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

(Illustration by Drew Friedman)

Anthony Bourdain knows how he can come off. The chef-turned-TV personality has written that it would be “entirely fair and appropriate” were he described as “a loud, egotistical, one-note asshole who’s been cruising on the reputation of one obnoxious, over-testosteroned book for way too long and who should just shut the fuck up.” But it takes only one meeting with Mr. Bourdain—the man who likes to pepper his prose with words like “fucktard” and who made “bad boy chef” a resplendent cliché—to reveal that he is a perfect gentleman.

Get his friends to start talking about him and it becomes very clear that if Mr. Bourdain wants to preserve his louche reputation, he should probably engineer another appearance on TMZ, “running buck-naked down some Milwaukee street with a helmet made from the stretched skin of a butchered terrier pulled down over my ears” (as he once envisioned it).

Instead, Mr. Bourdain—who has long suppressed his inner nerd—has recently been tapped to start an eponymous line of books at the HarperCollins imprint Ecco.

“He loves literature and he’s a huge reader,” said his publisher, Dan Halpern.

“He spends so much of his time shining light on other people,” said food writer Peter Meehan.

“He’s a sweet, sweet, loyal wonderful man,” said Karen Rinaldi, who edited Mr. Bourdain’s breakout book, Kitchen Confidential. “It’s all the 60- and 70-year-old women who love him the best. They all want to adopt him.”

A little more than a decade ago, Anthony Bourdain was a 44-year-old chef at the middle-of-the-road French bistro Les Halles. He worked 12 to 14 hours a day. He had never had health insurance or owned a car, and rarely paid his rent on time. He owed a decade’s worth of back taxes and credit card bills. Sometimes he wrote things, like two mystery novels in the mid-1990s that had promptly bombed. He didn’t quit his day job. Instead, he wrote an article for Sam Sifton, now the national editor of The New York Times but at the time an editor at the shambolic alt-weekly The New York Press. The article was about working in a kitchen.

“Because they were free, I figured their standards were low enough to print it,” Mr. Bourdain recently recalled over a midday pint of Dogfish Head ale at Cafe D’Alsace on the Upper East Side. It turned out otherwise. “Sifton was my editor and couldn’t get the piece in. He kept getting bumped, week after week. I was getting bitter and frustrated with it and of course working full time, so it wasn’t like I was working on the great American novel. I’d pretty much given up any notion of being a writer.”

Or so he says. But before giving up entirely he sent the article to The New Yorker. “Amazingly enough they called me back a few weeks later, said they were going to run it and then they ran it.”

When the article appeared, under the headline “Don’t Eat Before Reading This,” Mr. Bourdain was in Japan helping organize the Tokyo outpost of Les Halles. He emailed dispatches about his experiences there to his friend, the novelist Joel Rose. After reading the colorful missives and The New Yorker article, Mr. Rose thought that there might be something there for his wife, Karen Rinaldi, then editorial director at Bloomsbury USA, to make a book out of.

“Karen had just had our first son, Rocco, and she was totally overwhelmed and in heaven,” recalled Mr. Rose. “She was sitting on the floor of our apartment nursing the baby and I said you have to read this email.” Ms. Rinaldi was not exactly eager, but she consented.

“It was 6 a.m. and I was up with my very, very young son,” said Ms. Rinaldi. “I remember sitting on the floor and reading it and I was like, ‘Whoa.’” Then she called Mr. Bourdain’s agent, Kim Witherspoon, with a proposal. “I said, ‘I will give Tony an advance of X amount of dollars to write a nonfiction book. I don’t even care what it is. We can talk about it when he gets back from Japan.’”

He accepted. When he came back to New York, Ms. Rinaldi and Mr. Bourdain met at a bar.

“So what do you want to write?” she asked him.

Since Kitchen Confidential debuted on the best-seller list in 2000, Mr. Bourdain has had a remarkable trajectory. “I figured, how many years have I got cooking? If the thing doesn’t lose money maybe I have a crack at doing another book someday when my knees go,” Mr. Bourdain remembered. Today, of course, there are the television shows—No Reservations on the Travel Channel, appearances as a judge on Top Chef on Bravo and a new show coming out this month, also on the Travel Channel, called The Layover, where Mr. Bourdain goes to cities with massive international airports and grazes the local cuisine.

There are the many subsequent books, including the best-selling Medium Raw, a third crime novel and an unexpected history of Typhoid Mary. There’s the graphic novel, Get Jiro, co-written with Mr. Rose with art by Langdon Foss, that will be coming out next year on DC Comics imprint Vertigo.

Mr. Bourdain also writes for David Simon’s HBO show Treme, embellishing the story line of the show’s chef character, Janette Desautel, who moves to New York to hang out with Mr. Bourdain’s friends after her restaurant in New Orleans is forced to close. He estimates he gives 30 or 40 lectures a year, sometimes tag-teaming with Eric Ripert, the Gallic dreamboat at the helm of seafood temple Le Bernardin.

He has married and has a young daughter. He’s working on another crime novel, and writes a film column for the David Chang/Peter Meehan/McSweeney’s new food magazine Lucky Peach. He’s having, in sum, what he calls his “second childhood in his 50s.”

It’s funny, then, that a lot of what’s motivated him is guilt.

“I bounced around my whole life,” he said. “I did nothing. At 44 I suddenly started getting opportunities and year after year I’m presented with, I mean, not necessarily spectacularly lucrative things, but who wouldn’t do a really cool comic book if they could? Who wouldn’t write for David Simon, like go play with David Simon?”

While he is the first to admit that he has been far more successful as a writer than he was as a chef, and that he quit cooking as soon as Kitchen Confidential took off, Mr. Bourdain still expresses discomfort with his status as a man of letters.

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