Because of “Kitchen Confidential,” I can’t eat mussels. Nor can I eat seafood in a restaurant on a Monday, and I’m still skeptical about the bread basket that I get. And now I’m worried about the future of the world, if we don’t immediately compost our food waste.
This is all because of what Anthony Bourdain told me in his 2000 memoir, “Kitchen Confidential.” The bad boy of the restaurant and culinary scene, Bourdain has risen to godlike status among foodies and restaurant cognoscenti, having spilled secrets about the dining industry and the food-related universe at large.
Interestingly, the 61-year-old Bourdain says he never imagined being in this position. “I wrote ‘Kitchen Confidential’ because I love to write, and I wanted to share my thoughts about the insane restaurant world that I worked and lived in at the time. I was a fan of George Orwell’s ‘Down and Out in London and Paris,’ which described the life of a dishwasher, as I had been. I wrote a little piece in 1999, ‘Don’t Eat Before Reading This,’ sent it off to the New York Press [an alternative weekly newspaper, now folded], and after they sat on it for weeks, in a moment of drunken, late-night hubris, I said I’m taking it back and I sent it to The New Yorker.” Editor David Remnick ran it immediately. When a publisher contacted him for a book deal based on The New Yorker article, his life took a different turn. “Kitchen Confidential” became a megahit, and Bourdain was approached by a TV crew, who followed him around the city and in his kitchen at Les Halles for a year. “I had no expectation it was going to sell outside of New York,” he remarks, but the success of an international book tour left him feeling that he was “strong enough to pitch a TV series about eating around the world.” Thus began Bourdain’s TV food career. His first show, “A Cook’s Tour,” aired on The Food Network, 2002–2003 and showed off his brand of brash, call-it like-it-is reporting, which viewers loved. “I talk about what I see, as I see it … I am not a journalist, I’m a storyteller.”
Anthony Bourdain grew up in Leonia, New Jersey, a self-
described “monstrous child, the nightmare version of the cranky teen” and an eventual college dropout. His renegade lifestyle and need for money led him to Provincetown, Massachusetts, where he took a job as a dishwasher at a flounder-and-fried-clam restaurant. The people behind the scenes and the relentless pace intrigued him, and he enrolled in the Culinary Institute of America, where he was challenged to become a chef. He moved back to the New York area and worked as a chef and cook at restaurants like the Rainbow Room and the now-closed One Fifth and W.P.A. Armed with a CIA degree and a multirestaurant pedigree, he took the helm at Les Halles in the 1980s, where his memoir about the whirl and “high-speed hyperbolic prose” of days in a restaurant kitchen took seed.
Bourdain has always loved writing. “As a kid I loved comic books and reading … before I brush my teeth, I roll out of bed and start writing.” He adds, With ‘Kitchen Confidential,’ I was hoping it would be entertaining and familiar to people in the industry. I hoped when I accepted the challenge of a TV show, it would give me time to write another book. I never knew I would be on camera all the time.”
“Layover” and “No Reservations” on The Travel Channel followed, along with CNN’s current “Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown,” with the latter moving into the arena of politics. “Some people say I should stay away from observations about a country’s problems, but food IS politics. It’s an intrinsic part of the historic fabric of a country: I’m going to show the real world, not just the touristic.”
Working with major chefs and food specialists throughout the world, he released a documentary about food waste in 2016. In “Wasted,” Bourdain decries the amount of food wasted daily and espouses the need for better education and more ways to reuse uneaten food. He points to Chef/restaurateur Danny Bowien of New York’s Mission Chinese Food as a prime example of someone who uses every part of an animal to create delicious, often exotic dishes that leave nothing to send to landfill.
“I’m a longtime working cook: We were taught from the very beginning that one must not waste food,” he says.” His newest cookbook, “Appetites,” an ode to home-cooked favorites, also shows ways to cook smarter for better food management.
While he marvels at everything Asian and says he could live in Tokyo, if he were to pick any city in the world to move to, New York remains home. So, where does he eat when he’s not traveling the globe? He laughs, “I love the basics you can only get in New York like deli or dirty-water dogs. Queens has the best food. It’s an unexplored area that has everything.” You’ll also find him in Manhattan at Papaya King enjoying a crunchy-skin hot dog slathered in sauerkraut, at Russ & Daughters indulging in a plate of chopped liver, or at Shake Shack with a burger in hand. For finer dining, he recommends Marea and Osteria Morini for pasta and Eric Ripert’s Le Bernardin for the kind of transformational meal that opened his eyes while he was a chef at Les Halles. Favorite times are spent at home, though, with his 10-year-old daughter, Ariane, cooking for her or ordering in pastrami on rye from Pastrami Queen.
What’s on the docket for Bourdain? “I was intrigued by Detroit when I visited for ‘No Reservations’ and more so after I did a ‘Parts Unknown’ episode there in 2013,” he observes. “I think Detroit is one of the most beautiful cities in America—still. It’s where so many of our uniquely American dreams were forged.” To this end, he’s working on a historical series about Detroit in the 1960s. After that? “I’m starting a comic book series about chefs called ‘Hungry Ghosts.’ Some day, maybe I’ll teach creative writing.” In the meantime, he’s an annual guest at the Bronx Academy of Letters “Food for Thought” event, where he joins an elite group of chefs to raise funds for student programs, including literacy. Bravo, Bourdain, bravo.