Man of the World

From bad-boy chef to globe-trotting CNN star, Anthony Bourdain has become a master of reinvention. Now can he bring a hyperambitious food hall to Manhattan's waterfront?


Reporting By Oliver Strand
Food Photos by Grant Cornett Sittings Editor: Phyllis Posnick Prop Stylist: Jojo Li Food Stylist: Victoria Granof

Anthony Bourdain is already sitting in a corner booth when I walk into Sakagura, a Japanese bar in the basement of an office building in midtown Manhattan. Bourdain, I will come to learn, turns early arrivals into a competitive sport—no matter how well you plan, he will be there before you. This might seem like compulsively considerate behavior from a notorious hard-liver like Bourdain, a man whose public personality is tied up with late-night benders, foulmouthed frankness, and consuming such a staggering variety of food that he's something like the Library of Congress of eating. If anybody is allowed to show up late for a night of sake and sashimi, it's Bourdain.

Instead he's pathologically prompt, which makes more sense when you pull back and take a wider view. Anthony Bourdain, the former head chef of Les Halles, a French steak house in New York that was well liked if not particularly influential, didn't become Anthony Bourdain—the man who has been played by Bradley Cooper on television, the tastemaker whose name is set to be on a $60 million market hall on a pier in New York City, the CNN personality so broadly respected that President Obama will sit down with him in a fluorescent-lit noodle joint in Hanoi—on one-liners and being able to hold his liquor. Bourdain is indefatigable, and his unlikely rise to the top can be explained, in part, by his ability to marshal the energy and concentration needed to stick to an impossibly busy schedule filled with call times and production meetings and long-haul flights across the date line, and still look fresh when the cameras are rolling.

But being one of the hardest-working eaters in show business will get you only so far. What sets Bourdain apart is his honesty. When he finds something he loves, he smiles the toothy grin of an eleven-year-old boy. And when he comes across something he thinks is phony, he destroys his target with a few well-chosen words. “Agree with him or not, everyone knows his opinions come from a real place,” says the director Adam McKay, who gave Bourdain a cameo explaining collateralized debt obligations in his 2015 film, The Big Short. “So he was a perfect choice,” says McKay, for “cutting through mounds of banking bullshit and doublespeak.”

At the moment, Bourdain's star has never been brighter or shone in so many millions of households, mainly thanks to Parts Unknown, which is now into its eighth season and has become one of CNN's certifiable hits. Bourdain has leveraged his ratings to go to forbidding places: Libya, Iran, the West Bank and Gaza. Memorably, he and his crew took a boat up the Congo River, in a stateless part of the world where even the United Nations treads cautiously. The exercise was more a documentary art project than a see-the-sights travel show. “I assumed from the get-go that every minute I was on television was a freakish anomaly that would be over quickly,” Bourdain says. “It came as a sobering and confusing moment when I realized I was still on the air. What the fuck is going on?”

Bourdain is nothing if not entertaining, but there is a darkness to him that goes well beyond the manufactured tension you typically see on TV. “Life is complicated. It's filled with nuance. It's unsatisfying,” he tells me at Sakagura, a standby from the days before the Internet turned every hidden bar into a puppy pile of selfies: He suggested we go there so that we could eat and drink and disappear. To illustrate the point, he draws my attention to lettering tattooed on his arm. “It's from the Greek skeptics,” he says. “The translation is ‘I am certain of nothing. I'm not even sure I'm certain of that.’ If I believe in anything, it is doubt. The root cause of all life's problems is looking for a simple fucking answer.” It is by maintaining his integrity (a word he hates) that Bourdain has found his audience. Not that he cares. “Look,” he says. “I appreciate my fans, but I don't feel any obligation to give them what they want or expect. I don't feel any obligation to live up to anybody's expectation of me.”

Later on, one of those fans walks over and introduces herself. “I love your show,” she says, gushing a little—and I can see from the look on her face that this moment will be the story she tells tomorrow, when she went out for a drink at Sakagura and discovered Anthony Bourdain in a corner booth. “I really appreciate it. I appreciate that it's not...I feel like it's not about food. It doesn't seem like it's really about food.”

“Thank you,” he says. “I still don't know what it's about.”
“I will stay tuned to watch you figure it out.”

Born in New York City to a modestly prosperous family, Bourdain moved with his parents to New Jersey when he was young. The family was stable but not conservative. “My parents were pretty adventurous. We would go into New York and eat at a Swedish restaurant or a Japanese restaurant or something,” Bourdain says. “We liked movies with subtitles in my house. That meant something. The ‘other’ wasn't bad or frightening. It was interesting.”

His brother took advantage of the circumstances. “The good one. Finished college at Brown. Entered the financial services: banking, currency. Very smart.” Meanwhile, Bourdain dropped acid at thirteen and started getting into trouble soon after. “I was a monstrous child. Monstrous,” he says. “The nightmare version of the cranky teen.” It wasn't just delinquency. This was the early 1970s—Nixon, Vietnam—and Bourdain wanted to belong to a subculture. Some of his high school teachers, who “made reading fun and dangerous,” woke something inside him. “My favorite English teachers were clearly closeted gay men who were used to living in repressive times, for whom Tennessee Williams held real power,” Bourdain says. “What they were saying was ‘This is a pretty fucking subversive book you just read.’ They were talking about shit that we weren't really allowed to talk about.” He devoured books and films, although that didn't take him far at Vassar. He didn't come back for junior year.

Then he discovered the kitchen. “I found a home in the restaurant business,” Bourdain says. “You know, ‘I found a home in the circus’ or ‘I found a home in the Army’? These were the first people I ever respected, and this was the first place where I went home respecting myself.” He tells that story in Kitchen Confidential, the 2000 best seller that transformed the public's image of the restaurant chef from a wise figure who guides you through the mysteries of trussing a roast into an antihero whose obsessive, self-destructive nature might be the reason why your dinner tastes so delicious, and why that same person may not be capable of filling out a lease for an apartment.

He also discovered heroin. He tells that story in Bone in the Throat, his 1995 noir thriller that draws on his experience as a highly functioning addict. In one memorable scene, the Bourdain character gets a fix in an abandoned building in Alphabet City (remember when the East Village had abandoned buildings?) that is raided by the police, and he hides inside a wall with another junkie until the cops go away. “That actually happened,” Bourdain says.

Bone in the Throat didn't make much of an impact. Neither did Gone Bamboo, a sequel published two years later. Kitchen Confidential did. That book came out of the New Yorker essay “Don't Eat Before Reading This,” which Bourdain originally wrote for the New York Press, a now-defunct alternative weekly. When the New York Press editor in chief killed the story, Bourdain's mother told him to submit it to The New Yorker. “I'm like, ‘Yeah, OK, thanks, Mom,’” Bourdain says. But he did mail a typed manuscript to the magazine's offices, where it made its way through the slush pile. “Within 48 hours of that article coming out I had a book deal,” says Bourdain, who now has thirteen books to his credit, including Appetites (his new cookbook), Typhoid Mary: An Urban Historical (a nonfiction account of Mary Mallon), Get Jiro! and Get Jiro: Blood and Sushi (manga-style graphic novels); he writes regularly for Lucky Peach; and he has his own imprint at Ecco. In the Cliffs Notes version, Bourdain was a chef who wrote a best seller and made his way onto television, but if you actually line up the events of his life, he's a literary figure who spent years finding his voice and honing his craft. Cooking paid the rent, but his mornings were dedicated to writing.

His breakthrough, according to Karen Rinaldi, who published Kitchen Confidential with Bloomsbury (she is now the head of Harper Wave, an imprint of HarperCollins), was to turn from fiction to nonfiction. “He'll probably shoot me for saying this, but there's an elegance and a fierce intellect behind everything he does,” Rinaldi says. She considers him to be a brilliant, thoughtful, and intelligent man who steps into “the persona of being a badass. What can be better?” The world is filled with barroom philosophers who wax poetic while running out the clock. Bourdain could have been one of them. Instead, he took the long way, and now he finds himself where he always wanted to be.

In September, after the New York Post reports that Bourdain and his wife of nearly a decade, Ottavia Busia, a mixed-martial-arts fighter who competes on the jujitsu-tournament circuit, have separated, Bourdain writes me a note: “Ottavia and I have lived mostly separate lives for years. I travel the world 250 days a year. She trains seven days a week. I admire her desire and commitment as I admire anyone who wants to be the best at something, just as she has been supportive of my professional choices. We have a lot of love and respect for each other and have managed to raise a happy, healthy, self-assured little girl together and we will continue to—together. We are and will remain a family. Maybe not your family, but a family just the same.”

The two met in 2005, when Ottavia was working for the chef Eric Ripert, one of Bourdain's closest friends. What started as a one-night stand turned into a long-term relationship, and even if the marriage is ending, family life has clearly mellowed Bourdain. When not on the road, he plays the role of homemaker here in Manhattan: He shops, cooks, tends to his and Ottavia's nine-year-old, Ariane. It's not exactly living life on the edge. “I stopped smoking a few years ago,” he says. “I mean, I've had more time on this Earth than I probably deserve, and I enjoy cigarettes very much, but now I feel that I owe this child who loves me to at least try to live a little longer, you know?” Ottavia notes that he can be sweet in private. “Disney cartoons make him cry,” she says. “He has no problem admitting to terrible things, like drug addiction, crazy escapades, but he doesn't admit his soft side.”

And yet Bourdain is still known for prickly exchanges with others—which can escalate into public fights. His pithy critique of Alice Waters that compared her to the Khmer Rouge, made years ago, is still in circulation. And his sparring with the James Beard Award—winning writer Alan Richman, which started when Richman was brutally honest about the state of New Orleans restaurants not long after Hurricane Katrina devastated the city, went several rounds.

Bourdain says he and Waters are on good terms, and he and Richman agree that their conflict is resolved, although each one seems to feel that it's because he won the fight. “He's about the smartest and best-informed nonintellectual I've ever met, and I mean that as a compliment,” Richman tells me. “I don't think there's a man on Earth who wouldn't enjoy a meal with him.”

Others aren't as forgiving. Most chefs won't say anything negative about Bourdain in public—pissing off one of the most powerful players in the restaurant industry isn't the best business move—but he is accused of being tribal, playing up friends and snubbing those he doesn't like. It should be noted that Bourdain isn't a federal judge and doesn't have a mandate to be impartial: He can play favorites. But some feel, perhaps correctly, that their accomplishments will never be celebrated by Bourdain in an episode of Parts Unknown, or with a book published by his imprint, or in a piece for Lucky Peach, or in one of the dinner conversations where connections are made and deals are struck, because they aren't cool enough to catch his attention.

The truth is that Bourdain has always had a streak of us vs. them running through him. Camaraderie was what drew him to restaurant work in the first place. In Kitchen Confidential, he wrote of the staff at the Provincetown restaurant where he was the dishwasher as “pirates” who “had style and swagger, and they seemed afraid of nothing. They drank everything in sight, stole whatever wasn't nailed down, and screwed their way through floor staff, bar customers, and casual visitors like nothing I'd ever seen or imagined.” The point of the book, he wrote, was to experience “what it feels like to attain the child's dream of running one's own pirate crew—what it feels like, looks like, and smells like in the clatter and hiss of a big-city restaurant kitchen.”

These days, his television crew plays a similar role. Some members of his production company, Zero Point Zero, have worked with him since he began filming A Cook's Tour for the Food Network in 2000. He is fiercely loyal to them and completely at ease in their company. I see this when I join Bourdain in the Zero Point Zero offices, which are in a nondescript prewar building overlooking Herald Square, to watch him read the introduction for the latest episode of Parts Unknown. Bourdain greets his producers and technicians, and they wordlessly pick up where they had left off the day before. In a sound booth, Bourdain puts on a pair of reading glasses that jarringly make him look his age. (He's 60.) He takes his cue, reads from a script over a montage on a monitor—one take and he's done.

Pier 57 is a hulking postwar structure that juts into the Hudson River at the end of West Fifteenth Street. Built in 1952, it was one of the largest and busiest piers on New York's waterfront, but the building became obsolete in the seventies, when the shipping industry started to use cargo containers. It was a bus depot for a while, and then a temporary detention center during the 2004 Republican National Convention. Now empty, the 480,000-square-foot structure is being readied for renovation and eventual occupation by two major tenants. Google has signed on to take over a large section, and 155,000 square feet is due to become a vast food hall called Bourdain Market.

I'm scheduled to meet Bourdain at the market one morning, and this time I arrive early. He's already there, waiting in the back of an SUV, wearing ripped jeans and a hooded sweatshirt, looking more like a rock musician than a successful TV personality or publisher, never mind real estate baron. The deal behind Bourdain Market is complicated, even a bit tenuous, drawing together the Hudson River Park Trust, a public agency that answers to the governor's and the mayor's offices, and a pair of developers. The architecture-and-design firm Roman and Williams is to give the hall its look, and Bourdain will select who will be chosen to set up shop. His role, essentially, is to curate the food.

When the market was announced last year, the timetable was ambitious, even by the accelerated standards of New York. Already the opening has been pushed back from 2017 to 2019. Still, when you stand inside this vast concrete structure that smells like seawater and motor oil, it's hard not to get excited about the possibility of a food hall that ranks among what you find in Tokyo and Barcelona. It took centuries for Bangkok to develop its market culture; New York could have one of the greatest food halls in the world within a couple of years. If it does, it will be because the creative control is with Bourdain, a man who spends a significant portion of his year traveling the Earth to go to markets and eat what's good. Street food is essential to Bourdain's identity. For all of his good living—the paycheck-destroying sushi, the visits to classical French restaurants, the terraces overlooking the Aegean Sea—Bourdain tends to look his happiest when he's holding a takeout container of something perfect and delicious and entirely of that moment.

Bourdain's task is to try to persuade the shop owners in Tokyo and Barcelona and Bangkok—the families and cooks who actually prepare the food—to move to New York, or maybe spend part of the year here, or send a trusted sister. “You bring the people in who know what they're doing and you let them do it. You bring in the guy who's the best chicken-and-rice guy in Singapore and just let him do his thing,” Bourdain says, walking through the hall. “Bring in his own signage. I'm not building some arty fucking thing.” It sounds simple, but it isn't. What about the logistics? Not of getting signage installed or sourcing the right ingredients, but of getting street cooks to move to New York? What about work permits, apartments, flights? “We're on it, man,” Bourdain says. “Housing and visas, that's day one,” he adds, sounding as if I were getting worked up over what brand of hand dryers to use in the bathroom, and not two of the most daunting challenges an immigrant will face in life. Standing in this echoing, cavernous volume of space surrounded by water, Bourdain doesn't seem daunted. He looks confident, even cocky. Bourdain Market is an undertaking so audacious it might be hubristic.

Still, the timing is good. The United States in general—and New York in particular—is in the middle of a golden age of the food hall. And, more broadly, tastes are changing. “People are lining up for food that would have burned their head clean off their shoulders ten years ago,” Bourdain notes. “People are craving and lining up to eat kimchi, which, you know, they would have bullied a kid for eating ten years earlier if they brought it with their lunch.”

Ultimately, the market will be for those people. “I feel in my bones this is a space that New Yorkers should be able to call their own, and I find myself in the ludicrous position of being able to make that happen, apparently. I'm going to fucking make it happen if I can, or fail gloriously.” Bourdain smiles broadly when he says this. He may be a man who claims to be skeptical of certainty, but he's also seemingly untroubled by self-doubt.

“If it feels like a Todd English product,” he adds, “then we can all just go home and throw a noose over the fucking shower stall.”