In last year’s brash behind-the-dining-room-scenes memoir Kitchen Confidential, veteran New York City chef Anthony Bourdain warned restaurant patrons about the perils of hollandaise sauce, mussels, and fish on Mondays. Those unsavory sound bites, delivered everywhere from Nightline to Oprah, helped propel his book to a 14-week run on the New York Times best-seller list. ”I was stunned,” says Bourdain. ”It’s a best-seller in Germany, for God’s sake! Little old ladies come up to me now, and I’m like, ‘You should be ashamed of yourself for liking that filthy, foul, hyperbolic book.”’
Now the civilized world is about to get a second helping. At 6’4”, in a beat-up leather jacket, cowboy boots, and a gold hoop earring, Bourdain, 45, looks more gangster than grill man. As he looms outside Manhattan’s Barney Greengrass, proud home of the Sturgeon King, he sucks on one last Lark cigarette (three packs a day since age 13—never mind that it kills the taste buds, he says, that’s what salt is for) before heading inside for breakfast. The man’s here to eat; less appetizing to him is the notion that with a new book and a television series around the corner, he has left behind the relatively safe confines of the kitchen and entered the dicier world of fame.
”Oh, I really hate the concept of celebrity chefs,” he says. ”I know chefs who are getting voice coaches now! I have enough reasons to hate myself without looking at myself in the mirror and saying ‘I employ a hairstylist.”’ But Bourdain, a former heroin addict who describes himself as a reformed ”lying, thieving, junkie scumbag,” isn’t about to thumb his nose at a good score.
The success of Kitchen Confidential has afforded him a sense of security few chefs ever enjoy. His credit cards are no longer rejected when he and his wife of 16 years, Nancy, go out to dinner; he has two nice suit jackets for television; and his hands have healed up from 28 years of kitchen abuse. ”It’s bittersweet. I miss my cooks, I miss the life, but at the end of the day, this is a hell of a lot easier than cleaning squid for the lunch rush. What, I’m going to complain about having a book that did well when I get to go to Vietnam and order boat drinks by the pool and eat fabulous foods?”
Bourdain spent the last year and a half jetting from one exotic locale to another, sampling the world’s delicacies for A Cook’s Tour: In Search of the Perfect Meal (Bloomsbury, $25.95). He choked down charred iguana in Mexico, gnawed on cobra heart in Saigon, and braved poisonous blowfish in Japan. All the while, two people with digital cameras recorded his every move, and the Food Network will showcase his journey in a 22-part series that premieres Jan. 8.
”It’s a manic-depressive show,” he says. ”I’m really happy in one shot, and in the next I’m sweaty, sick to my stomach, and angry.” The many locals he encountered typically wanted the lone American to sample their local brew to excess, so Bourdain guesses he was dead drunk for half the tour.