Anthony Bourdain Cooks the Books: He's Starting an Imprint, in Short Order

A former student of Gordon Lish trades chef's tongs, picks up editor's pencil


“In college, I think I probably positioned myself as an aspiring writer, meaning I dressed sort of extravagantly and adopted all the semi-Byronic affectations as if I were writing although I wasn’t actually doing any writing,” he said. “I think I was intoxicated with Burroughs and Hunter Thompson and figured that if I did enough drugs it would lead directly to great works. I never got around to writing those.” And then he fell into the restaurant business. A common refrain from Mr. Bourdain, one that almost feels like an insistence, is that most of his friends are chefs and he does not socialize with writers. It’s the legacy, perhaps, of years in a career where, as Mr. Bourdain put it, “it’s a liability to talk too smart.” But his writer friends disagree.

“He was always a writer,” said Joel Rose, who published something Mr. Bourdain wrote about methadone in the early 1980s in a literary magazine he ran called Between C and D. (Mr. Bourdain described the magazine as an “alternative independent publication that came in a plastic bag like heroin.”) And after reading a New York magazine profile of the editor Gordon Lish at some point in the 1980s, Mr. Bourdain even signed up for a writing workshop, going up to Columbia one day in his dirty kitchen whites after working lunch to apply through the School of General Studies.

“It was very cultlike. You didn’t even go for a piss. You sat there and listened to the great man,” Mr. Bourdain remembered about the class. “You had to read aloud and only as far as he could bear it, which was usually about a sentence and half before he’d go, ‘Oh, it’s horrible, I can’t stand it, stop, stop,’ at which point everyone in the class would tell you what sucked about it.”

His first novel, Bone in the Throat, which was acquired by editor David Rosenthal, then at Villard, he describes as the result of a lucky break. “I was working at a Mexican restaurant I think and my old college roommate had apparently had some kind of licensing deal with David and bragged to him at a party that ‘I know better writers than the shit you’re doing,” he said. “David said something like, ‘Prove it, smart guy,’ and my old roommate of course didn’t know any writers, had no clue what he was talking about and, desperate to not look like a jerk, thought of me because I’d written some of his papers in college. He essentially bribed me into writing a 100-page teaser for Rosenthal, who immediately commissioned one and then two books.”

“He told me he had this friend, Tony, who he had gone to college with, and Tony had this book and would I took a look at it,” was Mr. Rosenthal’s recollection of Mr. Bourdain’s college roommate. The books did not sell very well at first printing, but they have had a second wave post-Kitchen Confidential. “They were very charming, they were humorous mysteries and they were witty as well,” said Mr. Rosenthal.

“What happens in books and writing is that it’s so rare that you find someone with a vocation that’s as good at their vocation as they are at writing,” said Ms. Rinaldi. “I’m dying to find the firefighter who can do that,” she added.

If Mr. Bourdain’s bread and butter is, well, bread and butter, that does not mean he is limited to it. Asked what he has read lately, he rattles off an unpredictable catalog: Robert Fisk’s The Great Struggle for Civilization, Daniel Woodrell’s forthcoming novel Tomato Red, Daniel Alarcón’s Lost City Radio and the Portuguese novelist António Lobo Antunes’s novel about the war for Angolan independence, The Land at the End of the World. In preparation for a trip to the Balkans he said he reread Rebecca West’s 1,200-page Balkan history cum travel book Black Lamb and Grey Falcon.

“To me he’d just been a guy who had been a chef who can write the hell out of a kitchen, but he’s a lot more than that,” said Mr. Simon.

He recalled a recent dinner out with Mr. Bourdain at August, in New Orleans. “I’m being amuse-bouched to death,” he said, describing a common hazard of eating out with a well-known chef. “The food we ordered hasn’t even come to the table and I’m already dying.”

Mr. Bourdain asked Mr. Simon what else he was working on and the two started discussing a project about the history of the C.I.A. that Mr. Simon is developing.

“I think it’s just table conversation,” said Mr. Simon. “He said, ‘So, you’re doing the Gehlen group.’ I said, ‘Yeah, we’re doing all of that. How do you know about that?’”

“So we started going deeper,” Mr. Simon continued. “It turned out he’s read everything and knows it like the back of his hand.”

After dinner Mr. Simon called his writing partner, Ed Burns, and told him he had a new writer for the show. “He said, ‘Who?’” said Mr. Simon. “‘The food guy?’” He laughed. “The guy’s an autodidact. He’s read everything and he can write,” he said. “But on paper it’s like, yeah, food guy. And part-time C.I.A. expert.”

The new imprint will reflect Mr. Bourdain’s eclectic tastes. While there will be a heavy focus on food, he said that he is also interested in crime writing, poetry, essayists, rock ’n’ roll memoirs and other kinds of books.

The idea of recruiting a celebrity editor to help consult for an imprint is nothing new: Random House has former Newsweek editor Jon Meacham and former Gourmet editor Ruth Reichl; Faber and Faber has the musician Jarvis Cocker; Crown has Deepak Chopra. (And of course, Jackie O. spent years as an editor at Doubleday.) Unlike in most of the recent cases, however, Mr. Bourdain has already been serving in the role informally, having had direct responsibility for the American publication of British chef Fergus Henderson’s The Whole Beast: Nose to Tail Eating and a $350 Ferran Adria cookbook.

“I’m evangelical on the subject of some chefs and writers,” Mr. Bourdain admitted. “I don’t know if I’d call it a mission but I get off doing it.”

“He basically said ‘Publish these fucking books,’” said Mr. Halpern of Ecco, which published the paperback of Kitchen Confidential and many of Mr. Bourdain’s subsequent books. “It took me a while with Ferran and Fergus but eventually I saw the light.” He also scored nigh-impossible-to-get dinner reservations at El Bulli.

Mr. Halpern said that currently under consideration for the imprint are some pamphletlike books on Michel Montaigne’s essays and possibly a barbecue book, and that Mr. Bourdain “has got martial artists.”

As for the testosterone-infused prose with which he made his name back in Kitchen Confidential, Mr. Bourdain suggests he might have changed. I’d like to think that the other stuff I write is a lot more reflective,” he said. “And a lot more neurotic.”


Anthony Bourdain Cooks the Books: He's Starting an Imprint, in Short Order