Anthony Bourdain’s culinary adventures began in a land known for its gastronomic delights – France.
As a youngster, Bourdain, who was born in New York City, was visiting his in-laws in Europe when he discovered a love of seafood, particularly oysters.
Bourdain’s talent, and taste buds, were then knocked into shape at a series of restaurants in Massachusetts and then as a young chef at the famed Culinary Institute of America.
It might have been a vocation, but in the late Seventies, choosing to be a chef was miles away from rock-star status and television stardom.
“If you told someone you were planning to become a chef it was like you were planning to be the lighting director on a porn film,” the 53-year-old says as he entertains the crowd during Cayman Cookout, held at The Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman.
It is a measure of the changing status of chefs that rather than being met with the disdain of 30 years ago, they are now hassled to autograph their bestselling books at culinary events in the Caribbean. Not a bad gig, Bourdain concedes, as he sips a refreshing fruit drink while the vibrant blue water gently laps the shore behind him.
The wiry chef took his first steps toward unexpected fame with the release of his book, Kitchen Confidential, a memoir of his experiences in professional kitchens. It pulled no punches and revealed a world behind the stove that was hotter and darker than anyone could imagine. It became a bestseller on its 2000 release, hitting a thrilling note in a world that was starting to become intrigued by cooking and food.
Bourdain is mellower in the flesh than the sardonic, often hard-eyed version that fronts his television programs, A Cook’s Tour and No Reservations. In the live arena, he speaks eloquently and wittily of his twin passions – food and travel. It’s clear that although he’s “milking the celebrity chef thing as long as possible”, he also possesses the charisma and focus to reach the top of his profession. At the time of Kitchen Confidential, he was executive chef at Brasserie Les Halles, which has branches in Manhattan, Washington DC, Miami and Tokyo.
Bourdain’s travels are documented in his television shows, where, along with a small production team, he usually visits out-of-the-way locations to meet the chefs and the locals. But his adventures are not without their tricky points – some self-inflicted culinary mishaps are known to happen.
“One of the producers made the fatal mistake in Namibia of deciding the jambalaya was a good idea. I mean, is there any real expectation that they have a feeling for this dish here? You’re eating it in suspicious circumstances and shrimp, scallop, chicken – any one of those could be the bitch of the bunch that ruins it all.”
In other words, travel globally and eat locally. Aside from two famous incidents – rotten shark and goat’s rectum – it is usually a tactic that serves Bourdain well.
In Kitchen Confidential, Bourdain is emphatic that the first thing to check out in a restaurant is the state of its toilets. If they’re too dirty, forget it. It is advice he says he doesn’t personally follow.
“It was one of the many things in the book I got wrong. The best meals of my life have been in places with unbelievably filthy and septic bathrooms.” Not for the faint-hearted.
There are many countries the chef is keen to visit, including Cuba, where the production team are constantly hoping to be granted working visas. There was, he says, a show organised in the Congo once that was cancelled on security advice.
The frisson of potential danger certainly adds to the experience. No Reservations is essentially a travelogue based around food, and as it is generally filmed in off-the-beaten-track locations, a series of local ‘fixers’ are employed to set up shoots for Bourdain and his team. Generally, it’s an approach that works – aside from, famously, Romania, where a local fixer, Amir, made quite an impression.
Bourdain refers lovingly to Amir as “the international poster boy for alcohol and bad behaviour”. The episode of No Reservations that took place in Romania has had unexpected repercussions, the chef explains.
“I have been accused repeatedly in the Romanian press of being an agent for [Israeli intelligence agency] Mossad and [former Soviet intelligence agency] the KGB for that show. Amir’s public enemy number one and I am public enemy number two.”
Bourdain likens finding a fixer to online dating. The production company sends a ‘wish list’ of locations and it’s up to the fixer to find a list of places that fit the show.
“So we were after somebody dysfunctional from the get-go. Most of the time we get lucky with that but other times we get someone so appallingly corrupt or inept or out of control,”
Bourdain says, “We’ve been to countries where everything’s presumably been arranged – the restaurant on the farm, the shop, and they’re not surprised when we show up. Other times we go and everything goes wrong. We have a week to make a TV show and no plan.”
Bourdain’s tastes are eclectic. He rates, for example, the durian from South East Asia as a gorgeous fruit despite its stench of rotten flesh. Ask about pork and he mentions dishes from Puerto Rico, Bali and the Philippines. He rates Cayman as a good culinary destination, in part due to the large Filipino population. In fact, says the chef, it’s easy to find great Filipino food on-island, an often-overlooked side of Cayman’s extensive range of restaurants.
As for becoming famous, Bourdain is philosophical about the direction his life and career has taken.
“I’ve been talking [trash] my whole life. There are a lot of people like me who are a lot funnier in the kitchen and a lot more interesting. I just happen to write it down,” he says.
“I write like I talk. I’d like to tell you I agonise over every word but it comes easy. I was always the kid whose language would get me into trouble, or out of trouble, or manipulate events. But given an opportunity to write I’ll do it and, like everything, I’ll turn up on time and do the best I can but it wasn’t something I’d set my heart on or anything.
“It came as a big surprise to me when it happened,” Bourdain says, somewhat thoughtfully. “At this point I’m just trying not to screw it up.”