Kitchen God

This cook has bite: Chef Anthony Bourdain samples hawker fare

Anthony Bourdain's A Cook's Tour is a companion book to his 22-episode, eat-around-the-world series for the Food Network in the United States.
Anthony Bourdain's A Cook's Tour is a companion book to his 22-episode, eat-around-the-world series for the Food Network in the United States.PHOTO: ST FILE

The American author of the famous culinary expose, Kitchen Confidential, is in love with Singapore food. As he tells Ong Sor Fern: 'I could live here happily. My wife, who hates spicy food, would be miserable.'

Celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain shoots straight from the lip. Even with a headache and a toothache, the author of Kitchen Confidential finds energy to lambast Jamie Oliver while chomping on curried fish roe.

It is 8.30 am at Tiong Bahru market and American celebrity chef and author Anthony Bourdain, 45, is digging into breakfast happily.

"This is good," he pronounces as he tries out mouthfuls of greasy carrot cake and savoury chwee kueh, washed down by strong coffee dosed with condensed milk.

The author of Kitchen Confidential, the bestselling testosterone-fuelled culinary tell-all, was in town over the weekend to promote his latest book, A Cook's Tour. Kitchen Confidential is a cheeky, raunchy account of his career as a chef, working in places from Chinese joints to posh French restaurants.

The frank expose, published in 2000, discusses everything from why you should never order fish in a restaurant on Monday to his own battle with heroin addiction.

A Cook's Tour is a companion book to his 22-episode, eat-around-the-world series for the Food Network in the United States.

Dishing out more of his trademark sarcasm while attacking the task of trying out exotic new dishes with macho unflappability, A Cook's Tour is like The Worst Case Scenario Handbook meets an extreme culinary tour.

Despite having dined on such exotic cuisine as live cobra's heart in Ho Chi Minh City - which caused a media sensation in the US - Bourdain seems perfectly content with an ordinary Singaporean breakfast in front of him.

That is not the only surprise in store for the day.

His persona in the books is loud and abrasive macho male. In person, the executive chef of Brasserie Les Halles, an 80-seat restaurant in Manhattan, comes across as quietly sardonic, almost laconic a la Clint Eastwood.

One gets the impression that he watches the world from an ironic remove that is not so much a pose as a reasoned stance earned through hard living.

His appreciation of the simple morning repast is a reaction to haute cuisine overload, he says. 'Everyone wants to wine and dine me. I've had enough of fine dining.'

He has just completed a week's promotional tour in Australia, getting treated to the best restaurants Sydney and Melbourne had to offer in the process.

Despite declaring that an Italian restaurant in Sydney had provided a surprisingly authentic meal, he is unable to recall the name of the place.

He shrugs it off and confides that he much prefers unpretentious eateries, like the neighbourhood market he is currently seated in. "I have a policy whenever I travel. I never eat in hotel restaurants and I never eat at places where I see Americans or tourists," he says.

LOVES SPICY SOTONG

Food is not the only thing people try to ply him with.

Fans who read about his run-in with drugs in Kitchen Confidential have tried to pass him marijuana and cocaine at book signings.

The born-and-bred New Yorker, who trained at the Culinary Institute Of America, shakes his head incredulously: "Did they read the book I wrote? That stuff ruined 10 years of my life."

The man may cook fancy French, but his tastebuds are downright democratic.

At the next stop, Nasi Padang River Valley at Zion Road, he slurps down curried fish roe and spicy sotong, and declares: "I love spicy food."

Given his obvious affair with food, how does he keep his lanky frame slim? "I smoke a lot," he says, deadpan. "And I'm a neurotic, hyper personality."

Besides being blessed with a naturally-thin frame, years of slaving in hot kitchens that were the equivalents of saunas have kept him trim.

But, he confesses, in recent years: "I can feel a bulge. I have to exercise now and I resent the hell out of it."

His mock-grumbling belies the inescapable conclusion one draws after a morning with the celebrity chef: That he is, gasp, a contented man, married for 17 years to wife Nancy, who is happy with his lot in life and for whom success late in life has come as the icing on the cake.

The Vassar College-dropout says revealingly: "I love travelling. Until a few years ago, I hadn't seen much of America, let alone travelled out of it. I never thought I'd have the chance."

Sipping an iced latte at Spinelli's at Great World City, he muses: 'If I get hit by a cab, I have no regrets.'

He admits frankly that if he were to live his life over again, "I'd probably make the same mistakes I did, even knowing they are mistakes, just because they seemed like a good idea at the time".

Upon reflection, however, he adds: "I do regret not studying harder in college. I'd like to be better educated."

By the time we hit the Banana Leaf Apollo Restaurant in Little India for a fish-head curry lunch, it is evident that he has a healthily down-to-earth approach to life.

When the movie adaptation of Kitchen Confidential is mentioned - David Fincher optioned the rights to make a film called Seared, but the project has stalled - Bourdain shrugs philosophically and says: "They give me money every year to not make lousy movies out of my books. That's okay with me."

By the time he works his way through fish-head curry, chicken tikka, Mysore mutton and two mugs of ice-cold Kingfisher beer, he is positively expansive.

"I could live here happily. My wife, who hates spicy food, would be miserable."

He reveals that he had woken up with a toothache and a headache, but thanks to the great lunch, "it's completely cured".

Next on the menu for him is home, and then a nice long holiday in the Caribbean.

"I'm not wearing shoes for nine weeks and I'm going to wear just shorts, maybe a shirt. I'm not eating in any place that has a dress code."

He does not have to say it, but it is evident: Life is good and his plate is definitely full.

BOURDAIN DISHES OUT THE DIRT

On Briton Jamie Oliver, 26, (right) famous for his cookery series, The Naked Chef and The Return Of The Naked Chef

 "I find that show excruciating, like my teeth drilled without anaesthesia. Chefs are not cute, adorable or cuddly. They are mean, psychotic control freaks concentrated on getting the food out."

On his favourite food movies

"At the top of my list, Lee Ang's Eat Drink Man Woman, the most fantastic food movie. Next, the risotto incident in Big Night, where a couple refuse an authentic Italian dish in favour of spaghetti and meatballs, is something all chefs can identify with. Last, the garlic incident in Goodfellas, where a voiceover describes how to slice garlic so thinly it liquefies, is priceless."

On McDonald's and Baywatch

"America's most dangerous export - fast food restaurants and bad TV. Baywatch is more dangerous than an inter-continental ballistic missile (ICBM). Germany likes David Hasselhof. I think Hasselhof is our revenge for World War II."

On cookbooks
They're the new pornography. People buy them to look at things that they're not doing at home.'

On Japanese cuisine

"The Japanese have got their priorities absolutely correct: No money is too much to pay for good food. I've gone shopping with sushi chefs who don't blink at spending US$85 (S$152) per pound, wholesale, for fresh tuna. It's expensive compared to what? How much does an Armani jacket cost?"

On his hiring policy

"Listening to Billy Joel is a firing offence in my kitchen. No Billy Joel, no Elton John and no Grateful Dead."