Although he’s eaten sheep testicles and a still-beating cobra heart, Anthony Bourdain-writer, cook, and star of the Travel Channel’s No Reservations-says the foulest thing he’s ever consumed is a Chicken McNugget. In the 2007 updated version of his 2000 bestseller Kitchen Confidential, Bourdain wrote, as a sort of apology, “I’d like to add that the ‘Ewok-like’ Emeril Lagasse turned out to be not such a bad bastard after all.” And just recently, he got into a pissing match with food queen Alice Waters over whether an economic downturn is the time we should all have to go organic.
But despite the hard-edged exterior, Bourdain might be going soft. During a recent phone interview, when asked if he ever grows tired of strange women coming up to him and asking him to sign their Nasty Bits (his 2006 collection), he laughed and replied, “You know, it’s awkward. : I’m a dad now. A very happy dad-absolutely loving it.”
Santa Barbara will get to hear this happy dad on Friday, February 27, when UCSB Arts & Lectures presents him at the Arlington. “I’m going to wing it, talk for a while, and take questions from the audience,” he said. “Q&A is certainly the most fun for me. People can ask me anything they want.”
It will be his first visit to Santa Barbara, he’s pretty sure, especially since he answered in the affirmative when asked if you have to have eaten somewhere to have really been there. “I do believe that is a fundamental principle about knowing a place,” he asserted. “You certainly learn about the character of a people by sitting and drinking and eating with them. The history of the world is on the plate, as someone once told me.”
Despite his way with words, he doesn’t think you have to write about that food to capture a place, necessarily. “The best meals I’ve had I haven’t told anyone about,” he said. “If it’s a really great meal, language is inefficient to express the experience. So many of the great meals are indescribable; an ephemeral, magical confluence of events.”
It turns out it’s not such a magical confluence of events, however, to lead into an interview question with the phrase “you’ve described the tribe of cooks, whether male or female, as macho.” Bourdain snapped, “No, I’ve never said macho. I’m offended by that. I’ve called cooks pirates, yes, but it’s not a macho profession. These days, pirates are just as likely to be women as men. Men don’t have any exclusive on bad behavior.” He doesn’t even see himself as the first chef to adopt the rogue writing style of a Hunter S. Thompson or Lester Bangs. “If you look at [Ludwig] Bemelmans, who wrote a behind-the-scenes memoir of restaurants and grand hotels, or early Orwell, the time is different but it’s certainly a demimonde that’s been covered before. The language and terminology and sense of glee were new,” he explained. “For me, becoming a cook was like running away to the circus. I didn’t feel anyone would read the book [his first, Kitchen Confidential] beyond cooks.”
Of course the book was read, a lot, and soon it made the chef at New York’s Les Halles a TV star. And while No Reservations has calmed down throughout its five seasons-a fascinating recent Washington, D.C., episode seemed as interested in food as culture as food as cuisine-many still remember it for Bourdain living up to its title. When asked if the series would end with the episode “Bourdain Joins the Donner Party!” he chuckled and said, “Let us hope not. It’s been a while since I’ve tried to do something Americans will find strange. It’s not a focus anymore. I’m looking to have a good time. After all, when you’ve had one testicle : been there, done that. That said, if someone offers me something I haven’t had before, I like to be a polite guest.”
He’s not as polite in his musical tastes, as befits a chef often described as a rock star. “I love the Ramones and the Dead Boys, but listening to them while you’re trying to saute a Dover sole-it’s a little frantic,” he said. “I like Curtis Mayfield, Marvin Gaye, a little smoother R&B, stuff that’s a little more melodic during service. The Dead Boys are great when you’re cleaning up the kitchen.”
Despite his punk-loving heart, he can soften his stance over time (ask Emeril). Once, in print, he ranted that gastro-pubs were “about as inviting as the phrases : ‘Tonight! Billy Joel live!’ or ‘Free prostate exams with every drink.'” Now, he admits, “I hated the idea when they first started to appear in my cranky, old-guy style, but let’s face it: it can only be a good thing when food gets better. But it is odd to be in a wonderfully grimy old man’s pub and you look up and there’s a vegetarian menu hanging on the wall. It feels wrong.”
Anthony Bourdain’s appearance at the Arlington Theatre on Friday, February 27, at 8 p.m., is sold out.