections of journalism – it is the new one, subtitled A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food and the People Who Cook, which is being sold as the sequel. Certainly the original casts a hugely long shadow across it. A lot of the time the new volume reads as nothing less than an apologia for the first. Or at least an apologia for the success it brought him.
“I am apologetic, no question,” Bourdain says when he talks to me by phone from somewhere unglamorous in Southern California where he is on tour. It is in the nature of what he does now that he is often on tour these days. “It’s something I feel compelled to be upfront about. I’ve become a privileged, well-travelled, overindulged foodie – and that gives me if not a sense of guilt then a sense of discomfort.” It seems a curious response to the situation in which he finds himself: famous and widely liked, reasonably well off, fully employed. As well as the writing, he has made a succession of well-received TV shows, first for the Food Network and now for the Travel Channel, for which he has just completed the 100th episode of his show No Reservations, a freewheeling global travelogue based around food. The problem, Bourdain says, is the nature of that employment. “I feel uncomfortable with the fact that a day’s work used to be something that made you feel worn down. It was 12 hours working with your hands. I feel apologetic about how easy my life is now.”
I suggest this places him in an interesting crew within American writing, alongside the likes of Ernest Hemingway and Norman Mailer, who regarded writing as somehow unmanly, even sissy, and who therefore needed to bolster their macho credentials in some other way, be it shooting big animals or playing at boxing. Bourdain, who is more than well-enough read to argue the toss on this one, dismisses the point. “But Hemingway was only ever a writer. He didn’t ever do another proper manual job. Whereas I was a cook for 25 years and I will always look at the world from that point of view.”
Not that he could do it now, he says, and he knows because he’s tried. He went back to do a few double shifts in kitchens. “I was able to squeak through. But I’m not that guy any more and I wouldn’t be any good at being that guy. And in a way I feel I need to remind the old tribe, the new generations that read Kitchen Confidential every year. They need to know it’s been 10 years since I really did that. I can’t go out and do tequila shots until three in the morning with them any more.”
Ah yes, the tribe. I met them once, at a book event we did together. There was an audience of about 200 – 199 for Bourdain, and my wife, which was nice. It was terrifying. I was the restaurant critic. They were Bourdain’s crew, bed-haired at 8pm, wild-eyed and adoring, but only of him. I felt like a lump of tuna belly waiting to be portioned. I ask Bourdain if he misses being with these people in their kitchens. “I don’t miss the heat and the pain. The success of Kitchen Confidential came at a very good time for me. Clint Eastwood always says a man should know his limitations – and I found mine. The truth is I don’t miss cooking, but I do miss having cooked, that feeling afterwards.”
The new volume finds him reflecting on all this and much, much more. At times, as he describes drink-soaked adventures on Caribbean islands with high-maintenance, high-class coke fiends, or tangling with the sort of dead-eyed corporate television executives he has to work with these days, or firing off barbed insults at food writers he hates, the modern Bourdain seems like a very angry, pissed-off man. “If anything, I think I’m much less angry,” he says. “I really and truly believed I was writing a philosophical look back at who I am from the position of being a more comfortable guy.” It is true that he has a new (Italian) wife and a new daughter which, cliché though it may be, has softened him. The chapter on his attempts to stop her ever tasting a McDonald’s is one of the more invigorating. But there is no ignoring the acrid stench of vented spleen across most pages. If you’re a big-name food writer in America, or a big-time TV exec, you have a serious chance of feeling Bourdain’s literary stiletto between your shoulder blades. “Any passionate writing about food by people who actually like it is useful and good,” he says, “but it also creates an overindulged class of people who resent their jobs and the people they have to deal with, and it would be all too easy for me to become a part of the mouldering heap.” Plus, he says, he has always made the best decisions in his life when he has closed as many doors as possible. He lists his targets in the book. “That’s an awful lot of parties in New York I can no longer go to.”
The curious thing is that he is far less dismissive of the celebrity-chef world than he once was, accepting that the business of professional endorsements is just what people do to turn a buck, and admits that it was naive and precious of him to be critical of such things. So could we see him endorsing cookware? “Nooooo! I just couldn’t. Not that. It would be wrong because I’m not that guy any more.” He tells me that Imodium, the antidiarrheal brand, did “reach out” to him. I suggest, given the arduous overeating regime of the professional food writer, that the medication might have been the perfect fit, endorsement-wise. He laughs. “If Aston Martin wanted me to endorse its product I could probably manage that.”
So what of the restaurant world that he has left behind? How does he think it’s changed in the past decade since his original book was published? “It’s a much better place, a more hopeful and professional and civilised place. It’s easy to romanticise the days when we used to sit in the kitchen smoking and scratching our nuts, but things have moved on.” The reason: the rise of the celebrity chef. “It’s a fortunate side effect. People now care about chefs, give them respect, and are willing to try new things because of that respect. Hey, you might even let your daughter marry one.”
But Bourdain is no longer a chef, and anyway he is off the market. These days he travels for his TV show 175 days of the year, a process he adores. “But the thing that really makes big bucks? I’ll tell you. Public speaking: audiences of 2,500 will pay Ticketmaster prices to see me and a chef sit on a sofa chatting to each other about food, cooking and restaurants. I do that 40 days of the year.” Is it as arduous as service in a busy kitchen? Absolutely not. It doesn’t even bear comparison. But it is a lot better paid, and there are very few people who could pull it off. Doubtless that’s another thing Bourdain feels the need to apologise for. Meanwhile his fans don’t care. They can’t get enough of him.
Anthony Bourdain’s Medium Raw: A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food and the People Who Cook (Bloomsbury, £18.99) is out now
Jay Rayner is the Observer Magazine’s restaurant critic