Darina Allen, eat your heart out. New York chef ANTHONY BOURDAIN has done it all, from chopping out lines to chopping off fingertips, along the way dealing with the Mafia, Madonna, a dead man in a freezer and the palpitating heart of a cobra. STUART CLARK hears about cooking as rock'n'roll. CATHAL DAWSON serves up the pictures
“Heat two tablespoons of olive oil in a heavy-bottomed pan. Add 1kg of mussels, six finely chopped shallots and two cloves of garlic, and fry gently. Pour in a bladderful of fresh urine and simmer until cooked."
No, Darina Allen isn't having a psychotic episode. That was the cordon bleurrrrrgh treat served to a hated customer at one of the establishments Anthony Bourdain cheffed in during the '70s.
As gloriously gonzo as Hunter S. Thompson ever was, the New York motormouth has risen from the depths of short-order hell to the pinnacle of Michelin-starred excellence. Along the way, he's encountered Mafia dons, arse-fondling Puerto Ricans, three-foot parasitical worms, Madonna and a $200 a day heroin habit.
He's also found time to author two novels, Bone In The Throat and Gone Bamboo, and a new biographical tome which rejoices under the title of Kitchen Confidential: Adventures In The Culinary Underbelly.
Just in case there's any confusion, Bourdain makes it clear from the start that this is no cheery Jamie Oliver-style read.
"There will be horror stories," he warns with a mile-wide grin on his face. "Heavy drinking, drugs, screwing in the dry-goods area, unappetising revelations about bad food handling and unsavoury industry-wide practices. I want to tell you about the dark recesses of the restaurant underbelly – a subculture whose centuries-old militaristic hierarchy and ethos of 'rum, buggery and the lash' make for a mix of unwavering order and nerve-shattering chaos."
The 47-year-old's boasts are far from idle, with Kitchen Confidential regularly rivalling Hammer Of The Gods for excess. Populated by some of the most out-to-lunch characters this side of HP Central, it's already grabbed the attention of Fight Club director David Fincher who's lined Brad Pitt up as the big screen Bourdain.
In real life, the chain-smoking 6’ 5" gastronome is a ringer for Tommy Lee, with a soupçon of Keith Richard's roguish charm thrown in for good measure.
Like Keef, his 27-years of outrageous highs, depressing lows and creamy middles have left their mark.
"I lopped that off trying to cut poblano peppers," he says pointing to a missing fingertip on his left-hand. "Jesus, I remember that one: the face on the emergency room intern as he crunched the curved sewing needle right through the nail, trying vainly to re-attach a flap of skin that was clearly destined to become necrotic and fall off."
While rock'n'rollers habitually complain about their lot – the words "Thom" and "Yorke" spring to mind – Bourdain is still hopelessly in love with his chosen profession.
STUART CLARK: Why does somebody who’s a multi-millionaire persist in slaving over a hot stove?
ANTHONY BOURDAIN: Because I can’t live without the unique buzz you get from a kitchen. What I love about the business is that you get thrown together in a small, high-pressure environment with people of every background, personal predilection and history. Somehow, though, you find common ground and become extraordinarily close in a battlefield sort of way. And that feels great.
What about the celebrity side of the job?
Of all the professions, we’re perhaps the least suited to be thrown into the public eye. I mean, most of us got into this because we have rotten communication skills, unlovely personal habits and an aversion to 9 to 5 life. I've worked in kitchens where, apart from me, everyone's been in an early release programme. A guy may be an ex-con methedrine dealer, but that doesn't mean he can't make great salads.
Put a dozen – not entirely well adjusted – men in a hot, tight space and there are bound to be tensions. How charged does the atmosphere get?
Very. The worst thing I ever saw was a chef jump over the line and clamp his teeth on a waiter's nose. This guy – who'd screwed up an order – was screaming and sobbing for him to stop, but he kept shaking him like a dog. I can still remember the crunching noise as flesh and cartilage were bitten through. Generally, cooks don't go at each other. There's a constant repartee, which means instead of bottling things up, you tell someone there and then that they're an asshole. Bearing in mind the number of knives, blunt instruments and pots of boiling liquid that are at hand, anger management is definitely the most prurient course of action.
That said, there was one occasion when you comprehensively lost it.
At the Rainbow Room? Well, that was more pre-meditated violence. I was the new fish in what was a very jailhouse environment, and everybody was testing my limits. Most of it I could handle, no problem, but there was one drunken salad man who kept grabbing my ass. When I say 'grabbing', I mean going right up the crack to the point where he was almost penetrating me. Anyway, the next time he came at me from behind, I made sure I was armed with a big, blunt rusty meat-fork and stuck him as hard as I could. Y'know what? I came in the next morning and everybody, including the guy I'd shanked, was civil to me.
There's stiff competition, but my favourite Kitchen Confidential character has to be your mad Russian friend, Dimitri.
Dimitri, it turned out, was remarkably adept at crafting life-like fingers, toes and sexual organs from basic ingredients. He'd fashion frighteningly realistic severed thumbs – skin rudely shredded at one end, bone fragments made from leek white projecting from the wound – and we'd leave these things around for unsuspecting restaurant staff to find.
A waiter would open a reach-in in the morning to discover an oozing, torn fingertip, Band-Aid still attached, pinioned to a slice of Wonderbread with a frilled toothpick. A floor manager would be called down to the kitchen in the middle of a dinner shift to find one of us standing by a bloody cutting board, red-smeared side-towel wrapped around a hand and, as they approached, one of Dimitri's grisly fingers would drop onto his foot.
We experimented constantly, finding to our delight that not only did the sweet dough look like flesh when shaped and coloured correctly, but it drew flies like the real thing! Eventually, when every member of staff was thoroughly inured to the sight of a severed, fly-covered penis in the urinal, or finding a bloody finger in his apron pocket, we moved on to even greater atrocities.
Is this when you ventured into the realms of cryogenic suspension?
Precisely. We had a manager we wanted to screw with, so we called him upstairs and said, 'Where's Dimitri? He was here and now he's gone.' The groundwork laid, we stripped a willing Dimitri naked, covered him with stage blood, wrapped him in clingfilm and put him into a chest-freezer. In the middle of the rush, we called up to the manager again and said, 'We're in the weeds down here. Can you run and get us a box of shrimp?' This poor bastard goes all the way into the back, opens the freezer and finds himself looking at this hideously contorted, blood-splattered guy, with a layer of frost on him. We had to give him a blast of ammonia inhaler for the shock.
How was Dimitri?
He was off for the next few days with a cold, but apart from that, zip.
Yarns like that are fantastic, but how typical are they of life at the culinary coalface?
Is it the same sort of outlaw, hockey rink atmosphere everywhere? Probably not, but the kind of quiet reverence that you see in a three-star kitchen is definitely the exception, not the rule. I might be at the opposite end of the spectrum – I cop to at some point influencing the world around me – but by the same token I keep bumping into the same sort of loveable psychopaths, adorable scamps and miscreants everywhere I go.
The impression I get is that it's impossible to work full-time in the New York restaurant trade and not encounter the Mafia.
It's changed a bit recently 'cause the cokehead sons taking over from the old dons can't hack it, but during the '70s and '80s, there was hardly a restaurant, market or slaughterhouse that they didn't have an interest in. The most overtly mob-controlled place I worked in was a take-out joint, which was given to a guy who'd done jail time on their behalf. Come opening night, we were so busy that all these 60 and 70-year-old Mafia bosses were pitching in and delivering chicken to apartments in the West Village. Needless to say, there weren't any complaints about the food.
Dodgy dealings or not, it was good practice for the next place you worked in, Gino's.
Even I was shocked at the level of debauchery and criminality. On my first day in Gino's, I found that the extremely well-paid head of prep could not so much as peel an onion – when he deigned to show up at work at all. When I inquired, I was informed by the General Manager that he was the boss' coke dealer. If half the cooks were on the line when they were supposed to be – as opposed to selling guns, or hiding in the stairwell smoking weed, or cooking up freebase in a bathroom – it was a good thing. It was the '80s, the stockmarket was going nuts and everybody thought they were invincible. Me included, I guess.
While Kitchen Confidential in no way glamorises drugs, it so happens that one of the most successful periods of your career was when you were on heroin.
Yeah, the point at which I hit rock bottom was when I'd kicked methadone and stopped doing cocaine completely. I'm not recommending heroin as a career move, but I found it to be something that enabled me to unwind after work, while not impairing my ability to function the next day. Looking back now, it was probably the discipline of the kitchen, and the fact that you couldn't be late or screw up, which tempered my addiction. Anyways, I've been clean ever since and grateful for it.
The comparison's a bit of a lazy one, but parts of Kitchen Confidential are pure Hunter S. Thompson.
He was my role model at age 12. I read Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas as it was serialised in Rolling Stone and said to myself, 'That's what I'm going to be like when I grow up'. The honour system that him and Lester Bangs subscribed to in the '70s – drink, swallow or snort whatever you want, but get the job done – was exactly the same as ours. Today still, there are huge similarities between cooking and rock 'n' roll.
I imagine that being in the swankiest part of Manhattan, your current restaurant, Les Halles, must be a magnet for A-List celebs.
Chris Robinson of The Black Crowes comes in a lot, and is somebody who knows and appreciates their food. Madonna's the worst. She brings her own germ-free egg yolks, and asks people to make Caesar Salads for her. If you're that suspicious of what's going on in the kitchen, stay the fuck at home!
I was rather taken with the rant in your book, to wit: "Vegetarians, and their Hezbollah-like splinter-faction, the vegans, are a persistent irritant to any chef worth a damn. To me, life without veal stock, pork fat, sausage, organ meat, demi-glace, or even stinky cheese is a life not worth living."
Vegetarians are bad enough, but vegans… I don't get 'em, I don't like 'em and I don't want them anywhere near my restaurant. Actually, no, if they want to pay $20 for a few slices of grilled eggplant and zucchini, fine, come on in. Why do these people spend their life in a perpetual state of fear? I will gladly give up five years of my life for the continued enjoyment of hooves and blood and snouts.
Talking of snouts, there was a big kerfuffle in the UK recently when customs discovered two anteaters in a consignment of meat destined for London's Chinatown. Have you come across anything like that in the States?
Don't tell me, it tasted like chicken! I can't speak for every chef in the US of A, but even at our most outlaw, there was a sense of pride that would've prevented us from serving that kind of generic mystery meat. The good thing about this business is that it's quantifiable. If I do 400 plates on a Saturday night and there are no complaints from out front, I go home satisfied. If half the restaurant starts throwing up 'cause the anteater's off, I'm not exactly going to boast about it to my wife.
Would you like to elaborate on why some of Kitchen Confidential's most vicious barbs are reserved for the Pierre Victoires and Prêt A Manges of this world?
I see chains as the enemy. They're what's wrong with our business. The sameness is positively frightening. I would suggest that if you've a restaurant in New York City that's identical in every respect to a restaurant in, say, Tulsa, there's a major problem with your food culture. And that's exactly what's happening. Say what you will about the French, but they've developed a food culture that's been totally absent in the United States. They revolt against a concept such as McDonald's, whereas people in other Western countries embrace it.
McDonald's is an appetising prospect, though, compared to the restaurant that was fronted by Donald Trump's former plat du jour, Marla Maples.
Half-way through the night, Marla would come out, say 'hi' and sing a couple of songs to the grateful diners who were paying double the normal price for their steak & chips. A wonderful concept, which for some strange reason stiffed within six months. Only slightly less misjudged than that were the Mars restaurant that blasted you off into virtual space, the WWF café and a David Copperfield joint that left somebody – hopefully David Copperfield – $4 million poorer.
I understand that America's suffering from an infestation of British TV chefs at the moment. Are there any you find particularly odious?
Every time I see that Ainsley Harriot guy, I want to vomit. The only people who buy into that cute'n'cuddly act of his are bored housewives who need something to watch while the Valium kicks in. If he ever comes into my restaurant – bam! – it's meat cleaver time. The scary thing is that we've got an even viler version back home called Emeril Lagasse. Where insincerity's concerned, America still leads the world.
What's this I hear about you and the Queen of the Chatshows?
I was on Oprah recently and can only describe the experience as stumbling in on your parents when they're having sex. I just felt, 'Oh no, I shouldn't be here. This is wrong!' Then you think of the 50,000 books you're going to sell as a consequence of talking to this She-Devil, and it doesn't seem so bad.
Are writing and cheffing two things that harmoniously converge, or is life these days a bit schizophrenic?
The cooking side of my life is the disciplined one, and writing seems like a fleeting and somehow shifty profession, reflective of the needy, neurotic, lazy side of my personality which I'm always trying to outwit. So I think it fits in really well, actually. You know, writing may be hard, but cleaning 100lbs of fresh squid is a lot harder!
Finally, what’s the vilest thing you've ever noshed down?
Noshed down? I'll have to make a note of these delightful colloquialisms! I've been travelling round the world a lot eating for a TV show and the next book, and I've had some pretty nasty stuff. Did you ever keep a goldfish as a kid? Well, imagine if it had died and been left to rot for five days, and that's exactly what a boiled iguana tamale tastes like. Then there's the palpitating cobra's heart I had in Saigon. What they do is stretch the snake out tableside, remove the heart with scissors, and put it in a dish for you to swallow whole while it's still going boom-didi-boom-didi-boom. Hut Fin Lan wasn't too good either – it's a soft-boiled egg but fetal, so there are little bits of beak and feather in there. The line between food and medicine in Asia is kind of narrow. 'This'll make you very strong.' Hell, I want a boner for six months after eating that!
Anthony Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential: Adventures In The Culinary Underbelly is published by Bloomsbury priced £7.99stg