Anthony Bourdain: “I lived in a business where everybody was a writer or an actor”

Thứ năm, 02/03/2017 10:17

“Three years I haven’t had a cigarette, and I just started again,” Bourdain said when I met him shortly afterward, at the bar of the Metropole Hotel, where he was staying.

He cocked an eyebrow: “Obama made me do it.” Bourdain, who is sixty, is imposingly tall—six feet four—and impossibly lean, with a monumental head, a caramel tan, and carefully groomed gray hair. He once described his body as “gristly, tendony,” as if it were an inferior cut of beef, and a recent devotion to Brazilian jujitsu has left his limbs and his torso laced with ropy muscles. With his Sex Pistols T-shirt and his sensualist credo, there is something of the aging rocker about him. But if you spend any time with Bourdain you realize that he is controlled to the point of neurosis: clean, organized, disciplined, courteous, systematic. He is Apollo in drag as Dionysus.

“He has his mise en place,” his friend the chef Éric Ripert told me, noting that Bourdain’s punctiliousness is a reflection not only of his personality and his culinary training but also of necessity: if he weren’t so structured, he could never stay on top of his proliferating commitments. In addition to producing and starring in “Parts Unknown,” he selects the locations, writes the voice-overs, and works closely with the cinematographers and the music supervisors. When he is not on camera, he is writing: essays, cookbooks, graphic novels about a homicidal sushi chef, screenplays. (David Simon recruited him to write the restaurant scenes in “Treme.”) Or he is hosting other TV shows, such as “The Taste,” a reality competition that ran for two years on ABC. Last fall, during a hiatus from filming, he launched a fifteen-city standup tour. Ripert suggested to me that Bourdain may be driven, in part, by a fear of what he might get up to if he ever stopped working. “I’m a guy who needs a lot of projects,” Bourdain acknowledged. “I would probably have been happy as an air-traffic controller.”

As he sipped a beer and picked at a platter of delicate spring rolls, he was still fidgeting with exhilaration from the encounter with Obama. “I believe what’s important to him is this notion that otherness is not bad, that Americans should aspire to walk in other people’s shoes,” he reflected. This idea resonates strongly with Bourdain, and, although he insists his show is a selfish epicurean enterprise, Obama’s ethic could be the governing thesis of “Parts Unknown.” In the opening moments of an episode set in Myanmar, Bourdain observes, “Chances are you haven’t been to this place. Chances are this is a place you’ve never seen.”

From the moment Bourdain conceives of an episode, he obsesses over the soundtrack, and for the sequence with Obama he wanted to include the James Brown song “The Boss.” When the producers cannot afford to license a song, they often commission music that evokes the original. For a “Big Lebowski” homage in a Tehran episode, they arranged the recording of a facsimile, in Farsi, of Dylan’s “The Man in Me.” But Bourdain wanted the original James Brown track, no matter how much it cost. “I don’t know who’s paying for it,” he said. “But somebody’s fucking paying for it.” He sang the chorus to himself—“I paid the cost to be the boss”—and remarked that one price of leadership, for Obama, had been a severe constraint on the very wanderlust that Bourdain personifies. “Even drinking a beer for him is a big thing,” he marvelled. “He’s got to clear it.” Before he said goodbye to Obama, Bourdain told me, he had underlined this contrast. “I said, ‘Right after this, Mr. President, I’m getting on a scooter and I’m going to disappear into the flow of thousands of people.’ He got this look on his face and said, ‘That must be nice.’ ”

Tom Vitale, the episode’s director, who is in his mid-thirties and has an air of harried intensity, stopped by to check with Bourdain about a shoot that was planned for later that evening. It generally takes Bourdain about a week of frantic work on location to film each episode. He has a small crew—two producers and a few cameramen—who recruit local fixers and grips. His team often shoots between sixty and eighty hours of footage in order to make an hour-long episode. Vitale, like others on the crew, has worked with Bourdain for years. When I asked him what his interactions with the White House had been like, he said, with bewilderment, “I’m shocked we all passed the background check.”

Bourdain was eager to shoot at a bia-hơi joint, a popular Hanoi establishment specializing in chilled draft beer. “We’re hoping for beer?” he asked.

“We’re hoping for beer,” Vitale confirmed. They had already scouted a place. “But, if the energy there is only fifty per cent, maybe not.”

Bourdain agreed. “We don’t want to manufacture a scene,” he said. He makes a fetish of authenticity, and disdains many conventions of food and travel programming. “We don’t do retakes,” he said. “We don’t do ‘hello’ scenes or ‘goodbye, thank you very much’ scenes. I’d rather miss the shot than have a bogus shot.” When he meets someone at a roadside café, he wears a lavalier microphone, which picks up the sort of ambient noise—blaring car horns, shrieking cicadas—that sound designers normally filter out. “We want you to know what a place sounds like, not just what it looks like,” Jared Andrukanis, one of Bourdain’s producers, told me. “The guys who mix the show hate it. They hate it, but I think they love it.”

“Three years I haven’t had a cigarette, and I just started again,” Bourdain said when I met him shortly afterward, at the bar of the Metropole Hotel, where he was staying.

Bourdain is exceptionally close to his crew members, in part because they are steady companions in a life that is otherwise transient. “I change location every two weeks,” he told me. “I’m not a cook, nor am I a journalist. The kind of care and feeding required of friends, I’m frankly incapable of. I’m not there. I’m not going to remember your birthday. I’m not going to be there for the important moments in your life. We are not going to reliably hang out, no matter how I feel about you. For fifteen years, more or less, I’ve been travelling two hundred days a year. I make very good friends a week at a time.”

Until he was forty-four, Bourdain saw very little of the world. He grew up in Leonia, New Jersey, not far from the George Washington Bridge. His father, Pierre, an executive at Columbia Records, was reserved, and given to reading silently on the couch for long stretches, but he had adventurous taste in food and movies. Tony recalls travelling into New York City with his father during the seventies to try sushi, which at the time seemed impossibly exotic.

The only experience of real travel that Bourdain had as a child was two trips to France. When he was ten, his parents took him and his younger brother, Chris, on a summer vacation to Normandy, where French relatives of his father had a home in a chilly seaside village. Tony had what he has since described as a Proustian encounter with a huge oyster, eating it freshly plucked from the sea. (“Tony likes to play up the oyster episode,” Chris, who is now a banker, told me. “I have no idea if that’s fact or fiction.”) The brothers played in old Nazi blockhouses on the beach, and spent hours reading “Tintin” books—savoring tales of the roving boy reporter and poring over Hergé’s minutely rendered illustrations of Shanghai, Cairo, the Andes. The stories, Bourdain recalls, “took me places I was quite sure I would never go.”

His mother, Gladys, a copy editor at the Times, was formidable and judgmental, and often clashed with her son. In high school, Bourdain fell in love with an older girl, Nancy Putkoski, who ran with a druggie crowd, and he started dabbling in illicit substances himself. At one point, Gladys told her son, “I love you dearly, but, you know, I don’t like you very much at present.” In 1973, Bourdain finished high school a year early and followed Putkoski to Vassar. But he dropped out after two years and enrolled at the Culinary Institute of America, in Hyde Park, New York.

It was not his first experience in the kitchen: the summer after finishing high school, he had been a dishwasher at the Flagship, a flounder-and-fried-clams restaurant in Provincetown. In “Kitchen Confidential,” he recounts a defining moment, during a wedding party at the Flagship, when he witnessed the bride sneak outside for an impromptu assignation with the chef. The punch line: “I knew then, dear reader, for the first time: I wanted to be a chef.”

The story captures Bourdain’s conception of the cook’s vocation as both seductively carnal and swaggeringly transgressive. One of his favorite movies is “The Warriors,” the cult 1979 film about street gangs in New York, and it was the outlaw machismo of the kitchen that attracted him. For a time, he walked around with a set of nunchucks in a holster strapped to his leg, like a six-shooter; he often posed for photographs wearing chef’s whites and clutching the kind of long, curved knife you might use to disembowel a Gorgon. (The cover of “Kitchen Confidential” showed Bourdain with two ornamental swords tucked into his apron strings.) Long before he was the kind of international celebrity who gets chased by fans through the airport in Singapore, Bourdain knew how to arrange his grasshopper limbs into a good pose, and from the beginning he had a talent for badassery.

After graduating from the Culinary Institute, in 1978, he moved with Putkoski into a rent-stabilized apartment on Riverside Drive. They married in 1985. She had various jobs, and Bourdain found work at the Rainbow Room, in Rockefeller Center. When I asked about the marriage, which ended in 2005, he likened it to the Gus Van Sant film “Drugstore Cowboy,” in which Matt Dillon and Kelly Lynch play drug addicts who rob pharmacies in order to support their habit. “That kind of love and codependency and sense of adventure—we were criminals together,” he said. “A lot of our life was built around that, and happily so.” When Bourdain tells stories about the “seriously knuckleheaded shit” he did while using narcotics—being pulled over by the cops with two hundred hits of blotter acid in the car, being stalked by the Drug Enforcement Administration while trying to retrieve a “letter from Panama” at the post office—he vaguely alludes to “another person” who was by his side. He is careful not to mention Putkoski by name. Aside from the drugs, they lived a relatively quiet domestic life. In the evenings, they ordered takeout and watched “The Simpsons.” Every few years, after they saved up some money, Tony and Nancy went on vacation to the Caribbean. Otherwise, they did not travel.

But Bourdain did travel around New York, as a journeyman chef. At the Rainbow Room, he worked the buffet table, and he was a sous-chef at W.P.A., in SoHo. He worked at Chuck Howard’s, in the theatre district; at Nikki and Kelly, on the Upper West Side; at Gianni’s, a tourist trap at the South Street Seaport; at the Supper Club, a nightspot in midtown where the emphasis was not the food. Eventually, he acquired a crew of associates who migrated with him from one restaurant to the next. His friend Joel Rose, a writer who has known Bourdain since the eighties, told me, “He was a fixer. Anytime a restaurant was in trouble, he came in and saved the day. He wasn’t a great chef, but he was organized. He would stop the bleeding.”

In 1998, he answered an ad in the Times and got the executive-chef job at Les Halles. It was an ideal fit for Bourdain: an unpretentious brasserie with its own butcher, who worked next to the bar, behind a counter stacked with steak, veal, and sausages. “Kitchen Confidential,” which was excerpted in this magazine, was inspired by “Down and Out in Paris and London,” in which George Orwell describes chefs as “the most workmanlike class, and the least servile.” Karen Rinaldi, the editor who acquired the book, for Bloomsbury, told me that she underestimated the impact it would have. “It was a flyer,” she said—the profane musings of a guy who broiled steaks for a living. “But a lot of the books that end up shifting the culture are flyers.”

“Kitchen Confidential” was filled with admonitions: Bourdain assailed Sunday brunch (“a dumping ground for the odd bits left over from Friday and Saturday”) and advised against ordering fish on Mondays, because it is typically “four to five days old.” The book was marketed as a dispatch from the scullery, the type of tell-all that might be more interesting to the naïve restaurant-goer than to the battle-seasoned cook. (“I won’t eat in a restaurant with filthy bathrooms,” Bourdain warned. “They let you see the bathrooms. If the restaurant can’t be bothered to replace the puck in the urinal or keep the toilets and floors clean, then just imagine what their refrigeration and work spaces look like.”) But, for Bourdain, the most important audience was his peers. The final line of the acknowledgments page was “Cooks rule,” and he hoped, desperately, that other professionals would see the book in the spirit he had intended, and pass gravy-stained copies around the kitchen.

Bourdain did not quit his job at Les Halles when the book became a success. “I was careful to modulate my hopes, because I lived in a business where everybody was a writer or an actor,” he recalls. For decades, he’d seen colleagues come into work crowing about their latest callback, only to see their grand designs amount to nothing. “So at no point was it ‘So long, suckers.’ ” His confederates at Les Halles were amused, if mystified, by his blossoming career as a writer, and the owners were accommodating about the book tour. When Bourdain started travelling to promote the book, something curious happened. He’d amble into a restaurant alone and order a drink at the bar. Out of nowhere, a plate of amuse-bouches would appear, compliments of the house. It marked an affirmation for Bourdain: chefs were reading the book, and they liked it. But it also signified a profound inversion. He had spent the first half of his life preparing food to feed others. He would spend the second half getting fed.

>> Read more: The New York Chef who had Bun Cha with US President

By Patrick Radden Keefe

* This article is extracted from the original post on The New Yorker on February 13 and 20, 2017, issue with the headline ‘Anthony Bourdain’s Moveable Feast’.

1  2  3  4  5  ...  Last Page