The thing that made Anthony Bourdain really fall in love with restaurant work had nothing to do with food. “The chefs and cooks stole everything in sight, they drank for free and had varied and prolific social lives,” he says, recalling his first professional stint in a kitchen at age 19. “They looked like rock stars and pirates. And that was a cult I definitely wanted to join.”
Bourdain dropped out of college a year later, setting himself on a rocky but always interesting career path that led to the executive chef’s job at Manhattan’s bustling Brasserie Les Halles. Along the way, the hard-living Bourdain, now 44, gathered the material for Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly, a sizzling memoir that has spent much of the summer on the New York Times bestseller list and has been optioned for the screen.
“I wanted to give people a feel for the sound and flavor of kitchen culture,” says Bourdain. Of course, that doesn’t mean he limited himself to good taste. On the contrary, Bourdain delights in explaining how some kitchens recycle bread and butter, turn yesterday’s leftovers into tomorrow’s specials and reward those who prefer their steaks well done with the toughest cuts available. Some say he’s got the goods. “I don’t know about his cooking,” enthused USA Today reviewer Deirdre Donahue, “but this guy can write.” Others—particularly some fellow foodies—don’t care for the juicy tales of kitchen sex, insobriety and skulduggery Bourdain serves up. It’s a “snotty little book,” one restaurateur sniped to The Baltimore Sun.
Still, 25 years in such hot, stress-filled kitchens as New York City’s Rainbow Room and Coco Pazzo Teatro—where fortunes are won and lost on a cook’s ability to turn out scores of elaborately prepared meals at precise intervals each night—have given Bourdain plenty of tales to tell. “I’ve seen one busboy stab another with a steak knife. I saw a chef bite a waiter’s nose once. But people generally get along,” says Bourdain, who fuels himself with cigarettes and booze. “And the tougher the night, the more satisfying it is when it’s over. There’s that sense of camaraderie, of kicking ass and having nice moves. It’s a jock mentality.”
A self-described journeyman, Bourdain refuses to compare himself to the sort of innovative chefs who turn edibles into displays of art. But he finds poetry in the flavors and textures of good food and takes enormous pride in the meals he creates. “There’s a satisfaction in making something beautiful,” he says. “That makes people happy.”
The elder of two sons born to Pierre, a Columbia Records executive who died in 1988, and Gladys, an editor for The New York Times, Bourdain grew up in suburban Leonia, N.J., but often visited his father’s relatives in France. There, as a 9-year-old on an oyster boat off the coast, Bourdain tasted his first oyster. The memory still resonates. “That’s when I really noticed that food could be magic,” he says.
After graduating from the Englewood School for Boys (where he met future wife Nancy Putkoski, a student at a nearby girls’ school), Bourdain enrolled at Vassar but dropped out to cook. He earned a degree from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., in 1978, then worked and partied his way through the kitchens of New York City restaurants, at the same time developing a taste for cocaine and heroin. “I was the last person you’d want to employ in any capacity,” he says of those years. Cutting out the drugs, Bourdain worked at several restaurants before taking over Les Halles in 1998. “He takes care of the people he works with,” says co-owner Philippe Lajaunie. “And he loves the restaurant business.”
Though Bourdain likes to project a freewheeling image, the demands of full-time cooking and a thriving writing career don’t give him much time to waste. “He’s really disciplined,” says Nancy, 45, who helps research Bourdain’s books. “I can’t remember the last time he’s had eight hours sleep.”
Now working on a travelogue about exotic foods (“I’ll be looking for monkey brains and poisonous blowfish gizzards”), Bourdain, who lives with Nancy in a spacious one-bedroom apartment in uptown Manhattan, is usually too tired to cook at home. “I thought I’d be eating well,” Nancy says with a chuckle. “I do—if we go out.”
Peter Ames Carlin
Debbie Seaman in New York City