“Suddenly there is someone more important in this world than me and I am no longer the star”
“When I met Marco Pierre White, I said, ‘Thank you Marco for making chefs f**kable. Before you, no one wanted to think about what the chef looked like or what they thought’.
“But the rock star chef thing is a really bad misnomer. Chefs are certainly empowered now and people think about them as full and complete human beings, but rock star, no. If any of us could play bass, we’d be playing lead guitar like Stevie Ray Vaughan.”
Celebrity chefs, he adds, have too much at stake for shenanigans. “If you’re on Masterchef, chances are you’re not up all night with a room full of hookers and cocaine.”
In his drawl that’s part NYC cab driver, part Sesame Street narrator, Bourdain describes how, after 30 years of cooking, he has changed along with the industry.
“Utter contempt” for the world beyond the kitchen doors (especially if you were one of the “a**holes” who ordered a well-done steak or slipped him a bag of cocaine at a book signing) gave way to a yearning for that very life, where people had weekends off, health insurance, families and a lawn to mow. Normal had an exotic glow and the chef found himself like a kid with his nose pressed up against the glass.
In his latest cookbook, Appetites, Bourdain has landed in this fetishised territory with recipes that he says represent normal. From the cover illustration by Ralph Steadman, famous for his work with counterculture icon Hunter S Thompson, to the edgy imagery within, the chef’s brand of normal bears his unique stamp.
The book is a gritty, irreverent stew where you will find a helpless body in a gimp suit next to a recipe for liver sandwich, Korean noodle soup spilling from an army helmet, and the author eating on a loo (with the lid down, thankfully).
There are jujitsu practioners holding chunks of raw meat in their bandaged hands, and vignettes of lipstick-stained cigarette butts in takeaway containers. Meanwhile, close pal and Michelinstarred chef Eric Ripert is pictured inhaling a mouthful of spaghetti in one chapter, and with sausage gravy dribbling from his mouth in another.
When I ask him who cooks at home, Bourdain says, “If you tell me I’m cooking for 500 people in a banquet situation, I could do that standing on my head cold-blooded. But 10 people coming over for dinner, I’m a nervous wreck because now I care about the people.”
This focus on cooking with care is a new development for the chef who became a father at 50, a milestone that he says brought huge change and relief.
“Any notion of cool goes out the window when you’re a father. Suddenly there is someone more important in this world than me and I am no longer the star of this picture. When I’m home and not working, I let my 9-year-old daughter Ariane make every major decision for the entire month.”
After 35 episodes of A Cook’s Tour, nine seasons of No Reservations, 20 episodes of The Layover and eight seasons of his current series, Emmy award-winning Parts Unknown, Bourdain has more stamps in his passport than most, but he explains the side-effect of this well-inked life on the road is that he can be “a hard person to live with”.
He recently separated from his wife of nine years, mixed martial artist Ottavia Busia, admitting: “I’m always moving, 250 days a year. The care, feeding and maintenance of relationships is not something I’m too good at.”
Bourdain tells me that the things that continue to thrill him, that make his heart race and remind him that there is light and magic and beauty in this world, are in fact always the simple things – a working class pasta out of a chipped bowl with some cheap wine in the weeds of Italy, a bowl of noodles in Vietnam that cost him a dollar, and experiencing a new city in vivid flashes and smells from a motorbike.
“I’m happiest when I’m on a scooter, by myself, in a country not my own,” he says and I suspect he may have binned the term rock star chef, but that the leather jacket hasn’t been hung up forever just yet. Appetites