Anthony Bourdain is the chef the food world loves to hate. He described his first book, Kitchen Confidential, as an "obnoxious and over-testosteroned" account of his life in the restaurant business. Maybe so, but it stayed on The New York Times Best Seller list for 14 weeks.
Bourdain circled the globe for his next book, A Cook's Tour: In Search of the Perfect Meal. He likes his adventure with a generous dose of risk and an occasional touch of the bizarre -- from dodging Cambodian minefields to have cocktails in Khmer Rouge territory to eating poisonous blowfish in Japan.
Lynne Rossetto Kasper: What in heaven's name have you been up to?
Anthony Bourdain: To tell the truth, I put down a very nice score with Kitchen Confidential. Having spent most of my life pent up in a small kitchen not seeing much of the world, I thought, "Let's take advantage of the situation." I figured I'd travel around the world looking for culinary thrills, chills and kicks.
LRK: You open the book by describing your hotel room in a town in Cambodia. There are bloody footprints on the wall and you describe the place as a dung hole. The whole experience sounds like the deepest level of hell. Why?
AB: I grew up reading adventure stories as a kid. Two years ago I thought never in a million years will I have the opportunity to see Vietnam or Cambodia or do this Joseph-Conrad, Apocalypse-Now thing. This was my opportunity. On my way to finding the perfect meal I was looking for some off-the-road adventures.
I had a plan for Vietnam that I was going to re-enact the story arc of Apocalypse Now, a foolish, over-romantic notion perhaps, ending up by going up the river into the worst place on earth, the worst, most dangerous part of Cambodia. I'd heard that Khmer Rouge were in the casino business in a remote corner of Cambodia, so I thought, "Some sort of Maoist gambling paradise, they've got to have some good buffet up there. The food might be interesting and I'll have some fun on the way." It wasn't exactly Siegfried and Roy, but it was also perhaps the most exciting time of my life.
LRK: What did you eat?
AB: Bad Thai food, basically. Like a lot of the events in this book, I set up some rather ludicrous goals for myself knowing -- or half-suspecting -- that getting there would be a lot more interesting than the destination. This was a very good example of that.
LRK: Did you find what you think of as the perfect meal?
AB: I think a few times there were a number of truly magic moments where all of those forces came together perfectly. In general, I think the perfect meal is most likely to be that blend of great ingredients, a really talented cook and those mysterious elements of context: where you are, what's going on in the room, what the room smells like, timing, how badly you need the meal at the time, that sort of thing.
I have to say that almost everything I found in Vietnam was near perfect. It's a foodie's paradise. There seems to be more great food per square foot, more proud cooks, more good raw ingredients and fresh colorful stuff than anywhere else I've ever been. It was really an exciting place to eat.
I had one meal in particular: I was hosted by a bunch of former Viet Cong war heroes at a duck farm in the Mekong Delta. They were the sweetest, most generous, kindest folks I think I have ever been to dinner with. We ate on a tarpaulin in a jungle from a clay-roasted duck, a very simple dinner. I just had the greatest time. I just had to pinch myself to remind myself this was really happening.
Japan -- I love everything there.
But as far as a restaurant meal, I'd have to point at The French Laundry in Napa Valley, Calif., as being as close to perfection in a high-end restaurant meal as I've ever experienced. It's a truly extraordinary meal: 6-and-a-half hours, 20 courses and just jaw-droppingly good.
LRK: You talk very little about America in the book. Why so little about our own country?
AB: Because I live here. I was looking for the strange and for the new, basically stuff that I'd seen in movies and read about in books. I was very aware that I had a window of opportunity to get away with doing this with somebody else footing the bill. I was determined to eat up as much of the world as I could. I rather naively assumed, "America will be there when I get back just the way it was." I was very passionate about going elsewhere and going to places I'd never been. I also avoided for the most part France, Italy, China, India -- the famously great cuisines.
LRK: You filmed this for a series on the Food Network. Somehow this does not seem like a natural fit, you and the Food Network. How did that work out?
AB: No, it doesn't. I think it was a little frustrating for the camera people. I sold the book, was headed out and some producers walked in and asked if they could follow me around and shoot while I was eating my way around the world. They in turn sold the project to Food Network, to my complete shock and surprise. The end result, I have to say, I'm pretty proud of. It looks kind of cool, and I can promise you that it looks unlike anything that has ever been on Food Network before.
LRK: But you've trashed the Food Network in print quite a few times.
AB: Yes, and I'm still doing it. It's a mystery to me. I've suggested that perhaps some anarchistic cabal somehow let this project in under the radar. I guess they've been getting tired of their own programming. I don't know what to say because it's a very manic depressive show, they beat me for language a lot, I'm seen at various points drunkenly mishandling automatic weapons, animals are hurt and killed during the making of this series. It is a departure for them.
LRK: Are you still cooking at Les Halles?
AB: I swing through the dining room and take credit for others' toil now and again. I'd love to tell you that, "Oh yeah, I'm behind the stove every night still working." But in fact I'm not. A very talented French guy is really handling the day-to-day for me. I'm kind of like a casino greeter now, I stand by the door and wave.