Anthony Bourdain considers himself a professional hedonist. The television presenter and food writer with a punk-rock sensibility looks and talks like an old-school New Yorker: all sharp tongue and scorching wit. He famously spent many years, decades in fact, as a cook in some of Manhattan’s finest and filthiest restaurants.
He worked his way up from dishwasher to celebrity chef via drug addiction. He’s not your average celebrity chef, but a cultural magpie doing what he does best, eating adventurously around the world and dispensing his incisive and irreverent insights about current events, history, politics and pop culture.
His new television show, Parts Unknown, at least the first series, is darker, slicker and more risqué than his previous travel show No Reservations, along with less-accessible, off-the-grid destinations. “CNN has opened up the world for me,” he says, even though he’s covered dicey locales such as Haiti, Saudi Arabia and Red State America. “There’s no way I could’ve gone to Libya or the Congo with any other network.”
Relentlessly curious, Bourdain swept through the first season flitting around forbidding places, opening with an episode in Myanmar and ending in the Congo, Heart of Darkness territory, where he realised a “decades-long dream of travelling down the Congo River”, scudding past basking crocodiles and negotiating with Kalashnikov-carrying mad men in huts.
“It turned out to be hardest shoot of my life yet the most amazing,” he says, as he prepares to set off on another whirlwind to Sicily-Israel-Tokyo-India and beyond to shoot the second season. “We were harassed daily, with despotic security chiefs threatening to confiscate our footage, throw us in jail, demanding either money or having their rings kissed. It was a shocking transition to move from across the border from Rwanda to the other side of the moon. With the 29 or so rebel groups fighting it out within spitting distance at any given moment, it was very fraught and fluid, but if there’s an intriguing story, a subject or culture, I’m fearless and willing to accept any risks. It was fascinating doing a story about being the least understood place on earth. It’s the country with the richest resources in Africa, yet look at it.”
As a presenter, he’s hugely watchable. With his thatch of silvery hair and striking looks, he’s known for his stinging put-downs, swearing like a docker and music sound bites, although it’s his passion for food and sense of adventure that has scored him award-winning television series and millions of fans along the way.
He grew up in suburban New Jersey, in a house filled with music. His father worked at Columbia Records, “bringing home whatever the latest rock’n’roll was: the Beatles, Bob Dylan or Blue Öyster Cult”. Bourdain adds: “He took me to shows at the Fillmore East to see Hendrix, Cream, Frank Zappa and we’d sit there in a cloud of pot smoke. Now I have a lot of musician friends, but I don’t go to gigs anymore; I’m too old and it’s creepy. I remember going to an Elvis Costello concert in the 1980s, scanning the room and thinking, ‘look at those hideous old fucks’. Then, a few years ago, I realised that’s me.”
He was among the first men to attend Vassar, the Ivy League women’s college, once it went co-ed in the 1970s, before being kicked out over a depraved incident involving “angry lesbians and firearms”. Back then, he was “a miserable, self-destructive lout”, whose heroes, aptly enough, were the punks and poets of excess: Hunter S Thompson, Iggy Pop, William Burroughs.
Bourdain came to New York City straight from cooking school in the 1970s, when the city, facing bankruptcy, blackouts and riots, was exciting and dangerous, and looked like a graffiti-ridden, garbage-strewn war zone. He quickly fell into that dark inferno scraping a living as a prep cook then a head chef all while using and abusing alcohol and Class-A drugs, and trying to salvage a wrecked marriage.
“I walked into every bad situation with my eyes wide open,” he remembers, and there was hell to pay. “I knew the risks of heroin, but I wanted to be a junkie. It’s been fun and interesting. Fortunately I got myself out of it, but I don’t regret it. Of course I’m sorry about the people that I’ve hurt and disappointed. No doubt there have been many. I’ve lived a life and never missed any opportunities to indulge myself, and, in the end, I got the best job in the world, travelling everywhere, gorging myself on expensive food and fine wines. And I’m milking it for everything I can.”
He found fame in his mid-40s after the publication of Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly, a best-selling exposé about what goes on in kitchens when customers aren’t looking. Since he wrote Kitchen Confidential the assumption was that he was just another wayward chef with a foul mouth and fiery temper, except he could write like a demon and is the author of three cooking memoirs and as many crime thrillers.
“I was living a chaotic, insecure life, working 15‒17-hour shifts, six days a week and making enough money to squeak by,” he says of those days when he was tumbling from kitchen to kitchen. He and his colleagues, “a bunch of losers and ex-cons” were living “like rock stars — getting fed, drinking for free, stealing good shit and getting laid”. Bourdain adds: “I never paid my rent on time, never had health insurance. I hadn’t filed a tax return in 10 years or responded to American Express’s demands for payments for as long. But even at my lowest point, I knew I could still eat well.”
When he became a star overnight with Kitchen Confidential, which started life as an article in the New Yorker, he was more surprised than anyone. “My wildest hope was that I’d sell enough copies to get a small advance for another book. I spent my life from 17 to 44 holed up in the kitchen. I grew up reading adventure stories in far-away places and dreamed of going to them, but by the time I hit 40 I’d given up going anywhere. Until about 10 or so years ago, I’d seen nothing, been nowhere. I went to the Caribbean with my first wife and to France with my family as a kid, and that was it.”
It was during one of his rare family holidays with his parents in France that he grasped the exoticism and true sensuousness of food.
Bourdain’s witty, clear-eyed observations about the way people eat and entertain go beyond the stale food-culture commentaries of other cooking and travel shows. In the Myanmar episode he observed that “everyone I’ve met in this country so far has been to prison”; and as he sits down to dinner with someone he suspects of being an apologist for the former regime, he explains “there are whole areas that are off limits and shit going on they don’t want you to see”. In Colombia, he talks about the war on drugs in a place ravaged by the trade; and while cruising around LA’s Koreatown, he remarks on Korean-American stereotypes: “Korean kids grow up to be doctors, lawyers or engineers. But what if you’re a bad Korean and you just didn’t give a fuck.” On the appeal of Tangier: “If you’re a bad boy, liked drugs, the kind of sex that was frowned upon at home and an affordable lifestyle set against an exotic background, Tangier is for you.”
He concedes, despite his ‘not-giving-a-shit business philosophy’, that he has CNN’s global audience to consider. “They took me as I am, faults and all. They’ve given me a lot of freedom and never tried to mould me into some perceived CNN brand. I have a pretty good idea of what’s not going to fly on TV and I’m not going to be a jerk about it.”
At 57, he has acquired a middle-aged mellowness: a reformed family man, off the hard drugs and Marlboro Reds, and settled in sybaritic cosiness on New York’s Upper East Side with his second wife Ottavia Busia and their six-year-old daughter.
Everything he does Bourdain puts his heart and soul into, from drawing attention to the lingering scars of war and genocide in Libya, the post-earthquake disaster in Haiti to using his influence to help the struggling Congolese and suggesting the organisation HEAL Africa via Twitter. “There’s no walking away from it. You take a little of that away with you. It’s a situation where every day leaving your hotel you’re confronted by 10 desperate people begging for money; right away it’s a triage situation, you pick one, that requires hardening your heart to the other nine. It’s a cumulative effect and changes the way you look at your own country, your own life, everything. When you see little girls, the same age as your daughter, who come from generations of trash pickers, it changes the way you look at the whole world.”
Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown series two airs on 15 September on CNN International.