An edited version of this interview was published in The Edge Singapore in July 2002.

Text and photos © Christopher Tan. Reproduction without permission is forbidden.

by Christopher Tan.
1. Fear

OK, I’ll admit it. I was a tiny bit afraid.

Gonzo chef, reformed ex-heroin addict, chimney-rivalling smoker, author of crime fiction and decidedly unsanitised culinary non-fiction, who felt he had to start Chapter 3 of his Kitchen Confidential with “I don’t want you to think that everything up to this point was about fornication, free booze and ready access to drugs,”, Anthony Bourdain doesn’t come across, in print, as the most ideal interview subject.

Even though the number of chefs I’ve interviewed is well into double figures, in the couple of hours before we meet I make my veins thrum with tension, obsessing about what he’ll be like. Will he chew me out if I pop a banal question? Will I end up with only two minutes of usable conversation after bleeping out all the expletives? I’m bringing him to Geylang to graze on supper, but aargh, come to think of it he’s spent all the last two days grazing with journalists, wouldn’t a foot massage or something have been better? And so on.

2. Tour de Force(d)

Here’s the shocker: Anthony Bourdain is nice. Affable, talkative, charming even, despite having a headache and toothache – brought on, I might add, from having to perkily submit to the ministrations of journalists for two days running. He is also very, very tired, because “I did 32 American cities before this, Germany, England, Ireland, all since January…I’m fortunate that they’re paying so much attention, so I’m hardly complaining. But to be honest I’m starting to fade.” With a wry but sincere grin, he instructs: “This is my last stop. Get your pictures early…the later pictures I’ll be, like, my nose on the plate. But that might be amusing.”

The reason Kitchen Confidential won such acclaim among the general public, I submit, is not just because in all its sweat, blood and profanity, it snagged the tailboard of the ‘reality media’ wagon. Bourdain paints in such lusty, vivid detail the feverish, militaristic, squalid, frenetic, hyperspeed-paced monomania of life in a certain strata of restaurant kitchens, that it is all but impossible to look away. Like a bystander at an accident site, you stare agog at his prose and wonder whether any of the exquisitely-composed (and clean-looking) plates you’ve ever eaten got squeezed out of such palpitating mayhem.

Before I can even get beyond “Did you get any flak…” Bourdain cuts in “No. You would think that there’d be some chefs who would have been angry with me, but no, it’s been great. In fact it’s been a lot of food, a lot of liquor, a lot of very nice,very generous chefs… all 32 cities, there were chefs kind of waiting for me, to take me out to dinner, feed me 12 courses… and then go out and see how bad I am. And I’m not that bad anymore.”

(3. An Aside

Well – apologies to anyone hoping for juicier stuff – that last remark seems to be true. No swearing, nothing stronger than a beer, and in the end, an early night brought on by the various aches plus a 4 am flight the next day. Sorry. Sorry.)

4. So, anyway

“I think the only really negative reaction,” he continues, “was from some food writers who felt proprietary about the subject. And who felt that perhaps I was suggesting that maybe all along the chefs that they adored and saw as their best friends were back in the kitchen snickering at them and smoking cigarettes, and serving them, you know, old bread.”

Bourdain is sanguine about his own place in the culinary firmament, which is rooted more deeply in his verbal acuity rather than his stove skills. “I think the most violent, angry reaction was from some food writers, who felt they knew everything there was to know, and who the hell am I?”

He laughs, unruefully. “I’m certainly not an A-Team chef. In a lot of ways their criticisms were valid, but they were just pointing out what I had readily admitted myself, it was repeated as if they had just discovered that I am not a significant entity in the world of food on the strength of my cooking. I said that on page 2. Y’know, I can’t say that I was treated unfairly by anyone, I mean, I’ve been cheerfully trashing people left and right, so it’s only appropriate.”

Unsavoury revelations sell, obviously – Kitchen Confidential has been translated into 17 languages – and the revealed intensity of the profession hit a lot of fans hard: “What I get a lot of is people who are considering becoming chefs, considering changing careers, about to enter culinary school…two responses: one where they come and say y’know, I thought I wanted to become a chef and I read your book and I realise I don’t have it, I don’t want to work that hard, oh my God, I had no idea.”

Ahuh: “But by far the majority say, I wasn’t sure, now I’m sure. A lot of people say, y’know, I sent this to my son who was thinking of going into cooking school, trying to dissuade him from going, but it’s just made him want to go even more.” He smiles a twisty, sunny smile. “So people use it as either cautionary or constructive.”

“I’m not a role model or a teacher, I’m an enthusiast.’

5. Perhaps Tony Robbins’ day is over?

“What’s really surprised me is that [Kitchen Confidential has] been on the Business Week best seller list for a long time, and I’m starting to get offers to speak to corporations…I was just at the board of Sun Tzu, and instead of The Art Of War, they want me to talk about team building, crisis management…. I really don’t know that my particular management style would have any application in the corporate world.”

Note to self: need to spend time practising stifling cynical giggles. But seriously, is that a direction he would consider going in? “Oh my God, no. I mean that’s ridiculous, I’d feel like Kissinger, you know, ‘After a long career as a war criminal, when all else fails, go give overpriced lectures to credulous businessmen!’.”

6. Clinton

When I mention, apropos of the motivational-speaker thing, Bill Clinton’s recent overpriced pep-talk in Singapore, “What a…” he says, and for a moment Tony Bourdain looks like he’s going to swear. Behind his upper lip, his incisors descend, placed to form a perfect unvoiced labiodental fricative against the back of his bottom lip…but no. ”…rapacious hillbilly.”

“He wasted his presidency. He could have done so much, then he discredited all who voted for him. He brought shame on his house as far as I’m concerned. If he were a cook I would’ve fired him. Good argument for caning, that guy. Y’know, they shouldn’t have impeached him, they should’ve just given him 10 strokes on the White House lawn, we all would’ve felt better. And then let him go back to work.”

Er, heh heh.

7. Don’t do this at home, kids

On page five of Kitchen Confidential, Bourdain wrote: “My naked contempt for vegetarians, sauce-on-siders, the ‘lactose-intolerant’ and the cooking of the Ewok-like Emeril Lagasse is not going to get me my own show on the Food Network.”

And so of course, it did. Which is what his new book, A Cook’s Tour, chronicles: a reckless, sometimes feckless meander across 22 episodes and several countries, taking in mine-infested roadways in Cambodia, iguana tamales in Mexico, too much vodka in Russia, and thankfully plenty of heavenly food as well, particularly in Vietnam, which is as close to heaven as it gets for Bourdain. True, it seems a little too, well, arranged, compared to his first book – Bourdain admits in the introduction that two videocameramen constantly in his face didn’t exactly make for ‘natural’ foodie-abroad situations – but his dry cynicism and willingness to try almost anything once make it equally readable.

Though what with the lizards, roaring indigestion, and drunken tapas crawls, it’s unlikely, is he worried about falling into the globetrotting-TV-chef stereotype? “No, I don’t care. Y’know, God... there are so many worse things to be accused of and I have been all of those things, so… no, people can say whatever they want about me. I don’t really care, I’m too old and too mean to change, I know who I am.”

8. Who Tony looks up to

One chapter in A Cook’s Tour is dedicated to a meal at the French Laundry, a Napa Valley institution where revered chef Thomas Keller reigns supreme. Judging by his cookbook, which I own but am petrified of, and which Bourdain has described in other interviews as having “a mythological reputation amongst chefs worldwide, it's what chefs toss off to,” Keller is in many respects the anti-Bourdain, a calm, quiet, Zen-infused, in general otherworldly practitioner of cuisine. The Yoda of food.

So it is curious to hear the saltier dog go into raptures about him. “Easily far and away the most amazing restaurant meal I’ve had in my life. Just utterly awesome. The sheer scope, the ambition, the scale, the maturity, the deep understanding of human nature. That’s what’s so impressive about him, he understands people, it’s not just about precision and food, and technique and ingredients, it’s way more than that.” Hence the course that Keller, aware of Bourdain’s nicotine habit, sent out to him midmeal, entitled ‘coffee and a cigarette’ – foie gras with a savoury custard infused with coffee and tobacco.

“Keller understands the beauties of Mom’s cooking. He understands the context, how something as simple as an ice-cream cone at the right time can trigger scent memory…he understands who you’re eating with, and what’s out the window, how important that is…he understands that you’re as likely to have a great meal at a hawker stall as in a fine-dining restaurant, and he uses all that in his food. That is one of the many things that sets him apart from other chefs. “

Is, then, a substantial cerebral element necessary for a meal to be perfect? “More important,” Bourdain carefully enunciates, “is the soulful element to [Keller’s] cooking. There’s a mix of heart and mind that’s missing from a lot of more precise chefs. There are a lot of chefs out there who have dazzling, dazzling technique, guys whom I can’t touch either – I mean, it’s not even fair for me to criticise them, but I’m happy to do it! – who cook like they’ve never had sex in their lives…It’s clinical. It’s building ships in bottles. Beautiful, but why? All that time, all that effort, and it doesn’t grab me by the heart.”

(Later another journalist tells me that Bourdain includes in the above bracket a chef – let’s call him Chuckie Hoofer – who has won as many plaudits as Keller, though perhaps from a slightly different crowd.)

“Never in my wildest dreams could I contemplate working as his dishwasher.” His eyes are somewhere else. It’s like watching Mozart for the first time. I’m sure he would be embarassed to hear that, but y’know I felt like Salieri, watching Mozart play…I’ll never be that. Ever. I could come back again, start fresh, dedicate my entire life, make all new decisions, and still…”

Do I hear a tinge of regret? Would he want to be Mozart? Straightaway he demurs. “No. There are other things in life that have always been too important to me. I want to indulge my curiousities in other areas, and there’s no room for that if you’re gonna be Thomas Keller.” Areas like writing? “Telling stories, sure, clearly it satisfies some need.”

9. What Tony thinks is bad

“Bad food is made without pride, by cooks who have no pride, and no love. Bad food is made by chefs who are indifferent, or who are trying to be everything to everybody, who are trying to please everyone. They’re shooting buckshot rather than at a specific target.”

“Bad food is fake food, Food that tastes the same in Singapore as it does in Butte, Montana. Generic food. Food that shows fear and lack of confidence in people’s ability to discern or to make decisions about their lives.“

“Food that’s too safe, too pasteurised, too healthy – it’s bad! There should be some risk, like unpasteurised cheese. Food is about rot, and decay, and fermentation….as much as it is also about freshness.” This said with a certain relish.

10. Good food, on the other hand

“I guess it’s one of those things…y’know pheromones? You meet a woman and gee…everything works, she smells like someone you want to spend your whole life with. Vietnam was like that for me. Certain dishes are like that for me. It’s just right. It feels right.”

11. Coda

In which Bourdain abruptly ends the interview early with “I’m really sorry, I wish I could spend more time with you, but I’m really starting to fade.” And he is, so though I have about 20 questions left, I squeeze off a few photos, ask him embarassedly to autograph his book, which he does with a cartoon of a dripping knife, and hand him my card with an offer to show him around properly the next time he’s in town, to which he replies “Sure, I will,” which I think is probably a courtesy- and fatigue-driven reflex reply but that I weirdly appreciate anyway, before loping off into the night. I am left without a snappy ending quote, but in retrospect this earlier one, referring to the whole bestselling-author-book-tour-TV-series-jackpot thing, should do it:

“It’s the greatest gift. I never thought I’d live past 40 – I’d never thought I’d live past 30. My life trajectory was not looking good for a long time. And even when it was looking good, I thought I was going to be a very happy chef at Les Halles…there are various times in my life I have to pinch myself because I can’t believe I’m here to see this. And enjoy this.”