He’s eaten the live, still beating heart of a cobra in Saigon. After munching through a handful of crisp fried tree worms he likened them to “a deep-fried Twinkie. Only wormier.” He travels the world with an astonishingly open mind: whether he’s in a gun club in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, where the menu includes a sampling of firearms, or a secret Russian fight club, where diamond draped blondes sip vodka and watch men beat each other senseless. He’s executive Chef of Les Halles, a traditional French restaurant in Manhattan. Oh, and, he’s pretty hot, with his bad boy leather jacket and attitude.
Forget delicate creativity, starchy linens and artistic flair – Anthony Bourdain’s more about kitchen machismo, fiery opinions and flamboyant food making him a sort of a culinary rock star.
With his travel show, featuring extreme cuisine, and action packed books, the chef-turned-author-turned-TV presenter, has been tripping around the world years, followed intently by a large brigade of foodies, travel buffs and – let’s be honest – breathless women.
In a telephonic interview, organised to promote his show No Reservations on Discovery Travel and Living, he seems thrilled with his life, cobra hearts and all. “I am very aware of what a great job I have,” he says, “With the freedom to go where I want, when I want and say what I want. I’ve been given free reign to discover the world… It’s an extraordinary and amazing job.”
Bourdain talks of discovering India, wandering through Rajasthan, Kolkata, the Sunderbans and Mumbai. “My first impression was that India is both beautiful and frustrating. It is so big that you can’t rid yourself of the sense that you’re missing most of it.” Saying that although he and the TV crew tried to see as much as they could, he adds, “I could easily spend the rest of my life making television in just India.”
While his travels threw up a number of surprises (“Royal food in Rajasthan, and the fact that though I’m a vocal proponent of the carnivorous diet, India is possibly the only place I can eat a vegetarian meal”), he seems most excited about eating vada pav on the Mumbai streets. “I’m a big fan of the Bombay burger — potato in a bun.”
Unfortunately, Bourdain was forced to leave out south India, as another TV show was recently shot there and the producers felt it would be repetitive. “I was very frustrated about that,” he says, “I haven’t ever been there. It was one of my first choices. I’ve heard so much about the seafood…”
On his quest for the perfect meal (“I wanted the perfect meal… I wanted adventure. I wanted kicks… I wanted to see the world. And I wanted the world to be just like the movies”) Bourdain tends to concentrate on everyday food because “people are proud of their local food; it’s the purest expression of a culture”.
Categorically stating he’s not interested in fine dining (“The world is so globalised now. Fine dining chefs tend to cook like fine dining chefs, irrespective of where they live… fusion food in Mumbai isn’t too different from fusion food in Melbourne”), he says, “People from all income levels are beginning to crave the authentic. They’re less snobby about fine dining.”
Meanwhile, his forays into extreme cuisines, he insists, certainly aren’t for shock value. “People eat very differently around the world. What someone in America finds shocking is everyday food for people in Thailand. I’m interested in whatever is good.” He also believes that food and travel are inseparable. “I don’t think you can enjoy or even experience a country without a willingness to sit with the local people and eat and drink.”
His writing is equally down-to-earth. “I don’t try to be an authority or an expert. It’s not a priority for me to describe the entire history of the food. I come from an oral storytelling experience in the kitchen… I try to give people a sense of what things looked like and smelt like at the time.”
And when he’s not describing a desert feast with Blue-clad Berbers in Morocco, or bodysurfing beside a fishing village in Vietnam, he writes crime novels to escape. “I write about me and what happens to me all the time. So, it’s a relief to escape to a world of imagination from time to time.”
But food is clearly his first love. Discussing the world’s best chefs, he names “Thomas Keller in California and the chefs at French Laundry in Napa Valley”, and then adds “every chef who shows up at work every day and cooks well… Anybody’s mother who cooks well. I think cooking’s a noble activity.”
As for that perfect meal he’s been chasing for so long? “I’ve had so many,” he says thoughtfully. “You can’t look for the perfect meal: it finds you. It might be a simple bowl of noodles soup in Vietnam, or a plate of roast bone marrow in London. It’s not about the food. It’s context that’s important. Like who’s cooking it… A Bombay burger is as much a perfect meal as dinner in Paris.”