I’m not much of an eater. By which I mean that I wouldn’t know a pig’s knuckles from a rabbit’s arse even if a pig and a rabbit were to flash their goods at me in a dark alley. So for me to be on the line chatting with Anthony Bourdain, variously described as the enfant terrible from the kitchen of New York’s Brasserie Les Halles, journeyman-wildman of the eating pleasures, and no bull-shitter hero-host of the icon(onoclast)ic travel and food TV show, No Reservations, was a bit like being Mullah Omar’s driver having a campfire conversation with Benjamin Netanyahu.
The gruff voice sounds impatient when I call him 17 minutes later than our appointed time of 7 a.m. But I had been reading his latest fare, Medium Raw — don’t miss the Bates motel-style subtitle: ‘A bloody Valentine to the world of food and the people who cook’ — into the wee hours of the night after downing multiple whiskies at an office get-together aided by almost caramelised deep-fried chicken spring rolls and Bourdain’s bam-bam-bam sentences about food and foodsters were to blame.
“I wouldn’t call myself a food critic. And I haven’t been a chef for ten years now. I’m really an enthusiast. I’m enthused about different kinds of food, different dishes” he says. He admits that there is a difference between eating, cooking and writing about eating and cooking. “I was cooking for 28 years. That gives me a moral authority to write about food. I wasn’t ever a great chef. Not for me the trying out five-meals-at-a-restaurant every day and then penning my opinions. I get joy out of leading a curious life and sometimes I wrestle with the facts I experience.”
For the man who is on record stating that the worst dishes he’s ever eaten is “an unwashed warthog rectum in Namibia” and “fermented shark in Iceland”, eating is an anthropological journey that clearly involves travelling to different khana spots across the world. “I see food as an introduction to a culture. It was after Kitchen Confidential (the runaway bestseller that came out in 2000) that a television network approached me for a travel and food show. Since then, I’ve been eating across Vietnam, Spain, Italy, China...,” says the overworked Bourdain.
In Medium Raw, however, Bourdain returns to the territory of Kitchen Confidential that was potently subtitled, ‘Adventures in the culinary underbelly’. Unlike his 2006 book, The Nasty Bits, where he ventured into places where no effete foodie worth his truffles had gone before, Bourdain’s latest literary venture deals in the phenom of cooking, cooks and eating. Much of what he covers here — being cool (“the essence of cool, after all, is not giving a fuck”); his drinking habits (“...a shot of tequila with him. Or two. Which is a relatively friendly and diplomatic solution to an awkward situation”); his reverence for Fergus Henderson, the magus-like master chef of the legendary London restaurant, St John; his rage against poncey places (“The little tuffets for ladies’ bags, the selection of steak knives to choose from, the waiters who put on gloves to trim fresh herbs tableside. The fucking water cart... Nothing could live in this temple of hubris”) — has been brought out of the fridge for a re-heat. But the ‘never mind the bollocks’ swagger is farm-fresh as ever.
“Obviously if your heart is bloated and you’re about to die, having healthy food is good,” he says in a curious roundabout way. “But my (3-year-old) daughter has organic food though. So, I guess I’m a bit of a hypocrite.” His favourite kind of food is Japanese and his worst, “Uzbek.” Does he trust teetotalling vegetarians, I ask, hoping to slyly ferret out his opinion of Mahatma Gandhi. “My Indian friends tell me that there’s a great variety of vegetarian dishes. There’s a range...” he says sounding like Jamie Oliver. Liar. Or as Bourdain would have said himself, fucking liar.