(CNN) — Oh, the streets of Rome are filled with rubble
Ancient footprints are everywhere.
You can almost think that you're seeing double,
On a cold, dark night on the Spanish Stairs.
Gotta hurry on back to my hotel room,
Where I got me a date with a pretty little girl from Greece,
She promised she'd be there with me,
When I paint my masterpiece -- Bob Dylan
You should know right now, if you didn't know already, that what drives the team behind "Parts Unknown" is not to do what we did last week or last month -- or ever.
We are delighted when our viewers like an episode and even more delighted when they love one. But we are compelled, just the same, to avoid repeating what we've done before. If we fail -- we want to fail outrageously, foolishly, gloriously -- giving it everything we've got in the cause of making something new and strange and hopefully, awesome.
Our latest Rome episode is, perhaps, the most ambitious example of that compulsion.
My longtime team has for years discussed the possibility of shooting an episode entirely in wide screen, letterbox anamorphic format -- like so many of the movies we admire. And for this episode, we finally got our way.
This was necessarily a mammoth undertaking. Networks don't like it -- as it makes distribution to countries where they might still have square TV sets difficult. To do it right requires additional equipment, lighting, expense -- and, in this case, the addition of a sizable Italian film crew. Working within the Italian filmmaking system presents ... challenges of its own.
The kinds of images we anticipated capturing required music adequate to the scale and subject. Which meant we needed an actual score -- in this case, a beautiful collection of related pieces on a theme by our longtime music director Michael Ruffino. And I was adamant about acquiring rights to an existing piece of music -- the song "Spiral Waltz" from the wonderful 60's sci-fi satire, "The 10th Victim."
Not your typical Rome
And though we intended from the beginning to make the most beautiful looking show we had ever done, there was one important thematic constraint: We would shoot NO classical Rome.
The entire episode would feature ONLY the architecture of Mussolini and post-Mussolini era Rome: brutalist, futurist and rationalist structures, mid-century housing blocks, suburbs, the decidedly downscale and not particularly romantic seaside community of Ostia.
Rome may be the most romantic city in the world, and one of the most filmed, but the films we chose to reference were films by Pier Paolo Pasolini, Dario Argento and Abel Ferrara. Pasolini's wonderful, heartbreaking "Mamma Roma" is kind of a continuing reference point. And visually, Bernardo Bertolucci's "The Conformist," of course -- a film I've been besotted with for years.
What's it about? Well ... it's complicated. A lot of stuff. It's about everyday Rome, the joys and the frustrations. It's about fascism -- and how it might have happened in this most beautiful of cities. It's about movies. It's about love -- for films, for places, for the little things that make our lives bearable and for people.
'A little fascist inside you?'
Near the end, the brilliant and always honest Asia Argento says, "So you're saying there's a little fascist inside you?" Yes. Thinking about it now, I am saying that.
And to some extent, that's what this episode is about: the urge, the impulse, for ordinary people, even ones surrounded by beauty, to want a leader, a man on a horse, to come down from on high and make everything better. Someone/anyone who will say with a firm voice, "Listen to me! I know what I'm doing!"
That things have historically seldom if ever worked out in the wake of such promises is almost beside the point.
The episode would not have been possible -- or be anything like it is without the truly magnificent Asia Argento. She's spent a lifetime in films -- mostly in front of the cameras, but also -- and quite notably -- behind, directing most recently the remarkable and beautiful "Incompresa (Misunderstood)."
She told us about "stornaro," the bawdy, profane Roman folk songs we feature at various times during the episode. She introduced us to the batshit crazy boxing club where we ate pasta ringside as gladiators pounded one another and the crowd hooted and roared.
She allowed us to shoot at her favorite little restaurants, where she takes her kids on the weekends for homemade fettuccine and polpetti. Introduced us to the lovely and outrageous trans ladies who live in her neighborhood -- and arranged for them to wander, choreographed, like exotic birds, through her local Quicky Mart while we shopped for dinner.
Italy's 20 regions, dish by delicious dish
She arranged for her sister Fiore to cook for me at her home -- with her delightful children, daughter Ana and son Nicola (who pretty much steals the show as he struggles with his tripe). She convinced the notorious Abel Ferrara to appear in the episode -- and explain how the maddest and baddest of American film directors could find himself living an ordinary life as a husband and father in Rome.
But most importantly, she was herself. Always honest, completely unsparing.
If you ask Asia a question, you are going to get an answer -- and she doesn't care if it reflects badly on you -- or on herself. She's going to give it to you straight. Actors and film people are generally a frightened bunch. They fear saying or doing the wrong thing -- of somehow finding themselves no longer able to work in film.
Though she was born into a film dynasty and has been acting since she was 9 years old, Asia has never given a fuck. Her admission that she never votes is both terrible and true -- and about as close to home as it gets.
The last word, appropriately, is hers.
It's a very beautiful show. The most beautiful we've ever made, I think. And I'm very proud of the work that cinematographers Zach Zamboni and Todd Liebler put into it. Director Tom Vitale put heart and soul into the effort -- enduring many agonies during the process. Producer Jeff Allen somehow managed logistical and diplomatic challenges that would have killed a lesser man. And editor Hunter Gross just gets better and better.
We gave it everything we had.
Anthony Bourdain explores a side of Rome that you've never seen on "Parts Unknown" Sunday, December 4, at 9 p.m. ET/PT.
If you're looking for classic Rome, this isn't the show for you. "Anthony Bourdain Parts Unknown" airs Sundays at 9 p.m. ET/PT.
When the President of the United States travels outside the country, he brings his own car with him. Moments after Air Force One landed at the Hanoi airport last May, President Barack Obama ducked into an eighteen-foot, armor-plated limousine—a bomb shelter masquerading as a Cadillac—that was equipped with a secure link to the Pentagon and with emergency supplies of blood, and was known as the Beast. Hanoi’s broad avenues are crowded with honking cars, storefront venders, street peddlers, and some five million scooters and motorbikes, which rush in and out of the intersections like floodwaters. It was Obama’s first trip to Vietnam, but he encountered this pageant mostly through a five-inch pane of bulletproof glass. He might as well have watched it on TV.
Obama was scheduled to meet with President Trần Đại Quang, and with the new head of Vietnam’s national assembly. On his second night in Hanoi, however, he kept an unusual appointment: dinner with Anthony Bourdain, the peripatetic chef turned writer who hosts the Emmy-winning travel show “Parts Unknown,” on CNN. Over the past fifteen years, Bourdain has hosted increasingly sophisticated iterations of the same program. Initially, it was called “A Cook’s Tour,” and aired on the Food Network. After shifting to the Travel Channel, it was renamed “Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations,” and it ran for nine seasons before moving to CNN, in 2013. All told, Bourdain has travelled to nearly a hundred countries and has filmed two hundred and forty-eight episodes, each a distinct exploration of the food and culture of a place. The secret ingredient of the show is the when-in-Rome avidity with which Bourdain partakes of indigenous custom and cuisine, whether he is pounding vodka before plunging into a frozen river outside St. Petersburg or spearing a fatted swine as the guest of honor at a jungle longhouse in Borneo. Like a great white shark, Bourdain tends to be photographed with his jaws wide open, on the verge of sinking his teeth into some tremulous delicacy. In Bourdain’s recollection, his original pitch for the series was, roughly, “I travel around the world, eat a lot of shit, and basically do whatever the fuck I want.” The formula has proved improbably successful.
People often ask Bourdain’s producers if they can tag along on an escapade. On a recent visit to Madagascar, he was accompanied by the film director Darren Aronofsky. (A fan of the show, Aronofsky proposed to Bourdain that they go somewhere together. “I kind of jokingly said Madagascar, just because it’s the farthest possible place,” he told me. “And Tony said, ‘How’s November?’ ”) A ride-along with Bourdain promises the sidekick an experience that, in this era of homogenized tourism, is all too rare: communion with a foreign culture so unmitigated that it feels practically intravenous. Parachuted into any far-flung corner of the planet, Bourdain ferrets out the restaurant, known only to discerning locals, where the grilled sardines or the pisco sours are divine. Often, he insinuates himself into a private home where the meal is even better. He is a lively dining companion: a lusty eater and a quicksilver conversationalist. “He’s got that incredibly beautiful style when he talks that ranges from erudite to brilliantly slangy,” his friend Nigella Lawson observed. Bourdain is a font of unvarnished opinion, but he also listens intently, and the word he uses perhaps more than any other is “interesting,” which he pronounces with four syllables and only one “t”: in-ner-ess-ting.
Before becoming famous, Bourdain spent more than two decades as a professional cook. In 2000, while working as the executive chef at Les Halles, a boisterous brasserie on Park Avenue South, he published a ribald memoir, “Kitchen Confidential.” It became a best-seller, heralding a new national fascination with the grubby secrets and “Upstairs Downstairs” drama of the hospitality industry. Bourdain, having established himself as a brash truth-teller, got into public spats with more famous figures; he once laid into Alice Waters for her pious hatred of junk food, saying that she reminded him of the Khmer Rouge. People who do not watch Bourdain’s show still tend to think of him as a savagely honest loudmouthed New York chef. But over the years he has transformed himself into a well-heeled nomad who wanders the planet meeting fascinating people and eating delicious food. He freely admits that his career is, for many people, a fantasy profession. A few years ago, in the voice-over to a sun-dappled episode in Sardinia, he asked, “What do you do after your dreams come true?” Bourdain would be easy to hate, in other words, if he weren’t so easy to like. “For a long time, Tony thought he was going to have nothing,” his publisher, Dan Halpern, told me. “He can’t believe his luck. He always seems happy that he actually is Anthony Bourdain.”
The White House had suggested the meeting in Vietnam. Of all the countries Bourdain has explored, it is perhaps his favorite; he has been there half a dozen times. He fell for Hanoi long before he actually travelled there, when he read Graham Greene’s 1955 novel, “The Quiet American,” and the city has retained a thick atmosphere of colonial decay—dingy villas, lugubrious banyan trees, monsoon clouds, and afternoon cocktails—that Bourdain savors without apology. Several years ago, he seriously considered moving there.
Bourdain believes that the age of the fifteen-course tasting menu “is over.” He is an evangelist for street food, and Hanoi excels at open-air cooking. It can seem as if half the population were sitting around sidewalk cookfires, hunched over steaming bowls of phở. As a White House advance team planned the logistics for Obama’s visit, an advance team from Zero Point Zero, the company that produces the show, scoured the city for the perfect place to eat. They selected Bún chả Hương Liên, a narrow establishment across from a karaoke joint on a busy street in the Old Quarter. The restaurant’s specialty is bún chả: springy white noodles, smoky sausage, and charred pork belly served in a sweet and pungent broth.
At the appointed hour, Obama exited the Beast and walked into the restaurant behind a pair of Secret Service agents, who cleared a path for him, like linemen blocking for a running back. In a rear dining room on the second floor, Bourdain was waiting at a stainless-steel table, surrounded by other diners, who had been coached to ignore the cameras and Obama, and to focus on their bún chả. Like many restaurants in Vietnam, the facility was casual in the extreme: diners and servers alike swept discarded refuse onto the floor, and the tiles had acquired a grimy sheen that squeaked beneath your feet. Obama was wearing a white button-down, open at the collar, and he greeted Bourdain, took a seat on a plastic stool, and happily accepted a bottle of Vietnamese beer.
“How often do you get to sneak out for a beer?” Bourdain asked.
“I don’t get to sneak out, period,” Obama replied. He occasionally took the First Lady to a restaurant, he said, but “part of enjoying a restaurant is sitting with other patrons and enjoying the atmosphere, and too often we end up getting shunted into one of those private rooms.”
As a young waitress in a gray polo shirt set down bowls of broth, a plate of greens, and a platter of shuddering noodles, Bourdain fished chopsticks from a plastic container on the table. Obama, surveying the constituent parts of the meal, evinced trepidation. He said, “All right, you’re gonna have to—”
“I’ll walk you through it,” Bourdain assured him, advising him to grab a clump of noodles with chopsticks and dunk them into the broth.
“I’m just gonna do what you do,” Obama said.
“Dip and stir,” Bourdain counselled. “And get ready for the awesomeness.”
Eying a large sausage that was floating in the broth, Obama asked, “Is it generally appropriate to just pop one of these whole suckers in your mouth, or do you think you should be a little more—”
“Slurping is totally acceptable in this part of the world,” Bourdain declared.
Obama took a bite and let out a low murmur. “That’s good stuff” he said, and the two of them—lanky, conspicuously cool guys in late middle age—slurped away as three cameras, which Bourdain had once likened to “drunken hummingbirds,” hovered around them. Noting the unaffected rusticity of the scene, Obama was reminded of a memorable meal that he had eaten as a child, in the mountains outside Jakarta. “You’d have these roadside restaurants overlooking the tea fields,” he recalled. “There’d be a river running through the restaurant itself, and there’d be these fish, these carp, that would be running through. You’d pick the fish. They’d grab it for you and fry it up, and the skin would be real crispy. They just served it with a bed of rice.” Obama was singing Bourdain’s song: earthy, fresh, free of pretense. “It was the simplest meal possible, and nothing tasted so good.”
But the world is getting smaller, Obama said. “The surprises, the serendipity of travel, where you see something and it’s off the beaten track, there aren’t that many places like that left.” He added, wistfully, “I don’t know if that place will still be there when my daughters are ready to travel. But I hope it is.” The next day, Bourdain posted a photograph of the meeting online. “Total cost of Bun cha dinner with the President: $6.00,” he tweeted. “I picked up the check.”
“Three years I haven’t had a cigarette, and I just started again,” Bourdain said when I met him shortly afterward, at the bar of the Metropole Hotel, where he was staying. He cocked an eyebrow: “Obama made me do it.” Bourdain, who is sixty, is imposingly tall—six feet four—and impossibly lean, with a monumental head, a caramel tan, and carefully groomed gray hair. He once described his body as “gristly, tendony,” as if it were an inferior cut of beef, and a recent devotion to Brazilian jujitsu has left his limbs and his torso laced with ropy muscles. With his Sex Pistols T-shirt and his sensualist credo, there is something of the aging rocker about him. But if you spend any time with Bourdain you realize that he is controlled to the point of neurosis: clean, organized, disciplined, courteous, systematic. He is Apollo in drag as Dionysus.
“He has his mise en place,” his friend the chef Éric Ripert told me, noting that Bourdain’s punctiliousness is a reflection not only of his personality and his culinary training but also of necessity: if he weren’t so structured, he could never stay on top of his proliferating commitments. In addition to producing and starring in “Parts Unknown,” he selects the locations, writes the voice-overs, and works closely with the cinematographers and the music supervisors. When he is not on camera, he is writing: essays, cookbooks, graphic novels about a homicidal sushi chef, screenplays. (David Simon recruited him to write the restaurant scenes in “Treme.”) Or he is hosting other TV shows, such as “The Taste,” a reality competition that ran for two years on ABC. Last fall, during a hiatus from filming, he launched a fifteen-city standup tour. Ripert suggested to me that Bourdain may be driven, in part, by a fear of what he might get up to if he ever stopped working. “I’m a guy who needs a lot of projects,” Bourdain acknowledged. “I would probably have been happy as an air-traffic controller.”
As he sipped a beer and picked at a platter of delicate spring rolls, he was still fidgeting with exhilaration from the encounter with Obama. “I believe what’s important to him is this notion that otherness is not bad, that Americans should aspire to walk in other people’s shoes,” he reflected. This idea resonates strongly with Bourdain, and, although he insists his show is a selfish epicurean enterprise, Obama’s ethic could be the governing thesis of “Parts Unknown.” In the opening moments of an episode set in Myanmar, Bourdain observes, “Chances are you haven’t been to this place. Chances are this is a place you’ve never seen.”
From the moment Bourdain conceives of an episode, he obsesses over the soundtrack, and for the sequence with Obama he wanted to include the James Brown song “The Boss.” When the producers cannot afford to license a song, they often commission music that evokes the original. For a “Big Lebowski” homage in a Tehran episode, they arranged the recording of a facsimile, in Farsi, of Dylan’s “The Man in Me.” But Bourdain wanted the original James Brown track, no matter how much it cost. “I don’t know who’s paying for it,” he said. “But somebody’s fucking paying for it.” He sang the chorus to himself—“I paid the cost to be the boss”—and remarked that one price of leadership, for Obama, had been a severe constraint on the very wanderlust that Bourdain personifies. “Even drinking a beer for him is a big thing,” he marvelled. “He’s got to clear it.” Before he said goodbye to Obama, Bourdain told me, he had underlined this contrast. “I said, ‘Right after this, Mr. President, I’m getting on a scooter and I’m going to disappear into the flow of thousands of people.’ He got this look on his face and said, ‘That must be nice.’ ”
Tom Vitale, the episode’s director, who is in his mid-thirties and has an air of harried intensity, stopped by to check with Bourdain about a shoot that was planned for later that evening. It generally takes Bourdain about a week of frantic work on location to film each episode. He has a small crew—two producers and a few cameramen—who recruit local fixers and grips. His team often shoots between sixty and eighty hours of footage in order to make an hour-long episode. Vitale, like others on the crew, has worked with Bourdain for years. When I asked him what his interactions with the White House had been like, he said, with bewilderment, “I’m shocked we all passed the background check.”
Bourdain was eager to shoot at a bia-hơi joint, a popular Hanoi establishment specializing in chilled draft beer. “We’re hoping for beer?” he asked.
“We’re hoping for beer,” Vitale confirmed. They had already scouted a place. “But, if the energy there is only fifty per cent, maybe not.”
Bourdain agreed. “We don’t want to manufacture a scene,” he said. He makes a fetish of authenticity, and disdains many conventions of food and travel programming. “We don’t do retakes,” he said. “We don’t do ‘hello’ scenes or ‘goodbye, thank you very much’ scenes. I’d rather miss the shot than have a bogus shot.” When he meets someone at a roadside café, he wears a lavalier microphone, which picks up the sort of ambient noise—blaring car horns, shrieking cicadas—that sound designers normally filter out. “We want you to know what a place sounds like, not just what it looks like,” Jared Andrukanis, one of Bourdain’s producers, told me. “The guys who mix the show hate it. They hate it, but I think they love it.”
Bourdain is exceptionally close to his crew members, in part because they are steady companions in a life that is otherwise transient. “I change location every two weeks,” he told me. “I’m not a cook, nor am I a journalist. The kind of care and feeding required of friends, I’m frankly incapable of. I’m not there. I’m not going to remember your birthday. I’m not going to be there for the important moments in your life. We are not going to reliably hang out, no matter how I feel about you. For fifteen years, more or less, I’ve been travelling two hundred days a year. I make very good friends a week at a time.”
Until he was forty-four, Bourdain saw very little of the world. He grew up in Leonia, New Jersey, not far from the George Washington Bridge. His father, Pierre, an executive at Columbia Records, was reserved, and given to reading silently on the couch for long stretches, but he had adventurous taste in food and movies. Tony recalls travelling into New York City with his father during the seventies to try sushi, which at the time seemed impossibly exotic.
The only experience of real travel that Bourdain had as a child was two trips to France. When he was ten, his parents took him and his younger brother, Chris, on a summer vacation to France, where relatives of his father had a home in a chilly seaside village.* Tony had what he has since described as a Proustian encounter with a huge oyster, eating it freshly plucked from the sea. (“Tony likes to play up the oyster episode,” Chris, who is now a banker, told me. “I have no idea if that’s fact or fiction.”) The brothers played in old Nazi blockhouses on the beach, and spent hours reading “Tintin” books—savoring tales of the roving boy reporter and poring over Hergé’s minutely rendered illustrations of Shanghai, Cairo, the Andes. The stories, Bourdain recalls, “took me places I was quite sure I would never go.”
His mother, Gladys, a copy editor at the Times, was formidable and judgmental, and often clashed with her son. In high school, Bourdain fell in love with an older girl, Nancy Putkoski, who ran with a druggie crowd, and he started dabbling in illicit substances himself. At one point, Gladys told her son, “I love you dearly, but, you know, I don’t like you very much at present.” In 1973, Bourdain finished high school a year early and followed Putkoski to Vassar. But he dropped out after two years and enrolled at the Culinary Institute of America, in Hyde Park, New York.
It was not his first experience in the kitchen: the summer after finishing high school, he had been a dishwasher at the Flagship, a flounder-and-fried-clams restaurant in Provincetown. In “Kitchen Confidential,” he recounts a defining moment, during a wedding party at the Flagship, when he witnessed the bride sneak outside for an impromptu assignation with the chef. The punch line: “I knew then, dear reader, for the first time: I wanted to be a chef.”
The story captures Bourdain’s conception of the cook’s vocation as both seductively carnal and swaggeringly transgressive. One of his favorite movies is “The Warriors,” the cult 1979 film about street gangs in New York, and it was the outlaw machismo of the kitchen that attracted him. For a time, he walked around with a set of nunchucks in a holster strapped to his leg, like a six-shooter; he often posed for photographs wearing chef’s whites and clutching the kind of long, curved knife you might use to disembowel a Gorgon. (The cover of “Kitchen Confidential” showed Bourdain with two ornamental swords tucked into his apron strings.) Long before he was the kind of international celebrity who gets chased by fans through the airport in Singapore, Bourdain knew how to arrange his grasshopper limbs into a good pose, and from the beginning he had a talent for badassery.
After graduating from the Culinary Institute, in 1978, he moved with Putkoski into a rent-stabilized apartment on Riverside Drive. They married in 1985. She had various jobs, and Bourdain found work at the Rainbow Room, in Rockefeller Center. When I asked about the marriage, which ended in 2005, he likened it to the Gus Van Sant film “Drugstore Cowboy,” in which Matt Dillon and Kelly Lynch play drug addicts who rob pharmacies in order to support their habit. “That kind of love and codependency and sense of adventure—we were criminals together,” he said. “A lot of our life was built around that, and happily so.” When Bourdain tells stories about the “seriously knuckleheaded shit” he did while using narcotics—being pulled over by the cops with two hundred hits of blotter acid in the car, being stalked by the Drug Enforcement Administration while trying to retrieve a “letter from Panama” at the post office—he vaguely alludes to “another person” who was by his side. He is careful not to mention Putkoski by name. Aside from the drugs, they lived a relatively quiet domestic life. In the evenings, they ordered takeout and watched “The Simpsons.” Every few years, after they saved up some money, Tony and Nancy went on vacation to the Caribbean. Otherwise, they did not travel.
But Bourdain did travel around New York, as a journeyman chef. At the Rainbow Room, he worked the buffet table, and he was a sous-chef at W.P.A., in SoHo. He worked at Chuck Howard’s, in the theatre district; at Nikki and Kelly, on the Upper West Side; at Gianni’s, a tourist trap at the South Street Seaport; at the Supper Club, a nightspot in midtown where the emphasis was not the food. Eventually, he acquired a crew of associates who migrated with him from one restaurant to the next. His friend Joel Rose, a writer who has known Bourdain since the eighties, told me, “He was a fixer. Anytime a restaurant was in trouble, he came in and saved the day. He wasn’t a great chef, but he was organized. He would stop the bleeding.”
In 1998, he answered an ad in the Times and got the executive-chef job at Les Halles. It was an ideal fit for Bourdain: an unpretentious brasserie with its own butcher, who worked next to the bar, behind a counter stacked with steak, veal, and sausages. “Kitchen Confidential,” which was excerpted in this magazine, was inspired by “Down and Out in Paris and London,” in which George Orwell describes chefs as “the most workmanlike class, and the least servile.” Karen Rinaldi, the editor who acquired the book, for Bloomsbury, told me that she underestimated the impact it would have. “It was a flyer,” she said—the profane musings of a guy who broiled steaks for a living. “But a lot of the books that end up shifting the culture are flyers.”
“Kitchen Confidential” was filled with admonitions: Bourdain assailed Sunday brunch (“a dumping ground for the odd bits left over from Friday and Saturday”) and advised against ordering fish on Mondays, because it is typically “four to five days old.” The book was marketed as a dispatch from the scullery, the type of tell-all that might be more interesting to the naïve restaurant-goer than to the battle-seasoned cook. (“I won’t eat in a restaurant with filthy bathrooms,” Bourdain warned. “They let you see the bathrooms. If the restaurant can’t be bothered to replace the puck in the urinal or keep the toilets and floors clean, then just imagine what their refrigeration and work spaces look like.”) But, for Bourdain, the most important audience was his peers. The final line of the acknowledgments page was “Cooks rule,” and he hoped, desperately, that other professionals would see the book in the spirit he had intended, and pass gravy-stained copies around the kitchen.
Bourdain did not quit his job at Les Halles when the book became a success. “I was careful to modulate my hopes, because I lived in a business where everybody was a writer or an actor,” he recalls. For decades, he’d seen colleagues come into work crowing about their latest callback, only to see their grand designs amount to nothing. “So at no point was it ‘So long, suckers.’ ” His confederates at Les Halles were amused, if mystified, by his blossoming career as a writer, and the owners were accommodating about the book tour. When Bourdain started travelling to promote the book, something curious happened. He’d amble into a restaurant alone and order a drink at the bar. Out of nowhere, a plate of amuse-bouches would appear, compliments of the house. It marked an affirmation for Bourdain: chefs were reading the book, and they liked it. But it also signified a profound inversion. He had spent the first half of his life preparing food to feed others. He would spend the second half getting fed.
Kang Ho Dong Baekjeong is a bright, cacophonous restaurant on Thirty-second Street, a hipster riff on a Korean steak house. One frigid evening last February, I arrived, on time, to discover Bourdain waiting for me, already halfway through a beer. He is more than punctual: he arrives precisely fifteen minutes early to every appointment. “It comes from his kitchen days,” Tom Vitale, the director, told me. “If he doesn’t show, we know something’s wrong.” Bourdain used the word “pathological” to describe his fixation with being on time. “I judge other people on it,” he admitted. “Today, you’re just late, but eventually you will betray me.”
I had dined at Baekjeong once before, but I was about to discover that eating at a restaurant with Bourdain is a markedly different experience. Throughout the meal, the head chef—Deuki Hong, an amiable, floppy-haired twenty-seven-year-old—personally presented each dish. One conspicuous hazard of being Anthony Bourdain is that everywhere he goes, from a Michelin-starred temple to a peasant hut on the tundra, he is mercilessly inundated with food. Because he is loath to spurn courtesy of any kind, he often ends up eating much more than he might like to. Bourdain calls this getting “food fucked.” Now that he trains nearly every day in jujitsu, he tries to eat and drink more selectively. “Off camera, I don’t go around getting drunk at night,” he said; during the meals we shared when he wasn’t shooting, Bourdain didn’t so much gorge himself as graze. A big bowl of pasta is hard to enjoy if you know it will render you sluggish the next morning, when a crazy-eyed mixed martial artist is trying to ease you into a choke hold. Since he started doing jujitsu, three years ago, Bourdain has lost thirty-five pounds. (He now weighs a hundred and seventy-five pounds.) But he adores the food at Baekjeong, and was ready to indulge himself. After Hong arranged silky thin slivers of marinated beef tongue on a circular grill that was embedded in the table between us, Bourdain waited until they had just browned, then reached for one with chopsticks and encouraged me to do the same. We savored the rich, woodsy taste of the meat. Then Bourdain poured two shots of soju, the Korean rice liquor, and said, “That is good, huh?”
It is somewhat ironic that Bourdain has emerged as an ambassador for the culinary profession, given that, by his own admission, he was never an inspired chef. Alan Richman, the restaurant critic at GQ, who is a champion of white-tablecloth haute cuisine, told me that Les Halles “was not a particularly good restaurant when he was cooking there, and it got worse when he stopped.” This seemed a little unfair: I frequented Les Halles before it closed, in 2016, and until the end it was rowdy and reliable, with a good frisée salad and a sturdy cassoulet. But it was never a standout restaurant. Bourdain used to genuflect like a fanboy before innovative chefs such as Éric Ripert, of Le Bernardin. On page 5 of “Kitchen Confidential,” he joked that Ripert, whom he had never met, “won’t be calling me for ideas on today’s fish special.” After the book came out, Bourdain was in the kitchen at Les Halles one day, when he got a phone call. It was Ripert, inviting him to lunch. Today, they are best friends, and Ripert often plays the straight man to Bourdain on “Parts Unknown.” A recent episode in Chengdu, China, consisted largely of shots of a flushed and sweaty Ripert being subjected to one lethally spicy dish after another while Bourdain discoursed on the “mouth-numbing” properties of Sichuan pepper and took jocular satisfaction in his friend’s discomfort.
Ripert said of Bourdain, “I have cooked side by side with him. He has the speed. He has the precision. He has the skill. He has the flavor. The food tastes good.” He hesitated. “Creativity-wise . . . I don’t know.” Over the years, Bourdain has regularly been approached about opening his own restaurant, and these offers might have yielded him a fortune. But he has always declined, mindful, perhaps, that his renown as a bard of the kitchen might be difficult to equal in the kitchen itself.
Even so, everywhere Bourdain goes young cooks greet him as “Chef.” When I asked him if that felt strange, he bristled slightly. “Look, I put in my time, so I’m not uncomfortable with it,” he said. “What makes me uncomfortable is when an actual working chef who cooks better than I’ve ever cooked in my life calls me Chef.” As if on cue, Deuki Hong—who, before opening Baekjeong, worked under Jean-Georges Vongerichten and David Chang—appeared with a platter of steamed sweet potatoes, and addressed Bourdain as Chef.
Halfway through the meal, we were joined by Stephen Werther, a bespectacled entrepreneur who is Bourdain’s partner in a new venture: a Manhattan market modelled on Singapore’s hawker centers, or open-air food courts. It is scheduled to open, sometime in the next few years, at Pier 57, a cavernous former shipping terminal on the West Side. If Bourdain’s show offers a vicarious taste of an intrepid culinary expedition, the market will provide an ersatz consumer experience of his show. The best street-food venders will be recruited from around the world and awarded visas—assuming that the United States is still issuing them—allowing New Yorkers to sample their octopus tostadas and their yakitori chicken hearts. Bourdain Market, as it will be known, is a preposterously ambitious venture; it will be three times the size of the original Eataly—Mario Batali’s super-emporium of Italian food in the Flatiron district. Werther was accompanied by Robin Standefer and Stephen Alesch, a married couple who run Roman and Williams, a design firm that creates seductive contemporary spaces, such as the Ace Hotel in New York. They had agreed to work on the market. Their background is in Hollywood set design, an ideal match for Bourdain’s sensibility.
“Imagine a post-apocalyptic Grand Central Terminal, if it had been invaded by China,” Bourdain said.
“But underwater,” Standefer joked.
Bourdain elaborated that the market should bring to mind “Blade Runner”—high-end retail as grungy, polyglot dystopia. When Bourdain was growing up, his father used to rent a 16-mm. projector and show movies by Stanley Kubrick and Mel Brooks. “I’ve never met anyone who has this catalogue of films in his head,” one of his longtime cameramen, Zach Zamboni, told me. A Rome episode of “No Reservations” made black-and-white allusion to Fellini. The Buenos Aires episode on “Parts Unknown” was a nod to “Happy Together,” by Wong Kar-wai. Most viewers are unlikely to catch such references, but for Bourdain that is not the point. “When other cinematographers like it, that feels good,” he said. “It’s just like cooking—when the other cooks say, ‘Nice plate.’ It’s kind of not about the customers.” The producer Lydia Tenaglia, who, along with her husband, Chris Collins, recruited Bourdain to television for “A Cook’s Tour,” and now runs Zero Point Zero, told me that part of the reason Bourdain’s experience is so often refracted through films is that, until middle age, he had seen so little of the world. “Books and films, that was what he knew—what he had read in Graham Greene, what he had seen in ‘Apocalypse Now.’ ”
Singapore’s orderly hawker markets combine the delights of roadside gastronomy with an approach to public-health regulation that could pass muster in post-Bloomberg New York. “They cracked the code without losing this amazing culture,” Bourdain said. Some of his partners in the market will be established restaurateurs, like April Bloomfield, the Michelin-starred chef of the Spotted Pig and the Breslin. But Bourdain also wants the market to have an old-fashioned butcher shop, with “guys in bloody aprons breaking down sections of meat,” and Asian street food that will attract not just the Eater-reading cognoscenti but also displaced Asians in New York who yearn for a genuine taste of home. “If the younger Korean hipsters and their grandparents like us, we’re gonna be O.K.,” he said.
I wondered aloud if grilled heart could turn a profit in New York. Wouldn’t the adventurous offerings be loss leaders, while more conventional attractions, like an oyster bar, paid the rent?