NY1's Budd Mishkin continues his "One On 1" series with a profile of a New Yorker who spends most of the year on the road, chef, writer and TV host Anthony Bourdain.
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Here’s a line you rarely hear on TV.
"Great! Deer penis again. Here comes the snake wine," jokes Bourdain.
Or how about:
"I've heard about this Sardinian cheese that's supposed to be spectacular, yet when you cut into it, it's hopping with maggots. I'm thinking it's got to be good,” says Bourdain.
Deer penis and Sardinian cheese hopping with maggots.
Welcome to life on the road with Anthony Bourdain, former chef, writer and host of "no reservation" on the travel network.
Let's just say his reputation for eating just about anything is known around the world.
"Guest of honor in Asia, you’re seated at the head of the table, all the honchos sitting around you expectantly. ÎAh, Mr. Mishkin, we have something very special for you, as our honored guest. Very difficult to find.' Out pops the Monkey's head. You're in a difficult situation,” says Bourdain.
Bourdain’s rules? No live monkey brain, rat, cat or dog. Other than that, bon appetit.
But the serious side of Bourdain can also link a country’s food with its culture and history.
He was in Beirut this summer enjoying that city's food resurgence when Hezbollah supporters started firing in the air to mark the kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers.
"The people I was with first looked embarrassed and ashamed and described it as if you had a psychotic younger brother who was always getting the whole family in terrible trouble,” says Bourdain. “Followed by this terrible look of resignation. I think they knew right away what was going to happen next and that's pretty much what happened."
It wasn't that long ago that the idea of Bourdain traveling and being known around the world would have seemed inconceivable, most of all to Bourdain himself.
He was a New York chef, primarily at Les Halles, where he occasionally took time to write. It became “Kitchen Confidential,” a no-holds-barred look at his 25 years in the New York food business. When it came out in 2000, everything changed.
"The fact that chefs and cooks all over the world have responded so positively to it· I get so many late-night calls from cooks: ÎDude! You wrote my life!’ That's deeply satisfying to me,” says Bourdain.
"When I wrote it I had no, no, not even the remotest expectation that the book would sell, maybe that it would be a tiny cult success among New York area cooks and restaurant people,” says Bourdain. “The thought that I would ever get to live this life. I still can't believe it."
"Some writer who doesn't like me very much said, "Bourdain's still doing the same thing. He's playing Îlook’ with his food,' Eating gross stuff and opening his mouth. And in a lot of ways that was an accurate assessment,” says Bourdain.
Bourdain's love of trying just about any type of food began with parents who introduced him to Swedish and Japanese and Italian food, and an Aunt who lived in the south of France. Pretty exotic for a kid from Leonia, New Jersey.
But Bourdain describes himself in those years as angry, maladjusted, thoughtless.
"Nine, ten years old, I was reading about hippies, Jefferson Airplane,” says Bourdain. “I couldn't wait to get old enough so that I could score. You know, where's all that free love? And I want to go have sex with Grace Slick and I want to go drop acid on a commune. Well, by the time I turned 17, clearly that was all a hideous sham and I knew full well I didn't want to be arguing over whose yogurt it was in some damn commune, much less hanging out with hippies.”
Bourdain fell into the restaurant business, first on Cape Cod, then in New York.
It may have been the first of many non-traditional paths taken by the recent college grad.
"I was a very happy dishwasher. That was the first time in my life that I went home proud. Where I found people whose respect I craved and needed,” says Bourdain.
Bourdain went to the Culinary Institute and became a chef, loving the work and the lifestyle.
"I'm a chef,” says Bourdain. “We know what they're like so you kind of get a pass. In some ways it frees me from having to be a fully-developed human being."
His lifestyle in the early years of the business included a drug addiction, which he says he started to kick in the mid-80s.
"It's not like, I really should pull back from this. No. It's, I don't have any other options. It's either I'm going to go on and live and do other things or I'm going to die a pathetic, cringing, whining, begging junkie,” says Bourdain.
"It was not a heroic struggle. As I see it, I was one of those people who, once I decided I wanted to live; did. It was just that simple,” says Bourdain.
He got rid of the drugs. But he never shook the love of the kitchen.
He calls it the last meritocracy, where people of different backgrounds work together, judged only by their performance.
Occasionally you'll find Bourdain back in the saddle at his old place, Les Halles. But his hands tell the true story.
"Most of the scars are pretty faint. I have the little crooked finger, but I'm totally wussed out. Five years of living la vida loca,” says Bourdain. “I’m kind of embarrassed by my soft and supple hands now. It was a real badge of honor.”
Bourdain describes the kitchen as a place where you can say anything you want. And he's carried on in that tradition, with opinions about his old network.
"The Food Network is about food the same way MTV is about music, which is to say, not at all any more, is it?” says Bourdain.
And one of his favorite topics: vegans.
"They were always a minor irritant to chefs, though a profit center, because they pay top-dollar for stuff we have just lying around,” says Bourdain.
Bourdain turned 50 this year.
He was married, now separated, and admits that the lifestyle of a chef and now globe trotting taster comes with some sacrifice.
"You gain the world, but being a friend of mine is sort of fits and starts sort of a thing. I'm never here. What kind of a friend would I be when I'm not there for you?” says Bourdain.
Still, for any of us with the travel bug, particularly middle-aged wanderlust, Bourdain's life seems like the stuff of dreams.
"Who has a job like mine? I get to go anywhere I want in the world, say whatever I want to say, write whatever I want, and make TV shows exactly the way I want to make them with really almost no interference. If I always wanted to go to Fiji, we're going to Fiji," says Bourdain.
— Budd Mishkin