Anthony Bourdain is a rock star for real these days. He's always assumed the posture of one. Kitchen Confidential, the book that helped fuel the current celebuchef craze, was full of the fuck-all attitude we like in our lead guitarists. Gradually, over the years, as the crusty drug-addict shell crumbled a little and Bourdain left the kitchen and found his niche as the bad boy of the food world, he became a true rock star being booked into musical venues by a concert promoter. He takes the stage with a yellow legal pad scribbled with vague notes and then riffs off the top of his head for an hour — kind of like watching the Dead or Phish noodle — and people pay big bucks to see him.
"It's just this thing that grew out of the book tour," says Bourdain, talking from New York City a day after returning from Nicaragua. "After a book, I would do a tour, and a speakers bureau approached me and started booking me for a few corporate and ridiculously lucrative gigs speaking to business people at a retreat. I was usually comic relief sandwiched between Colin Powell and some macroeconomist. Very quickly a concert promoter started booking me in musical venues. The tail ended up wagging the dog.
"I do a lot of them," he adds. "They're both useful and fun. I work out material that I do later. I try it out on the road. I get to talk to the audience. It's immediate gratification, and I get slapped down hard if something doesn't work."
So now Bourdain is a rock star like Oprah is a rock star but without the billion-dollar bank account. He's a multimedia tycoon who makes a living on his personality and his sharp observations about life around him.
"I make TV, I write, and I guess I stand up in front of large groups and tell funny stories," he laughs. "I don't know if this is a high point or the nadir, but I just played a casino in Tahoe, and it was a real Shecky Green experience."
Bourdain is currently shooting the seventh season of his Travel Channel show No Reservations, which will take him to not only Nicaragua but to Haiti, Cambodia, Kurdistan, Yemen, and the Congo, where he plans to recreate Joseph Conrad's trek up the river.
"If there's a theme this season, it's going off the grid and getting out of our comfort zone. There was definitely a notion that I was getting too comfortable," he says, referring to the previous Euro-heavy season where he visited Madrid, Rome, and Paris, partly so his wife and young daughter could travel with him. "Those are comfortable places to shoot, and it's fairly luxurious. This time around we're doing a season that's physically punishing in much more difficult locations. I'm not saying we're more issue oriented, but we're more complex. We just did an Iran-Contra-themed show. The Congo is not a vacation wonderland."
In between his TV show and appearances, Bourdain will alternate as a judge with Gail Simmons on the upcoming season of Top Chef All Stars, airing in December. He's also working on a graphic novel with Joel Rose and Langdon Foss (whose previous work appeared in Heavy Metal).
"It's a lavish production with a great artist," he says. "It's something I'm doing because I can. It will be foodcentric; the food details will be ripe, hyper-violent, futuristic. I hesitate to use the word satire; it's not post-apocalyptic, but it's an alternate future where food and restaurants and chefs are the only source of status and entertainment left."
He says it will probably pit the internationalists against locavores, people who are willing to kill or die over whether the tomatoes are local.
"All I can tell you for sure is that it will look amazing," says Bourdain, who is also working on a novel, doing some writing for an HBO show, and overall staying too busy.
Over the years, as he has become beloved for his badassery, he has simultaneously softened and seems compelled to show his gratitude, perhaps because he feels like he isn't good at expressing it.
"It's been a failing of mine," he says. "I feel ridiculously lucky every day. I just remember very well the smell of the griddle. I still know that smell in my bones, and I'm glad I'm not there, at some sad sack lunch joint. I know what work is. I never expected to live this long, to have a beautiful little girl, to see the world, for the world to be so nice. I never expected to know Thomas Keller or any of my heroes. Yeah, I'm grateful, very grateful."
As for his fuck-all attitude, it seems hard-wired in the guy, mainly because, like Johnny Rotten or Glenn Danzig, he is truly a misfit, always has been, always will be.
"I feel no compulsion or responsibility to play the leather-jacketed-asshole part forever, but I'm not looking to morph into the elder statesmen of food writing," he muses. "I've done the best I can to make sure that never happens. I just think I'm constitutionally incapable of changing. It was already too late for me. When I wrote Kitchen Confidential, my personality was locked in, and I was rewarded for that. I never had a reason to behave. It's a bit of an impediment too. I'm used to hanging out with chefs. I'm socially awkward hanging out in the real world. If I'm in a social situation without chefs, I feel like Quasimodo."
But that might be exactly what his fans love about him. He's admittedly flawed. He's sort of trying to be a better guy. He's like an everyman thrown into the world of celebrity, with an edgy outsider perspective. He's still not afraid to call a cunt a cunt. That sort of misguided bravado is a thing of beauty for a weird cross-section of people.
When he takes the stage in Charleston on Friday night, he has no idea what to expect. "It depends on what city, what day of the week," he says, remembering a show in New York with an audience that was surely 50 percent Filipino. "You never know who the average fan is. It just completely turns around. I just don't know, and if I think I know, I get kicked in the crotch — or pleasantly surprised. My audience is farmers, Marines, cooks, Asian Americans, heavily tattooed slackers, low nuts, culinary students, tormented loners. You just never know."
And he says the audience shapes the show with what they ask during the Q&A session.
Here's a tip: don't ask him the best thing he's ever eaten (so trite), don't invite him to your house (embarrassing for both you and him), don't bother with where he'll be eating in town (he doesn't want a thousand people showing up for dinner). Instead, find one of his blistering rants, one that mortally attacks your special place, and challenge him on it.
Maybe you don't think Alan Richman is a cunt or that John Mariani is a "professional junketeer" and a "one-man schnorrer." Or perhaps you're a finch-loving vegan horrified by the opening chapter of Bourdain's latest book Medium Raw, which details in orgiastic prose the eating of an ortolan, a protected species that is the ultimate holy grail for serious gastronomes. Does this description horrify you: "We place our napkins over our heads, hiding our faces from God, and with burning fingertips lift our birds gingerly by their hot skulls, placing them feet first into our mouths — only their heads and beaks protruding." If it does, Bourdain welcomes your horror and hostility.
"I'd much rather have an angry vegan," he says, "or a fervid fan of Billy Joel."
Now that's a rock star for you.