Cooking the Books

Anthony Bourdain trades his tongs for an editor’s pencil

Anthony Bourdain knows how he can come off. The chef-turned-TV personality has said it would be “entirely fair and appropriate” were he described as “a loud, egotistical, one-note asshole who’s been cruising on the reputation of one obnoxious, over-testosteroned book for way too long and who should just shut the fuck up.” But it takes only one meeting with Bourdain—the man who likes to pepper his prose with words like “fucktard” and who made “bad-boy chef” a resplendent cliché—to reveal that he is a perfect gentleman.

Get his friends to start talking about him and it becomes very clear that if Bourdain wants to preserve his louche reputation, he should probably engineer another appearance on TMZ, “running buck-naked down some Milwaukee street with a helmet made from the stretched skin of a butchered terrier pulled down over my ears” (as he once envisioned it).

Instead, Bourdain—who has long suppressed his inner nerd—has been tapped to start an eponymous line of books at the HarperCollins imprint Ecco.

“He loves literature and he’s a huge reader,” said his publisher, Dan Halpern.

“He spends so much of his time shining light on other people,” food writer Peter Meehan said.

“He’s a sweet, sweet, loyal wonderful man,” said Karen Rinaldi, who edited Bourdain’s breakout book, Kitchen Confidential (Bloomsbury, 2000). “It’s all the 60- and 70-year-old women who love him the best. They all want to adopt him.”

A little more than a decade ago, Anthony Bourdain was a 44-year-old chef at the middle-of-the-road French bistro Les Halles. He worked 12 to 14 hours a day. He had never had health insurance or owned a car, and rarely paid his rent on time. He owed a decade’s worth of back taxes and credit card bills. Sometimes he wrote things, like two mystery novels in the mid-1990s that promptly bombed. He didn’t quit his day job. Instead, he wrote an article for Sam Sifton, now the national editor of The New York Times but at the time an editor at the shambolic alt-weekly The New York Press. The article was about working in a kitchen.

“Because they were free, I figured their standards were low enough to print it,” Bourdain recently recalled over a midday pint of Dogfish Head ale at Cafe D’Alsace on the Upper East Side. It turned out otherwise. “Sifton was my editor and couldn’t get the piece in. He kept getting bumped, week after week. I was getting bitter and frustrated with it and of course working full time, so it wasn’t like I was working on the great American novel. I’d pretty much given up any notion of being a writer.”

Or so he says. But before giving up entirely he sent the article to The New Yorker. “Amazingly enough they called me back a few weeks later, said they were going to run it and then they ran it.”

When the article appeared, under the headline “Don’t Eat Before Reading This,” Bourdain was in Japan helping organize the Tokyo outpost of Les Halles. He e-mailed dispatches about his experiences there to his friend, the novelist Joel Rose. After reading the colorful missives and The New Yorker article, Rose thought that there might be something there for his wife, Karen Rinaldi, then editorial director at Bloomsbury USA, to make a book out of.

“Karen had just had our first son, Rocco, and she was totally overwhelmed and in heaven,” Rose recalled. “She was sitting on the floor of our apartment nursing the baby, and I said you have to read this e-mail.” Rinaldi was not exactly eager, but she consented.

“It was 6 a.m. and I was up with my very, very young son,” Rinaldi said. “I remember sitting on the floor and reading it and I was like, ‘Whoa.'” Then she called Bourdain’s agent, Kim Witherspoon, with a proposal. “I said, ‘I will give Tony an advance of X amount of dollars to write a nonfiction book. I don’t even care what it is. We can talk about it when he gets back from Japan.'”

He accepted. When he came back to New York, Rinaldi and Bourdain met at a bar.

“So what do you want to write?” she asked him.

Since Kitchen Confidential debuted on the best-seller list in 2000, Bourdain has had a remarkable trajectory. “I figured, how many years have I got cooking? If the thing doesn’t lose money maybe I have a crack at doing another book someday when my knees go,” Bourdain remembered. Today, of course, there are the television shows—No Reservations on the Travel Channel, appearances as a judge on Top Chef on Bravo and another show that premiered in November, also on the Travel Channel, called The Layover, where Bourdain goes to cities with massive international airports and grazes the local cuisine.

There are the many subsequent books, including the best-selling Medium Raw (Ecco, 2010), a third crime novel and an unexpected history of Typhoid Mary. There’s the graphic novel, Get Jiro, co-written with Rose with art by Langdon Foss, that will be coming out this year on DC Comics imprint Vertigo.

Bourdain also writes for David Simon’s HBO show Treme, embellishing the storyline of the show’s chef character, Janette Desautel, who moves to New York to hang out with Bourdain’s friends after her restaurant in New Orleans is forced to close. He estimates he gives 30 or 40 lectures a year, sometimes tag-teaming with Eric Ripert, the Gallic dreamboat at the helm of seafood temple Le Bernardin.

He has married and has a young daughter. He’s working on another crime novel, and writes a film column for the David Chang/Peter Meehan/McSweeney’s new food magazine Lucky Peach. He’s having, in sum, what he calls his “second childhood in his 50s.”

It’s funny, then, that a lot of what’s motivated him is guilt.

“I bounced around my whole life,” he said. “I did nothing. At 44, I suddenly started getting opportunities, and year after year I’m presented with, I mean, not necessarily spectacularly lucrative things, but who wouldn’t do a really cool comic book if they could? Who wouldn’t write for David Simon, like go play with David Simon?”

While he is the first to admit that he has been far more successful as a writer than he was as a chef, and that he quit cooking as soon as Kitchen Confidential took off, Bourdain still expresses discomfort with his status as a man of letters.

“In college, I think I probably positioned myself as an aspiring writer, meaning I dressed sort of extravagantly and adopted all the semi-Byronic affectations as if I were writing although I wasn’t actually doing any writing,” he said. “I think I was intoxicated with Burroughs and Hunter Thompson and figured that if I did enough drugs it would lead directly to great works. I never got around to writing those.” And then he fell into the restaurant business. A common refrain from Bourdain, one that almost feels like an insistence, is that most of his friends are chefs and he does not socialize with writers. It’s the legacy, perhaps, of years in a career where, as Bourdain put it, “it’s a liability to talk too smart.” But his writer friends disagree.

“He was always a writer,” said Rose, who published something Bourdain wrote about methadone in the early 1980s in a literary magazine he ran called Between C and D. (Bourdain described the magazine as an “alternative independent publication that came in a plastic bag like heroin.”) And after reading a New York magazine profile of the editor Gordon Lish at some point in the 1980s, Bourdain even signed up for a writing workshop, going up to Columbia one day in his dirty kitchen whites after working lunch to apply through the School of General Studies.

“It was very cult-like. You didn’t even go for a piss. You sat there and listened to the great man,” Bourdain remembered about the class. “You had to read aloud and only as far as he could bear it, which was usually about a sentence and a half before he’d go, ‘Oh, it’s horrible, I can’t stand it, stop, stop,’ at which point everyone in the class would tell you what sucked about it.”

His first novel, Bone in the Throat (Bloomsbury, 2000), which was acquired by editor David Rosenthal, then at Villard, he describes as the result of a lucky break. “I was working at a Mexican restaurant I think, and my old college roommate had apparently had some kind of licensing deal with David and bragged to him at a party that ‘I know better writers than the shit you’re doing,'” he said. “David said something like, ‘Prove it, smart guy,’ and my old roommate of course didn’t know any writers, had no clue what he was talking about and, desperate to not look like a jerk, thought of me because I’d written some of his papers in college. He essentially bribed me into writing a 100-page teaser for Rosenthal, who immediately commissioned one and then two books.”

“He told me he had this friend, Tony, who he had gone to college with, and Tony had this book and would I took a look at it,” was Rosenthal’s recollection of Bourdain’s college roommate. The books did not sell very well at first printing, but they have had a second wave post-Kitchen Confidential. “They were very charming, they were humorous mysteries and they were witty as well,” Rosenthal said.

“What happens in books and writing is that it’s so rare that you find someone with a vocation that’s as good at their vocation as they are at writing,” Rinaldi said. “I’m dying to find the firefighter who can do that,” she added.

If Bourdain’s bread and butter is, well, bread and butter, that does not mean he is limited to it. Asked what he has read lately, he rattles off an unpredictable catalog: Robert Fisk’s The Great War for Civilisation, Daniel Woodrell’s Tomato Red, Daniel Alarcón’s Lost City Radio and the Portuguese writer António Lobo Antunes’ novel about the war for Angolan independence, The Land at the End of the World. In preparation for a trip to the Balkans he said he re-read Rebecca West’s 1,200-page Balkan history cum travel book Black Lamb and Grey Falcon.

“To me he’d just been a guy who had been a chef who can write the hell out of a kitchen, but he’s a lot more than that,” Simon said.

He recalled a recent dinner out with Bourdain at August, in New Orleans. “I’m being amuse-bouched to death,” he said, describing a common hazard of eating out with a well-known chef. “The food we ordered hasn’t even come to the table and I’m already dying.”

Bourdain asked Simon what else he was working on and the two started discussing a project about the history of the CIA that Simon is developing.

“I think it’s just table conversation,” Simon said. “He said, ‘So, you’re doing the Gehlen group.’ I said, ‘Yeah, we’re doing all of that. How do you know about that?'”

“So we started going deeper,” Simon continued. “It turned out he’s read everything and knows it like the back of his hand.”

After dinner Simon called his writing partner, Ed Burns, and told him he had a new writer for the show. “He said, ‘Who?'” Simon said. “‘The food guy?'” He laughed. “The guy’s an autodidact. He’s read everything and he can write,” he said. “But on paper it’s like, yeah, food guy. And part-time CIA expert.”

The new imprint will reflect Bourdain’s eclectic tastes. While there will be a heavy focus on food, he said that he is also interested in crime writing, poetry, essayists, rock ‘n’ roll memoirs and other kinds of books.

The idea of recruiting a celebrity editor to help consult for an imprint is nothing new: Random House has former Newsweek editor Jon Meacham and former Gourmet editor Ruth Reichl; Faber and Faber has the musician Jarvis Cocker; Crown has Deepak Chopra. (And of course, Jackie O. spent years as an editor at Doubleday.) Unlike in most of the recent cases, however, Bourdain has already been serving in the role informally, having had direct responsibility for the American publication of British chef Fergus Henderson’s The Whole Beast: Nose to Tail Eating and a $350 Ferran Adria cookbook.

“I’m evangelical on the subject of some chefs and writers,” Bourdain admitted. “I don’t know if I’d call it a mission, but I get off doing it.”

“He basically said ‘Publish these fucking books,'” Halpern said of Ecco, which published the paperback of Kitchen Confidential and many of Bourdain’s subsequent books. “It took me a while with Ferran and Fergus, but eventually I saw the light.” He also scored nigh-impossible-to-get dinner reservations at El Bulli.

Halpern said that currently under consideration for the imprint are some pamphlet-like books on Michel de Montaigne’s essays and possibly a barbecue book, and that Bourdain “has got martial artists.”

As for the testosterone-infused prose with which he made his name back in Kitchen Confidential, Bourdain suggests he might have changed. I’d like to think that the other stuff I write is a lot more reflective,” he said. “And a lot more neurotic.”