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Many Reservations

Anthony Bourdain has become the celebrity he loved to hate

Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

“Things are different now,” Anthony Bourdain wrote in the preface to the paperback edition of his debut memoir, 2000’s Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly, which became a hit largely thanks to its frank, populist advice to diners: Don’t order fish on Mondays, don’t order mussels ever, don’t order meat well done, and avoid brunch altogether (especially Hollandaise, “a veritable petri dish of biohazards”). In the six months since the book’s hardcover release, Bourdain had gone from running a French brasserie in New York City to being “the poster boy for bad behavior in the kitchen,” getting free drinks and meals wherever he went, hanging out with chefs he idolized, and being interviewed on CNN. But he took pains to prove that all the attention hadn’t changed him. “The new celebrity chef culture is a remarkable and admittedly annoying phenomenon,” he wrote. “While it’s been nothing but good for business—and for me personally—many of us in the life can’t help snickering about it.”

Things are much, much different now—in some ways that Bourdain readily admits to, others less so. Now 57, he has a regular gig on CNN, his travel show “Parts Unknown,” which began its third season last Sunday, and he has authored six more nonfiction books, most of them bestsellers. He has, by his own admission, one of the most coveted jobs in America, and it has made him one of most famous members of a food-celebrity culture that he has long disparaged. All this, without ever becoming—again, by his own admission—the great chef or writer he aspired to. You might even call Bourdain a sellout. But he has long preempted such a charge with a deadly arsenal of gratitude, self-loathing, and confession: The first chapter of 2010’s Medium Raw: A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food and the People Who Cook, his true follow-up to Kitchen Confidential, is titled “Selling Out,” in which he describes doing exactly that. He’s bulletproof. Almost.

In Bourdain’s telling, he never hungered for fame—even willfully shunned it, with drug addiction, a loose tongue, and an anemic business sense—and somehow still stumbled into a presumably multi-million-dollar career. “I sort of backed into success, not giving a shit because I was so certain that I was not gonna be successful,” he told me several weeks ago. When Kitchen Confidential came out, “I had zero expectations that there was any likelihood of making a living, so I had the luxury of not caring and the luxury of freedom to be honest—which is really a luxury I guess, in television in particular, to be able to just say what you think when you think it without considering the ramifications. That’s just the privilege that I’ve enjoyed since the beginning, and haven’t really never seen any other compelling reason to be any other way or behave any differently. So I haven’t. It was never a calculated thing. I’ve been basically, since Day One, getting paid to be me, and I’m fine with that.”

This apparent authenticity, calculated or not, has inoculated him from the withering criticism heaped on his peers. But he’s a brand, whether he likes it or not, and Bourdain Inc. is more lucrative than ever: “Parts Unknown” was just renewed for four more seasons, he’s planning an international street-food market in New York City, and he has his own book-publishing line with HarperCollins Ecco. That’s made being Bourdain an increasingly awkward pursuit. He still can’t help snickering at food celebrities, but previous punching bags like Emeril Lagasse and Rachael Ray have become respected colleagues, if not outright friends. So Bourdain has turned to yet easier targets, lancing pop-chefs like Paula Deen and Guy Fieri and even an inoffensive food writer like The New York Times’ Mark Bittman. And despite railing incessantly against “the king, the clown, and the colonel”—Burger King, McDonald’s, and KFC—he gave a book deal to Marilyn Hagerty, the 87-year-old restaurant critic for the Grand Forks Herald who became Gawker famous for her earnest review of an Olive Garden. “This book kills snark dead,” Bourdain, TV’s snarkiest food celebrity, wrote in its preface.

Bourdain’s greatest flaw, though, is in not fully acknowledging how America’s culinary culture has changed since Kitchen Confidential—for the worse, in some respects. Sure, we’re no longer bumbling around the kitchen, futilely attempting to follow Lagasse’s gumbo recipe. But we fancy ourselves foodies now, capable of spotting an imposter like Fieri and recognizing a genius like David Chang. We’re living not in the age of the celebrity chef, who taught Americans how to cook like a professional, but of the auteur chef, who taught Americans exactly the opposite: that preparing professional food is an esoteric art, of which only a chosen few are capable. This latest food revolution is anything but populist, and Bourdain’s leading the charge.

Bourdain’s origin story doesn’t inspire sympathy. He wasn’t born poor, or without a sense of taste, or into a family of Wall Street conservatives. He was raised in Leonia, New Jersey, a comfortable suburb of New York City, by francophile parents who taught him how to eat adventurously—his dad a camera salesman and record-store manager who later became an executive at Columbia Records, and his mom a housewife who later become a copyeditor at the New York Times. Bourdain followed a love interest to Vassar College, but dropped out after two years of heavy drinking and drug use—behavior that persisted for years, from his time washing dishes at a Cape Cod restaurant to becoming the sous-chef at a trendy SoHo spot, with a (successfully completed) education at the Culinary Institute of America in between.

A privileged white suburbanite who became a cocaine and heroin addict—one responsible for cooking your food, no less—is hardly a narrator we’re inclined to root for. But at least Bourdain served time for his misbehavior, slaving away for years in uninspired kitchens and eventually working his way up from forgotten haunts to two-star restaurants. He didn’t enjoy real success in the industry until he got relatively clean, and didn’t become the executive chef at Brasserie Les Halles until 1998. A year later, with 28 years’ worth of street cred in the restaurant world, he published the essay “Don’t Read This Before Eating,” in The New Yorker, and a year after that, at 44 years old, he spilled all the beans in Kitchen Confidential.

The book instantly turned him into a food celebrity, which must have come as a shock to the journeyman chef and unexceptional pulp-fiction writer. In the opening chapter, “A Note from the Chef,” he had speculated that “there’s every possibility this book could finish me in the business,” adding, “My naked contempt for vegetarians, sauce-on-the-siders, the ‘lactose-intolerant’ and the cooking of Ewok-life Emeril Lagasse is not going to get my own show on the Food Network.” But it did get him his own show on another cable network: “A Cook’s Tour” on the Travel Channel, which after two seasons led to “No Reservations,” which cemented him as a celebrity, period.

Bourdain may not have been a great chef, but he was great at something else: being a TV personality. (His handsome face and 6’4” frame helped, no doubt.) “No Reservations,” like the leather-jacketed and hoop-earringed host himself, was remarkably consistent through its nine-season run, following him as he stuffed his face with street food in countries few Americans visit, dined at the finest restaurants in Europe, and celebrated unheralded cuisine here at home in U.S. You could count on him to relentlessly mock vegetarians and molecular gastronomy, act alternatingly bemused by and respectful of local customs, and supplicate before one culinary god after another—all with his familiar mix of purple prose and profanity-laden sarcasm.

America ate it up. That he’d paid his dues endeared him to his heroes, who clamored to be on his show, and his no-nonsense machismo earned him millions of disproportionately male fans. (Lad mags have long had a man-crush on him.) People who didn’t watch food shows because of hosts like Lagasse and Ray quickly embraced Bourdain, the anti-celebrity celebrity. And Bourdain was as willing to insult himself as others—he has always been his own harshest critic. “I suck,” he wrote in Kitchen Confidential’s preface, after describing how his media tour had turned hands “soft and lovely now—like a little baby girl’s.” In Medium Raw, he acknowledges his image as the “angry, cynical, snarky guy who says mean things on ‘Top Chef’—and I guess it would be pretty easy to keep going with that: a long-running lounge act, the exasperatedly enraged food guy…. To a great extent, that’s already happened.”

Only to a point. Bourdain indeed changed over “No Reservation”’s nine seasons. A hero like Eric Ripert, chef and co-owner of Le Bernadin, became his “best friend in the world.” He removed the small hoop in his right ear. And he began to pull punches: After meeting Lagasse and Ray, he found them not so bad after all. Call it “going soft”; call it “growing up.” Mingling with the country’s culinary elite, and settling down with a family, will do that to you. But Bourdain remained essentially Bourdainian. Sure, he’s capitalizing on his fame with a book line and food market, but he turned down far more offers, from a cookware set to a South Beach restaurant. “You know,” he told me, “these things can vaporize overnight, and when it does end I don’t want to look back and feel embarrassed about the things I’ve done. As long as I’m taking this ride, I want it to be fun, interesting, and unlike the first two-thirds of my life, not filled with regret.”

This attitude is central to the Bourdain brand: He’s down to earth, just like us, but also uncompromising, just like we hope to be. In short, we can relate to him. We, too, sometimes become cranky while traveling, no matter how beautiful the country. We can also take comfort knowing that life for Bourdain, who gets paid to see the wildest places in the world and eat some of the finest meals ever made, is not all roses—that traveling 200 days a year for work has its drawbacks. Success isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, and yet, paradoxically, we also aspire to his uncompromised success. To watch him on TV and read his books is not simply to travel vicariously or peek behind the kitchen door; his stories offer the hope that, with the right luck, you too could stumble overnight into such a life, whether it’s Bourdain’s or something else entirely—a job you only entertain in your deepest daydreams, a Hollywood actor or tech titan or pop star.

Increasingly, though, to follow Bourdain is to be reminded how unlikely that life is, how the “once-in-a-lifetime, freakishly lucky breaks that have become all too common in my life”—as he describes them in Medium Raw—almost certainly won’t happen to us, too. Watching the early episodes of “Parts Unknown”’s third season, it becomes clear that his stories could not possibly be ours—that he’s guiding us not through a world that’s accessible to us, but the world of a 1-percenter. The evidence of this has been mounting for years, but now it’s impossible to ignore, and no amount of self-deprecation can save Bourdain from appearing blind at best, hypocritical at worst.

“Parts Unknown” is, in many ways, simply a steroidal version of “No Reservations”—more hyperactive camera, lamer soundtrack—but it also reflects the rarified world Bourdain now inhabits. Whereas the first episode of the new season offers the usual fare—dhabas in Punjab, India, cultural tensions at the Pakistan border, and a miserable train ride transformed by “irresistibly charming” children and “breathtaking” views of “ridiculously deep valleys”—in the next two episodes he’s on the opposite end of the spectrum, eating unimaginably exclusive meals. There’s an uncomfortable dissonance created by these extremes, and Bourdain knows it. “I’m a person who grew up with a fair amount of self-loathing and neurotic first-world guilt,” he told me. “I travel, and I do spend a lot of my time in places where people have nothing, and really fight to live every day. I see people ground under the wheel constantly. I see that and then return to my comfortable apartment in New York, so yeah, there is a discomfort level and a consciousness of guilt that is with me and that I do consider and I do think about it. It does feature in the narrative whenever I’m writing a show.”

It features quite prominently in the second episode, which airs Sunday. At Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas, the three-Michelin-star French chef Guy Savoy serves Bourdain a private meal of caviar, foie gras, and truffle soup in an ornate dining room “reserved for the whales, the high rollers, the $10-million-a-night gamblers who arrive by private plane.” Bourdain confesses to feeling guilty, telling his lone dining companion, the food writer Michael Ruhlman, “I’m trying to make myself feel better. I’m trying to prove I’m still down with the people, man. I’m still cool.” He later admits, “I feel guilty about not feeling guilty.” Any guilt has evaporated entirely by the third episode, when he tours Lyon, France, with native son Daniel Boulud. One of America’s top chefs, Boulud takes Bourdain to L’Institut Paul Bocuse, where winners of the Meilleur Ouvrier de France cook him a poularde en vessie: a chicken stuffed with foie gras and truffles, then stuffed into a pig’s bladder that inflates upon cooking. These are “Parts Unknown” indeed—not places you can access simply by buying a plane ticket and a Lonely Planet.

It’s true that, in later episodes, Bourdain travels to Mexico City, the Mississippi Delta, Sochi, and Thailand. He’ll show us some interesting things we’ve never seen, which he’ll describe with just the right balance of droll profanity and overwrought description. He’ll complain about being tired or sweaty or hung over (but not too much, because that would seem ungrateful) and he’ll remind us how incredible his job is (but not too much, because that would seem disingenuous). And he’ll continue to provide an award-winning ratings hit for CNN. But the aspirational fantasy is gone, wiped out by one too many esoteric meals with boldface names.

That’s just as well. Bourdain is now as old as his father was when he died. He can do whatever makes him happy—”Yo Gabba Gabba” guest appearances and all—and anyone who disagrees with him can fuck off. He has a right to be a “cranky old fuck,” as he’s described himself in writing, or to be, as he described himself to me, “a big happy dad these days. I don’t spend my time grinding my teeth in front of the TV set or bemoaning the fate of the world. I have the best job in the world. I have a daughter who I adore. Hey, I’m pretty happy lately.” Sure, he’s lost his edge, but, as always, he’s the first to admit it. “I’d kind of even hope that the 18-year-old me would sneer at the 57-year-old me. I think that’s the obligations of youth—to look at our elders and hopefully find something to respect eventually, but I think the immediate natural instinct should be to think it’s bullshit, to reject it.”

The food-celebrity complex today desperately needs such a critic. But because many Americans are savvy enough now to know when a culinary offense is being committed, we no longer need Anthony Bourdain to eviscerate Fieri’s gaudy fusions or Deen’s diabetes factory. Likewise, there’s nothing particularly bold about attacking food writers: Bourdain spends an entire chapter of Medium Raw to make the uncontroversial case that “Alan Richman Is a Douche,” and later in the book writes of Bittman, who is one of America’s least-shrill advocates for healthy eating, “I want to shove my head through the glass of my TV screen and take a giant bite out of his skull, scoop the soft, slurry-like material inside into my paw, and then throw it right back into his smug, fireplug face.” If only he’d spew such glorious bile at more deserving figures like chef Wylie Dufresne, whose signature dish is this absurdity, or Roy Choi, the douchiest guest judge in all 11 seasons of “Top Chef.” But of course Bourdain won’t do that: They’re pals.

Perhaps we are still living in the age of the celebrity chef, and simply the names have changed—from, say, Lagasse to Chang. After all, today’s auteurs are capitalizing on their fame much as their celebrity predecessors did, with restaurant empires and cookbooks and TV shows. But as our foodie fetishization has shifted from TV celebrities who preside over impossibly bright kitchens to celebrated chefs who make “deconstructed” dishes you can’t even see for all the foam enveloping them—or “reinvent” tacos as haute cuisine, then serve them out of a curbside truck—one food celebrity has remained famous, and that’s no coincidence. Bourdain was less a witness to this era than a key ingredient. Now, he’s like a journalist who becomes the White House spokesman: Rather than pointing out the bullshit, he’s stepping in it.