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Celeb chef who hasn't been near a kitchen for 10 years

When chef Anthony Bourdain's meaty memoir Kitchen Confidential was published a decade ago it changed his life immeasurably.

After more than two decades in the trenches of the restaurant warzone he was given a pass to a new world where he was flown around the globe to publicise it and subsequent books and landed a gig with, first, The Food Network and subsequently the Travel Channel for the show No Reservations in which he and a small crew got to travel to anywhere they wanted to go and sample all manner of odd and exotic cuisine.

Even better, Bourdain's name has made it to the roll of honour plaque of famous people who've sampled the fare at Dublin's legendary chipper Burdock's and, what's more, it's actually spelled correctly: a minor miracle given the fate that's befallen Bruce Springsteen, Def Leppard, Aslan and many, many more.

"I'm named on the wall in Burdock's?" he chirps.

"That's great! I am truly honoured. I love a good chip shop. Even some of the dark arts of the fry-up appeal to me, things like King Rib. What we found early on with the television programme is that if you really want to get to the heart of a culture you find out what they eat when they're drunk at 2 o'clock in the morning.

"There's always something unique to a particular place and it's good to experience things like deep-fried haggis with curry sauce (I'm guessing Glasgow here -- GB) -- even just once."



WARTS

Bourdain's latest book Medium Raw is a sequel to Kitchen Confidential and finds the rangy former New York chef -- he hasn't worked in a kitchen in ten years -- looking back over the changes the past decade have brought. It also offers glimpses into his wilder days when heroin and crack cocaine almost got the better of him.

"Kitchen Confidential was a complete game changer for me," he says, tucking into the first of several pints of Guinness.

"When I wrote it I was standing on my feet in a kitchen (the bistro-style Les Halles on Park Avenue) for 14, 16 hours a day.

"I was a guy who never paid his rent on time and was deeply in debt with zero hope of that situation ever changing. Of ever owning a car. Of ever having health insurance. Of ever buying furniture. Of ever seeing Rome, much less Tokyo. Overnight all that changed and my job is now going wherever I want, doing whatever I want ... and making self-indulgent television programmes!"

Written originally as a short article for a New York free newspaper before making its way to The New Yorker with a book offer following in less than 48 hours, Kitchen Confidential is a raw, warts'n'all account of the harsh reality of life in the restaurant trade and the people who live that life.

Newstalk's Sean Moncrieff wasn't exaggerating when he described it as the Hammer of the Gods of the cooking trade.

"I think it frightened a lot of people who thought they wanted to be chefs," explains Bourdain. "It gave them an accurate picture of just how hard the work is, how consuming a lifestyle it is. It also painted a picture of how some people are just hard-wired to love that kind of marginal life.

"It's like running away to join the circus, joining a band or being in the Marines. The pay is terrible, the work is really hard and the hours are awful but it's just right for certain personalities and I was one of them."

Looking remarkably fit and healthy for a man once addicted to heroin and crack, Bourdain is honest about his talents ("I was a journeyman cook. I was aware of my limitations. I was not an artist or a creative chef. I was a workaday mechanic.") and clearly has no intention of donning the whites again. "It's a young person's game," he says with authority. And as for people thinking of trying to start out when they're even in their late 20s -- forget it. The odds are really stacked against you. You're not physically up to the job if you're too old or out of shape. The job involves running up and down stairs, carrying bus pans loaded with food, making hundreds of knee-bends a night into low-boy refrigerators in conditions of excruciatingly high heat and humidity that can cause young and superbly fit cooks to falter.

"You'll be working with 20-year-olds who'll look at you like 'Hey Grandpa!' and if you have a bad back, a dodgy knee or are overweight ... you're dead meat and will be lucky to last a shift."

Which rather puts paid to the old saw 'Never trust a thin chef'.

"That is such complete bullshit!" exclaims the man with some venom and disdain. "No stupider thing has ever been said. Look at the crews of any really high-end restaurants and you'll see a group of whippet-thin, under-rested young pups with dark circles under their eyes who look like they just got out of a f**king Japanese prisoner-of-war camp. Nah, fat people generally don't cut it in kitchens."



NAKED

Bourdain's caustic wit and short, bullet-like sentences echo his machine-gun writing style and the conversation ranges across a wide variety of subjects, from the passing of the time of senior food critics ("The world is changing, the blogosphere has outpaced them and they're like panicked chickens who can hear the wolves gnawing at the wire fence. It's over for them."), and a volte face on the subject of Jamie Oliver ("I hated The Naked Chef and all that Mockney bullshit but I really respect what he's chosen to do with this part of his life in trying to get people to eat healthier food.")

His next book will be a crime novel, his fourth, and a chat about the genre leads on to the subject of New Orleans and how he's working with David Simon, creator of The Wire.

"The Wire was so brilliant it ruined all cop shows," he enthuses. "I was asked to consult a bit on the first season of Treme (Simon's post-Katrina series due here before Christmas -- GB) and now I'm writing for the second season. I'm unbelievably excited about it and would have done it naked and for free."

gbyrne@herald.ie


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