The great hippie sage and novelist Tom Robbins once stated, “Outlaws, like poets, rearrange the nightmare.” Equal parts poet and outlaw, Anthony Bourdain not only rearranged the nightmare for his vast global audience—in bestselling books like Kitchen Confidential and Medium Raw, hit TV shows like No Reservations and Parts Unknown—but he also frequently ate it too.
Bourdain would apparently, put anything in his mouth. Bull penis, maggot fried rice, fetal duck eggs, sheep testicles, a raw seal eyeball—even a live cobra.
Bourdain says he had his palate first awakened on the coast of France, a pre-teen on holiday with his parents. All it took to rouse Bourdain’s insatiable appetites was a single oyster, plucked from the sea and still dripping wet, offered to him by a local fisherman.
“That was it, man,” Bourdain said, as if the flavors remained still on his tongue. “That was it.”
Bourdain shared with BIOGRAPHY some of the most delectable moments of his life.
It wasn’t until you were in your 40s that you really enjoyed anything resembling conventional success. What was that like?
Oh, man, at the age of 44, I was standing in kitchens, not knowing what it was like to go to sleep without being in mortal terror. I was in horrible, endless, irrevocable debt. I had no health insurance. I didn’t pay my taxes. I couldn’t pay my rent. It was a nightmare, but it's all been different for about 15 years. If it looks like my life is comfortable, well, that’s a very new thing for me.
When you did get a taste of success with Kitchen Confidential’s surprise bestseller status, you seized the moment and became what we now refer to as a 'celebrity chef.' But it wasn't long before you branched out, doing travel shows and writing crime novels. What’s that all about?
I may not be the smartest guy in the world, but I am constitutionally incapable of doing the same thing over and over again. I lived that way for 30 years, doing the same ole, same ole — washing dishes, working the line. Life’s short, man, and I have a restless mind.
Kitchen Confidential is such a brilliant book, one that in many ways cleared the path for the slew of warts-and-all memoirs published since then. What was the thought process, writing that book?
I’m sure you’ll be disappointed at how inelegant was my thought process back then. (Laughs) With Kitchen Confidential, I just didn’t give a shit at all what people might think. I didn’t think anyone was going to read it, so what did it matter? I just told the truth on every page. With every sentence. And I’m glad I did.
What made you think you could write a book back then? Sure, you could cook. But making good sentences is a different craft.
It’s useful to pick up an Elmore Leonard novel to see how a real professional does it. Nobody gets in and out of a scene cleaner, quicker or better than that guy. He’s an inspiration in my lower moments. He always has been, I think. No such thing as writer’s block; just pick up your Elmore Leonard. Hunter Thompson, William Burroughs, George C. Higgins, George Orwell’s “Down and Out in Paris and London,” those got the job done back then, and they still do.
Getting clean was a critical step toward achieving success, something you’ve shared in your writing through the years. Have your thoughts on drugs and addiction shifted at all?
Well, drugs and addiction are two different things, right? All I can tell you is this: I got off of heroin in the 1980s. Friends of mine from the ‘70s and ‘80s, they just got off five, six, maybe 10 years ago. And we’re the lucky ones. We made it out alive. There are a lot of guys that didn’t get that far. But you know, I also don’t have that many regrets either.
The past is the past, is that the ethos?
Look, man, the only thing that matters is life or death. That’s the edge. Embarrassment, shame, humiliation, I can live with those. I’m used to it. Why hang on to it, though?
It’s a pretty different universe for you these days, yes?
I don’t forget that, not for a second, ever. To climb a dune in the Egyptian desert and look out over the desert as the moon’s rising, surrounded by friends that I work with, a belly full of some food that no one outside that time zone ever gets to experience, that’s a “pinch me” moment for sure. It’s pretty damn awesome for a guy for whom brunch shift is a pretty recent memory.
Sounds like a pretty charmed life.
I don’t know about “charmed.” Who knows? I should’ve died in my 20s. I became successful in my 40s. I became a dad in my 50s. I feel like I’ve stolen a car—a really nice car—and I keep looking in the rearview mirror for flashing lights.