A natural at cooking up storms

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 09 July, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 09 July, 2005, 12:00am

ANTHONY BOURDAIN likes to show off his 'battle' scars - the marks of a veteran in the food business.

The celebrity chef and author points to multiple knife wounds on his hands and a deformed little finger - tell-tale signs of a lifetime in the kitchen. There are also dark spots on his skin from blisters sustained over years of grabbing too many hot pan handles.

His resume is written right there on his hands; you feel it in the handshake, in all those calluses.

Until a few years ago, when he turned to writing, Bourdain's life was consumed by the restaurant business. He was executive chef of the French brasserie Les Halles in three big cities - New York, Washington and Tokyo. With more than three decades spent in the kitchen, he has seen more nights of wining and dining than one would care to imagine. He has the face of someone who has worked 17-hour days for the past 30 years.

The food and beverage life demands sacrifices. No weekends, no holidays and hardly any personal life ('unless you have a girlfriend who's extremely understanding, forget it'). It is an endless cycle of meeting orders and satisfying customers.

But for those who love their work, life in the industry is good and there is no sacrifice at all.

Bourdain's two great loves are food and writing, and the two came together one day when he felt inspired to write an article about the underworld of the restaurant industry - a subject he is all too familiar with.

For months the article sat on his computer. And then, early one morning, after a night of drinking, he summoned up the courage to drop the document in the mail.

It was addressed to no less than the celebrated New Yorker magazine.

What happened next is the stuff of literary dreams. An editor from The New Yorker called Bourdain to secure rights for his entertaining take on restaurants and unethical practices.

'It was a dirty, nasty piece,' Bourdain recalls. It named names and pointed fingers. It was a raw tell-all story and a must-read for anyone who dined out regularly.

For example, it advised diners never to order sushi on Mondays (because the fish has been sitting on ice for at least four days) and warned that buffets were likely to be a smorgasbord of restaurant leftovers.

The article became a survival guide for regular diners, and the information it contained spread like office flu. Naturally, publishers came knocking, and a book deal soon followed.

Despite his new-found glory, Bourdain was not carried away with his literary achievement. He did not quit his day job to write full time. Instead, he reduced his 17-hour day to 14 hours, and did his writing when he got home. A chapter each night.

When his book came out, it was an instant success. Kitchen Confidential was a stocking stuffer for Christmas 2000 and a top seller worldwide.

The climate at the time was just right in the media for lifestyle programming, and the newly formed New York Times/ Discovery Channel was lining up programmes for its first season on television.

Anthony Bourdain proved a perfect counterbalance to the cute, all-too-wholesome television chef and household favourite Jamie Oliver. He was smart-mouthed and cynical. You loved him or you hated him. Either way, his show made for great TV.

A Cook's Tour, a small-budget television series, was created with Bourdain as host. He was also commissioned to write a book to accompany the series. He and a small production crew spent several months travelling to food capitals east and west, from Portugal to Cambodia.

With the first couple of broadcasts, Bourdain became a household name. His brutal honesty about food and the colourful backdrop of global travel attracted a huge following. He challenged audiences to move beyond the usual fare and be daring.

'People in Ohio love me because I ate duck tongue on camera,' Bourdain said. 'If I can make [others] less fearful and squeamish to try it, then I've done my job, but I'm not trying to be an educator by any means.'

Bourdain's transition from the restaurant world into publishing has earned him a reputation as a classically trained French 'cook, not chef', as he is quick to point out. He is also a gifted story-teller.

Before writing Kitchen Confidential, he tried his hand at fiction writing, penning a detective story titled Bone In The Throat ('it was big in Japan').

When A Cook's Tour made him a celebrity, Bourdain vowed he would never write a cookbook, saying it was beneath any cook to sell out this way. He retracted this, however, and produced Les Halles Cookbook, which came out this year. He claimed his diary of recipes was a 'true cook's cookbook', a utilitarian device wrapped in brown paper.

Life is very different for Bourdain now, comfortably settled as he is in his roles as author and television host.

So what's next on the menu?

'I'm off to Vietnam - to live in a fishing village. Just me and my computer,' he said. 'As an American growing up in the '60s, I have always been fascinated by Vietnam. It must be the western guilt thing.'

These days the body scars he accumulates are mostly sun rashes and bug bites suffered on his Asia tours to promote his cookbook and a new television series, Decoding Ferran Adria (Discovery Channel).

And how does he feel about the writing life? 'If I can do this for the rest of my life, I'm happy,' he said.

Lessons from Bourdain

Don't aspire to become a chef unless you are prepared to become a janitor, a dishwasher, a kitchen runner and a vegetable peeler first.

Fame is not an achievable goal but an accident if you are doing your job exceptionally well and people take notice.

Write about what you really know. Don't bother to say anything if you've got nothing to say.