Middle-Aged, Desperate and Broke as a Joke: How Anthony Bourdain Became an Instant Sensation
An exclusive excerpt from the new biography ‘Down and Out In Paradise’, reveals the origin story of the unknown New York chef who became a best-selling writer and a TV star
For Anthony Bourdain, success came late in life — he was 43, ancient by celebrity standards — but when it did come it came suddenly and surely. One morning — it was April 12, 1999 — he woke up as he usually did, a man with no credit cards or health insurance, three months behind on the rent, nervous about years of unfiled taxes and assorted other overdue bills. And that same night he went to bed as the New Yorker writer whom everyone was talking about. His newsmaking article would beget a book contract and then the book, “Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly,” would beget a TV career that lasted 17 years. It was wonderful and it was awful.
This excerpt from the new biography “Down and Out in Paradise: The Life of Anthony Bourdain” by Charles Leerhsen reveals the very beginning of the Bourdain story most people think they know, an unknown chef dishing on the industries dirtiest secrets — but it was also the beginning of the end.
For José de Meirelles, the co-owner of Brasserie Les Halles, Monday, April 12, 1999, began with a 6:00 a.m. phone call, always an unsettling thing. It was his night porter saying excitedly in rough English that there was a truck (or maybe trucks) parked in front of the restaurant on Park Avenue South. “What do you mean?” Meirelles asked. “What kind of truck?” When he hung up he was sure that the place he’d owned since 1990 with his partner Philippe Lajaunie was on fire. Since he lived only a few blocks away, he was able to hurry over on foot, sniffing the air as he trotted. The truck turned out to be not red but blue and white and festooned with the logo of WABC Eyewitness News. Its crew was mostly on the sidewalk by then, mingling with other media sorts, some of whom had arrived truckless but with plenty of gear and crew. “I’m the owner of the restaurant—what’s going on?” Meirelles asked them. “Is something wrong?” Suddenly a strobe light went on and a microphone was thrust in his face. “Is it true that you recycle the bread and butter?” a reporter asked. “Why is it that when someone orders their steak well-done,” said another, “you give him a piece of gristle or sometimes meat that has fallen on the floor?” And of course: “Is it really so dangerous to order fish on a Monday?”
April 12, 1999, was the day that the issue of the New Yorker that contained Anthony Bourdain’s article “Don’t Eat Before Reading This: A New York Chef Spills Some Trade Secrets” hit the newsstands— and based on the response to the advance copies distributed by the Condé Nast publicists over the preceding weekend, it was already promising to be the most talked about food piece in the magazine in twenty years. In those days before social media, when a magazine or even a newspaper article struck a chord, it could quickly become topic A. The New York media on that April 12 seemed to have no business more important than the bread, butter, and fish at Brasserie Les Halles. As morning turned to afternoon the ABC truck would be joined by vehicles and camera crews from at least ten other New York TV and radio stations. Virtually every inbound Les Halles employee would be pounced upon and interrogated about the restaurant’s sanitary and ethical standards. Dozens of men and women on the street were asked if they would ever dine out again, knowing what the reporter had just told them about modern restaurant practices. Then at about 4:00 p.m., the author himself arrived — looking decidedly telegenic, thank goodness — and the frenzy kicked into a higher gear.
For the owners of Les Halles it was at first a puzzling moment. Meirelles and Lajaunie spent the day worrying that one cold-hearted New York City commission or another would close their place down and maybe their satellite branches in DC, Miami, and Tokyo, as well. Business had been pretty good of late—was this a sudden reversal of fortune? They had known that Tony Bourdain had an article of some sort coming out and that it concerned the restaurant business, but beyond that they hadn’t discussed it much. They had found out about the piece two weeks earlier, at the same time everyone else who worked at Les Halles, when, about a half hour before the dinner shift, Tony said he had an announcement to make. Then, with that original smile of his stretched wide, he took from his wallet and held aloft a $10,000 check from the New Yorker, turning this way and that like the Wimbledon winner showing off his trophy. It was the most money he’d ever gotten for a piece of writing, he’d said, and in fact the most ever he’d ever had at one time in his life. And then he said, in response to the applause, “I’m gonna buy everybody a drink!”
The whole thing was kind of ridiculous, he felt. Tony had knocked out the piece almost as an afterthought after finishing his second novel, Gone Bamboo, and finding himself, as writers some times say, still “in the zone.” And since he was Tony, it didn’t take him long to complete. He’d been jotting notes for an Orwellian insider’s account of the restaurant business since his days at the W.P.A. in the early 1980s, and so he’d had it organized in his head and didn’t have to do any original research. He’d never thought it would amount to much, and when he finished it, he still didn’t. He saw the potential audience as cooks, dishwashers, busboys, waiters, and the like, not regular restaurant customers who might be interested in what happens to the food they eat before it reaches their plates. He thought so little of the article, in fact, that he sent it first to the New York Press, which gave itself away in street corner boxes and paid its freelancers next to nothing. The little alternative weekly seems to have received it warmly, promised to send him $100 upon publication, but then sat on it for months. Tony apparently forgot about the article for a while himself, but then one night while sitting at home and stewing about life in general, as he was wont to do in those days, he suddenly felt underappreciated by the Press. “In a moment of drunken, late-night hubris, I said, you know, ‘Fuck it—I’m taking the piece back—and I stuffed it in an envelope and sent it to the New Yorker,” he said later. That was his story, anyway, and he stuck with it even though it wasn’t exactly the truth.
What he didn’t want to say publicly was that it was his mother, Gladys, who had gotten the piece published in the much classier magazine. We don’t know all the details, but she had seen the article and thought it good enough to put into the hands of Esther B. Fein, a New York Times colleague and the wife of the New Yorker’s editor, David Remnick. “My son has written something,” she said, “and maybe you could pass it along to your husband.” (Her tone, Remnick later said, was “apologetic.”) When you’re the editor of the New Yorker, or even his wife, people press manuscripts into your hands, or your email stream, all the time; but in this case Fein accepted it with a smile and that very night passed it along to her husband, saying, “Just be polite to Ms. Bourdain.”
After Tony became famous Remnick was often asked to tell the story and he seemed to enjoy remembering it. “I opened the envelope with no expectations whatever and I immediately found myself entertained and riveted by [the piece],” he said, noting “you never know, good writing, where it’s going to come from.” He said he found Tony’s stories about restaurant life “funny, a little gross,” especially when it came to accounts of workers having sex in the kitchen, but that was okay “because the picture he painted of life inside a restaurant was so electrifying.” He couldn’t wait to let Tony know how he felt. “Any editor will tell you that the best thing about the job is saying ‘yes’—it’s calling someone up who’s not used to it and saying, ‘I want to publish your piece,” Remnick would eventually reach Tony during the dinner hour at Les Halles, perhaps because his home phone had been turned off for lack of payment. Later when Tony was asked what he remembered best about the call he said, “I was . . . fileting a salmon.”
Tony didn’t have room in “Don’t Eat Before Reading This” to sketch the colorful behind-the-scenes characters, like Bigfoot, Pino Luongo, Steven Tempel, Adam Real-Last-Name-Unknown, and Jimmy Sears, who would help make Kitchen Confidential such a success, but in the space of about 2,700 words he managed to convey a good deal about his attitude toward professional cooking and hit all the tetchy talking points that would make him first a best-selling author and then a sought-after talk show guest. He decried sanctimonious vegetarians, incurable brunchers, and the indescribably annoying “can I have that well-done?” crowd; he waxed empathetic about the kitchen being “the last refuge of the misfit” and argued for the objective superiority of pork over chicken, all while giving the tantalizing impression that he was spilling more beans about the business than — if you look closely and subtract the revelations that he would eventually have to walk back, like the don’t order fish on Monday thing — he actually was.
While he doesn’t provide all that many biographical details in the article, he does let us know, via references to things like “royal navies of Napoleonic times,” Orwell, Balanchine, and Hezbollah that he is the perfect docent for a New Yorker reader curious about what happens on the other side of the swinging doors. But was Tony really capable of producing New Yorker–quality prose? He said that the editors there barely touched his manuscript. That of course is what all writers will tell you, and Tony was already known in some quarters for his fast-and-dirty composition style. It certainly seems that Remnick, or someone beneath him, excised the business about chefs having sex on their cutting boards, or what- ever it was that he had referenced as gross, because nothing like that appears in the published piece. And yet . . . how could an essay so redolent of Tony (“I wanted it all: the cuts and burns on hands and wrists, the ghoulish kitchen humor, the free food, the pilfered booze, the camaraderie that flourished within rigid order and nerve-shattering chaos”) have endured much editorial intrusion? It most likely didn’t. Tony was not a great writer; he was a very good one. But when you’ve found your subject, you don’t even have to be a writer to make magic happen — and now at last Tony had found his.
Meirelles told me that within a day or so of the story’s publication he realized it was anything but bad news for his restaurant. “I saw the reservations coming in,” he said, “and I relaxed.” A new category of New Yorkers, soon to be known as foodies, wanted to experience the earthy French comfort cuisine Tony had described in the piece—and maybe catch a glimpse of, or even have a word with, the tall, handsome chef who was suddenly all over the nightly news. And he was usually happy to accommodate them. The Formerly Joe’s crowd would likely have startled at the sight of the Les Halles–era Tony, who was very laid-back and approachable, the sort of chef who mostly walked around the kitchen, nodded, and made suggestions to the harried line cooks.
“His easy take on life and food was very evident right from the job interview he had with me,” Meirelles said. “He wasn’t the strongest candidate I had because he had never worked in a traditional French restaurant, but he had the best attitude — unconventional, irreverent, confident within himself. He seemed in that sense to reflect our kind of restaurant — and also he made a very good onion soup!” Tony was conscious of how he’d changed. In the last paragraph of his New Yorker piece he wrote, “I used to be a terror toward my floor staff, particularly in the final months of my last restaurant. But not anymore. Recently, my career has taken an eerily appropriate turn: these days, I’m the chef de cuisine of a much loved, old school French brasserie/bistro where the customers eat their meat rare, vegetarians are scarce, and every part of the animal—hooves, snout, cheeks, skin, and organs—is avidly and appreciatively prepared and consumed. Cassoulet, pigs’ feet, tripe, and charcuterie sell like crazy.”
The odd claim that Tony seems to be making here is that it was cholesterol and/or proximity to fellow carnivores that calmed him down and made him a more humane leader. More likely, though, he had aged and stumbled his way into the kind of life — no credit cards, no health insurance, behind on the rent, delinquent on his taxes despite having a satisfying and secure job and a sincere desire to be a solid citizen — that brought with it a feeling of resignation that led in turn to a professional mellowing. It felt quite good to be as well-liked as he was as Les Halles, by both management and underlings. Of course, anything resembling happiness and serenity always seemed to make Tony a little nervous and usually became a way station en route to an entirely different feeling. In time his management style would change again.
The request from Meirelles and Lajaunie that Tony visit their Tokyo offshoot in order to make the food there more like the Les Halles in New York felt like a pat on the back and a gift from the heavens. He had never been to Japan, or anywhere outside the United States besides France and the Caribbean, and at age forty-three and broke as a joke, he had abandoned, he tells us in KC, all hope of having any further great adventures. For budgetary reasons — both his and the restaurant’s — Nancy would not be going with him and that meant that in his off-hours he’d have complete freedom to wander around flaneur style, get in trouble, learn a thing or two—and, with Lajaunie one night, head down “a dimly lit stairwell in a deserted courtyard” for “the most incredible meal of my life.”
His description of the ensuing orgy of sushi and sake is as brilliantly paced as the meal itself no doubt was, as well as an early example of quintessential Tony. We feel his pain/pleasure as ten courses become fifteen and fifteen become twenty-something and the rice wine doesn’t stop flowing until—with a bow and a polite scream of “Arigato gozaima-shiTAAA”—they leave and, after dropping off Lajaunie, he stops at a faux-Irish pub to have a couple of nightcaps. William Blake wrote in “Proverbs of Hell” that “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom,” but for Tony on this occasion it led to the Tsukiji fish market, where he had to be in just a few hours to shop for the restaurant. Like Ernest Shackleton, Edmund Hillary, and Roger Bannister, Tony taught us much about the limits of human endurance, the difference being his focus on the liver.
The Japan trip started right after Tony had cashed Remnick’s check and perhaps because he was feeling affirmed as a writer he began sending neatly crafted reports of the things he was seeing and doing to his old friend Joel Rose via email. “I couldn’t stop reading them,” Rose told me. “They were so funny and insightful.” Rose by then was married to then Bloomsbury editor Karen Rinaldi and they had an infant son named Rocco. When Tony sent him a description of his trip to Tsukiji — he said he’d arrived at 4:30 a.m. to find “scallops in snowshoe-sized black shells laying atop crushed ice; fish still slopping, twitching, and struggling in pans of water, spitting at me as I walked down the first of many narrow corridors between the vendors’ stands”—Rose felt compelled to show the piece to his wife, who was sitting on the floor in the next room breastfeeding their baby.
“Read this!” he said.
“I’ve got my hands full—read it to me,” she responded, and when he did, and then ran through a couple of previous emails for good measure, Rinaldi expressed amazement. She knew Tony slightly at that point and was aware of his mystery novels, but this work seemed fundamentally different—and better. “Has he got any more stories like this?” Rinaldi asked.
“He’s got a zillion.”
In fact it was more like a handful, but one example of his non-fiction was about to be published by David Remnick. Rose asked Tony to send his wife the restaurant piece, and when she read it, Rinaldi sensed immediately that there was a book in the idea. Knowing that he’d be in a better bargaining position once the story came out, she quickly called Tony’s agent, Kim Witherspoon, who’d brokered the tiny deal for his second novel, and made an offer of $50,000 for an expanded version of the article. It was a lot less than he might have gotten a couple of weeks later, but Rinaldi knew it would sound like a life-changing amount of money to him — too tempting to turn down — and so she not only came in relatively low but she added that if Tony didn’t agree to her terms as soon as he returned from Japan, the deal was off the table. Rinaldi was only doing what she was supposed to do as an editor whose responsibilities included acquisition, and in any case this was only an advance against future royalties. If the book took off, as she guessed it might, his earnings would multiply.
Rinaldi and Tony were scheduled to have drinks to discuss the matter later that week, but before that could happen he had the experience of walking to work from jury duty, turning the corner onto Park Avenue South, and, much to his surprise (no cell phones yet), seeing the news trucks gathered in front of Les Halles and the reporters roaming the sidewalks with their microphones. He instantly sensed what the commotion was all about and for not the first time in his forty-three years he felt like he was living inside a movie — this one called something like The Very Different Rest of My Life. All he had to do was cross the street and make his entrance — and without the slightest hesitation he did.