F. Scott Fitzgerald said there are no second acts in American lives. But he died a long time before Anthony Bourdain came around to tear that theory to shreds.
Bourdain was a lifelong chef in New York restaurants when, in his early forties, he wrote a story that spilled some trade secrets about professional kitchens for the New York Press, a free weekly newspaper. (His fee: $100.) But when the article kept getting bumped by the paper, Bourdain finally sent the story—“in a moment of frustration and hubris”—to The New Yorker. One day they called him up and let him know they would be publishing it.
“Within 48 hours of them running it,” remembers Bourdain, “it was, A, a news story, and, B, I had a book deal.” That led to him penning the New York Times bestseller Kitchen Confidential, which led to more bestsellers, a handful of TV shows and near-instant fame. (Incidentally, Bourdain says there’s no ill will against the New York Press for not publishing the original article: “God, if it had actually run in the New York Press, I would have been well and truly screwed.”)
Some 15 years later, Bourdain is still going strong. Last month, his latest show, Parts Unknown, returned to CNN. This month, his second graphic novel, Get Jiro: Blood and Sushi, hits bookstores. Oh, and he’s also curating/hosting the third annual Rare Craft Collection with The Balvenie single malt scotch whisky—a series of parties and demonstrations of American craftsmanship that will be making stops in New York, Houston and Chicago.
It was before the first of these soirees that we sat down with the culinary bad boy to ask him about confidence, staying fit, drinking, women and… well, we’ll let him take it from here.
On where he finds his confidence:
I grew up, like any writer, filled with self-doubt. Alternating between moments of grandiosity and monstrous self-regard and deep pits of despair and fear and uncertainty. But I think anyone who tells a story with the expectation that someone is going to listen to it or should listen, they’re already kind of a freak. You know? There’s already something a little bit monstrous about them.
Because there is a leap of faith there that’s not normal. You’re assuming: ‘I’m special. I have something interesting to say that other people will actually care enough to buy a book or continue watching on TV past the commercial break.’ This is not reasonable thinking. It’s arguably clinically disturbed! So I don’t know. I don’t know where that comes from. I don’t know whether I call it confidence.
You do something 10,000 times, they say you become an expert at it. I’ve done a lot of things 10,000 times. I’m confident I can make an omelet. Walking into a kitchen to make an omelet, I’m pretty confident. Walking into a new kitchen with a menu I’ve never seen before, I’m worried! New book coming out? I’m not brimming with confidence. I’m racked with fear. And I’m sure that that differs very little from anybody else with a narcissistic personality disorder. AKA, writer.
“I didn’t have the luxury of the time to sort of stare at the ceiling and ponder the mysteries of the universe and what is good writing. I just had a story, and I told it as quickly and entertainingly as I could, damn the torpedoes.”
On what he likes about the Balvenie Rare Craft Collection:
It’s a confluence of a product I like, that I actually drink, and a project that celebrates things that I care about. I like making things. And I admire other people who make things. It’s something we don’t do enough of in this world, I think. So I’m not saying it’s a completely altruistic thing, but it feels good to celebrate people who are doing something as counterintuitive as making books by hand, for instance. There’s something really awesome about that. It’s a romantic impulse to value those things and certainly to do something like that. It’s hard. And not good business, you know?
On his dream job:
I’ve always said, if at age 18, I was well on my way to playing bass guitar like Bootsy Collins or Larry Graham, you never would’ve seen me on television. I never would have picked up a chef’s knife and I would have been very, very happy with that. To be even a skilled session musician bass player would appeal to me.
On what he inherited from his parents:
The ability to speak—to use language—was something that I picked up very early. So I knew I had that. So I always felt like I could finesse my way in and out of situations. So maybe in some way that helped. And I certainly would attribute that to my parents and my early-age teachers, who instilled in me a love of books and a healthy respect for the power of a well-constructed sentence.
On the writing process for Kitchen Confidential:
It took about a year and some change. I did not have the luxury of time. I was working full time. I was working as a chef from like 8 in the morning until 1 in the morning every day. So I didn’t have time to think about all the reasons why I shouldn’t be doing something as stupid as writing a book. I’d wake up in the morning, and before I even brushed my teeth, I’d light a cigarette—I still smoked back then—sit down and start writing as long as I could, for about an hour and a half to two hours. And on my one day off I’d go for as long as I could. I just did that every day.
“In New Jersey, they kill you and throw you into a shallow grave. In Italy, they wait 20 years, kill you and throw you into a shallow grave. And then show up at the funeral and kill everybody there.”
On his expectations for Kitchen Confidential:
I was quite certain no one would read it. So I didn’t have to worry about, what did people expect or want, what’s the market demand? I didn’t care. I thought, will my kitchen crew like this and think it’s funny and not bullshit? That was important to me. Other than that, it was just tear through. I didn’t edit myself, I didn’t read what I was writing. I didn’t have time to be filled with doubt and self-criticism. Because I didn’t have the luxury of the time to sort of stare at the ceiling and ponder the mysteries of the universe and what is good writing. I just had a story, and I told it as quickly and entertainingly as I could, damn the torpedoes.
On why it seems so many women are attracted to him:
My wife is a mixed martial artist who spends seven hours a day seven days a week figuring out how to maim people’s knees and ankles, so it’s not an area I’d really like to explore. And she’s Italian. Let me add that. From Italy, too. Not New Jersey. In New Jersey, they kill you and throw you into a shallow grave. In Italy, they wait 20 years, kill you and throw you into a shallow grave. And then show up at the funeral and kill everybody there.
On the last thing he cooked at home:
I made chicken katsu for my daughter for her school lunch. I cook for my daughter’s lunch every day that I’m in New York. I cook a lot at home now that I’m a dad. I like it a lot. I haven’t worked in a restaurant in a long time. So now that I don’t have to do it, I’m enjoying a renaissance of cooking but entirely for fun. I really love it. I’m maniacal about it. When I’m home, I smother my daughter with a choice of breakfast every morning. I try to not repeat myself on the school lunches that I pack her. Dinners are probably a little too elaborate for an eight-year-old and her friend. But I can’t help it.
“Don’t aspire to mediocrity. Even if you fail, try to be awesome. At something. Anything. It doesn’t matter. Just try to be awesome.”
On what he tries to pass along to his daughter:
Don’t be mediocre. Don’t aspire to mediocrity. Even if you fail, try to be awesome. At something. Anything. It doesn’t matter. Just try to be awesome. Try to do something as best you possibly can. Or better than anybody else.
On the ballsiest thing he has ever done:
Trying to get good at jiu-jitsu at age 58. I’m 59 now. I just got my blue belt. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. Probably the stupidest thing I’ve ever done in my life. It’s so, so, so physically hard. I mean, I’d never been to the gym in my life. You know, I was a smoker for 45 years when I started taking jiu-jitsu. I was overweight and—look what I do for a living. And to go in every day, where big, barrel-chested 22-year-old wrestlers are trying to break your ribs and choke you unconscious—it was pretty foolhardy.
On his next book:
I am working on a dysfunctional family cookbook called Appetites. Ralph Steadman did the cover, so that’s really kind of all you need to know. It’s a cookbook with recipes that I cook my family. I have a very unusual family. My wife eats nothing but animal protein. My daughter is a weird kid. And I have an unusual group of friends. So it’s a pretty fun collaboration. I’m really happy with the way it’s going. It seemed like the last thing in the world I should ever do, a family cookbook. It’s sort of my version of Ina Garten, you know? If Ina Garten had like a gun, it would be this.
On his favorite neighborhood bar on the Upper East Side of Manhattan:
The Upper East Side is a sinkhole for neighborhood bars. And restaurants, for that matter. I don’t have a favorite neighborhood bar. I moved up to the Upper East Side to be near my daughter’s school and for parenting reasons. But it’s not the sort of neighborhood I’d want to drink in. The Holland Bar over on Ninth Avenue is wonderful. I would highly recommend it. That’s a good place. Late afternoon, professional drinkers, Deano on the jukebox. It’s perfect.
On his best piece of advice for guys:
Show up on time. Try not to be an asshole.