St. Petersburg Times Online: Taste

Weather | Sports | Forums | Comics | Classifieds | Calendar | Movies

Blood, sweat and spices

Chef Anthony Bourdain, who runs New York's most successful revival brasserie, won fame by revealing the dirty secrets of restaurant kitchens.

By CHRIS SHERMAN, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 20, 2002


Chef Anthony Bourdain, who runs New York's most successful revival brasserie, won fame by revealing the dirty secrets of restaurant kitchens.

TAMPA -- Anthony Bourdain, America's new bad-boy chef, and tell-all author, the man who gives the Food Network the taste of Survivor, is late.

He isn't especially angry, and when the word "knucklehead" escapes his lips, it's a refreshing reminder that we used to have insults other than obscenities.

That's hardly what you expect after digesting his books, which read more like Hunter Thompson than M.F.K. Fisher, or his black-leather swagger on Food Network's A Cook's Tour (10:30 p.m. Tuesdays, repeating 1:30 a.m. Wednesdays and 11 p.m. Saturdays).

In person, on a day when he's got an interview on WMNF-FM 88.5, an Inkwood book signing and dinner at Mise en Place toward the end of a 23-city tour, he is neither profane nor diplomatic when he sits down at La Teresita's lunch counter at 3:15.

He is hungry.

Boliche Boulevard is still eating and he joins in gladly. Glancing over a menu where few prices top $5.95, he says, "I don't care if I never see another slab of seared foie gras. I really want this."

Torn between the Wednesday specials, he picks roast pork over ropa vieja, with yellow rice, red beans, an order of plantains and to drink, a thick, sweet batido of mamey.

Yes, smoking is allowed, apparent in the air and on the floor, he sighs with rare relief and pulls out a pack of red Larks.

"Most chefs I know smoke," Bourdain says without apology. It doesn't mean they or their food has no taste. "That's what salt is for," he jokes, telling one of those overstated but not untrue secrets of the trade that shock and fascinate his food-obsessed fans.

Telling tales out of school won him fame among foodies. Four years ago, Bourdain was no celebrity and no celebrity chef, just a chef with a tale of hard luck and hard drugs rebuilt through hard work to run the kitchen of Les Halles, New York's most successful revival brasserie. On the side he'd started to write culinary thrillers, Gone Bamboo and Bone in the Throat (both Bloomsbury Publications).

Neither drew the notices he got for a New Yorker article in 2000 revealing that kitchens catering to the chattering classes almost never had fresh fish on Monday and made most dishes taste better with, horrors, butter, salt and cream.

He took those revelations full length in Kitchen Confidential, Tales from the Culinary Underbelly (Bloomsbury Publications). The book won him two groups of fans, on one side diners who saw him as a new Upton Sinclair showing the dirty backstage, and on the other side cooks and restaurateurs who saw one of their own celebrating the blood and sweat that spices real life in the kitchen.

The latter, whom he describes as scamps and rascals at best, including himself, are right.

"I wrote it as a love letter to the industry. Anyone who's ever dumped french fries for a summer knows that," he says.

He wanted to skewer the image of chefs as fanciful poets in pure white jackets. In its place, he painted a more honest, somewhat macho picture tale of Dirty Dozen bands of people who play with fire and sharp objects and get their hands dirty, greasy, burned and cut.

Together they made it a bestseller and him a celebrity.

That was followed by a book on Typhoid Mary (also a cook) and then a global search for the perfect meal, which became the current TV series and a book about the travel, the food, the show taping -- and his revulsion at the television process. He sought out the "Ewww-yuck" meals of cobra heart, Japanese fugu and Scotch haggis as well as nostalgic nibbles in France and a killer feast at the French Laundry restaurant in Napa.

A Cook's Tour is fast winning him a place next to Iron Chef among male viewers looking for late night food shows with attitude. Women are drawn to him as well, many of whom would like to reform him, judging by Internet chat room talk.

Publicizing the series and books led him to this stool on that stretch of Columbus Avenue in West Tampa lined with Cuban restaurants and bodegas. Bourdain in person is much as billed. He's tall, lean and taut, his wavy hair is close cropped and seems coiled.

"I'm as unpleasant on camera as I am off," he brags, but actually he seems at ease, if not relaxed then resigned to the rote requirements of touring and promoting.

He's not in major black or hip fashion except for the gold thumb ring, just sport coat over a blue T-shirt.

He is not argumentative or profane, simply on. He talks articulately, passionately and at length about anything that has to do with food -- and still manages to eat.

Ultimately he is not a bomb thrower, but an unreconstructed conservative in food terms, a traditionalist who demands respect for the origins of eating: the ingredients, the cooking and the appetites.

The great cooking of the world, what he calls "the Mama cuisines," are those that use everything and waste no part of the animals, fish or crops, one reason he delights in the odd and the offal.

"Here, we eat the chicken breast and throw the rest away," Bourdain says. The economy and efficiency of peasant life eventually led to what we now regard as fine cuisine: Pates, mousses and terrines, good stocks or dishes like sweetbreads, all came from a reluctance to waste.

"Any sophisticated culture," he says, "eats fish heads." And many traditional cuisines include an unembarrassed carnivorousness that he delights in throwing up to vegetarians. "Animals were hurt and killed in the making of this show," he says.

The loss of connection to rural life and farming in the United States is one reason he spent most of his cook's tour in other countries. "I wanted to eat Mexican food and see Mexico out the window."

In fact he found his best eating and cooking in Mexico, "where all the good cooks come from," in American restaurants and in Vietnam. "I just fell in love with the place (Vietnam)."

While the TV series parcels out his travels somewhat equally, Bourdain's book returns to Vietnam repeatedly, to delight in its fresh, crisp cooking and the welcoming people he found in territories that had supported and repelled Americans during the war. He was impressed by the Vietnamese pride in cooking, where he found each village and region contending theirs the best. "Wherever you have proud cooks, you have good cooking."

An appreciation for primal cooking is growing in America, he says optimistically, citing the wide availability of sushi, growing variety of meat cuts on good menus and, of course, a lusty appetite for French bistro restaurants, like the one where he works.

Les Halles, a success in New York, Washington and Miami, is named for the old Paris food market and specializes in hearty dishes, from cassoulet and choucroute to pork breasts and boudin, and a wide range of French cheeses, sausages and such that do not fit other trends such as sterile, low-fat dining.

"Very body-conscious people come in for big plates of frites and Bearnaise and cotes de bouf the size of your head. It's loud dark and rustic. There's no room for attitude. People don't come in to nibble. People are reaching out for the real, not necessarily the new."

Yet while most of the food world obsesses on high-end ingredients, Bourdain emphasizes the human role, the cooks and chefs who made those economies centuries ago.

He acknowledges: "We are not going back to an agrarian wonderland," where home cooks spend half the day making food.

Instead he celebrates the home cook, from market stalls to fine restaurants, always delighting in the hard, dirty, underpaid work of making great food for someone else to wolf down.

"There are two great moments for a chef, one is when you're in the groove and you put a plate up there on the shelf before the waiter takes it and it's beautiful. The other is at the end of a busy night, a Saturday, and you're sitting at the bar having a drink and talking shop with your staff."

To anyone who wants to join that crew, he warns that cooking school is not the first step. "Get a job as a dishwasher for six months. That's the best vantage point to see if you really want to work in this industry. You'll see what chefs really have to do, like cleaning out the grease trap."

Those who want to can go to cooking schools (to learn a shared vocabulary and to make contacts), but after that "apprentice yourself out to some great chef and wipe their brow for four months for nothing."

After weeks on the road producing and promoting his newest project, Bourdain is eager to get back to his kitchen, although he says he works the line only occasionally "just to show the young puppies that Pops can still do it." He's 45.

He is more ambivalent about his role in television. His books are as candid and frank about the process of making television as working a dinner rush. He lists numerous "reasons for not doing television," conceding the artificiality of even his own "real-life" show. He traveled with a large crew and a big budget, sometimes spending three hours eating and drinking in a restaurant saying good-bye and then having to do the set up shot again, walking into the restaurant and greeting his host as if they'd never met.

"Having been a heroin addict was good preparation for television. It's humiliating, but then I think compared to what? . . . Sitting on Broadway selling all your books and records to get some money?"

Before he had his own show, Bourdain railed against food celebrities on TV, particularly Emeril Lagasse. Now he gives the Food Network more credit. "I hope it's not just food porn. To some degree it is, but it has raised the level of discourse."

He admires some of the stars, especially Mario Batali. "He's one guy who's absolutely got the goods, using his celebrity status to preach the gospel."

He's also fond of Batali because one of his best meals in America came from a little place in Seattle, run by Batali's father, a Boeing engineer who retired to open Salumi, a restaurant where he makes his own salami and Batali's aunt makes gnocchi.

Will Bourdain himself make more TV? "Not any time soon," he says. Maybe an occasional one-hour special, but he's not planning another season of A Cook's Tour beyond the 20 episodes already in the can.

But he's certain to keep cooking, writing and, yes, preaching.

© Copyright, St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.