For a guy who’s famous for travelling around and eating other people’s food, you could be forgiven for forgetting Anthony Bourdain used to spike dockets and shuffle pans around for a living.
Fans of his TV shows Parts Unknown and No Reservations are more used to seeing him chowing down on wild beasts in Liberia, fleeing gunfire in Beirut or getting wasted on hooch in Eastern Europe than they are seeing him be, as he puts it, “normal”.
In his new book, Appetites: A Cookbook – his 11th title and second cookbook – Bourdain shares that for years, he never really knew what it meant to be “normal” outside the confines of a commercial kitchen. “I’d been living [life] on the margins. I didn’t know any normal people. From age 17 on, normal people had been my customers.”
But all that changed when the former hell-raiser became a dad, to daughter Ariane, nine years ago. She inspired the book, which the New York-based Bourdain describes as a kind of, “greatest hits … the dishes I like to eat and that I like to feed my family and friends”.
“Having a child changes everything,” he says. “My life has become very different over the past nine years. I’m no longer the star of the movie, my nine-year-old girl is.
“The idea of writing a book reflective of that change appealed to me.”
Spanning recipes from his childhood in New Jersey, current home life in New York’s Upper East Side, and from his extensive world travels, Appetites is as far from the glossy, crowd-pleasing cookbook template as you’re likely to find this Christmas.
“Everyone lies in cookbooks. I wanted it to be real,” he says.
There’s no symmetrically styled dinner tables, no air-brushed turkeys, no smiling family portraits. Instead, you’ll see empty, sauce-smeared dinner plates; half-eaten lasagnes; butted-out ciggies; crazy-eyed dogs; dead boars’ heads. Not to mention the opinionated, expletive-studded Bourdain narrative that has become his much-loved/maligned signature.
“We pushed ourselves to make the book look different to any other cookbook,” Bourdain says. “I was very influenced by Fergus Henderson’s [The Whole Beast]: Nose to Tail and I liked the idea of having a hand in the picture or a half-eaten dish. [I said] ‘Why not put in an empty plate, like it would be at home? Let’s make it look a little messy like it actually looks.’ I just didn’t want it to be too pretty.”
Commissioning artist Ralph Steadman (behind the frenetic Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas ink artwork) to do the cover art certainly makes a point, too.
As well as being a great cooking resource, Appetites is a consistently entertaining read – at times touching and frequently hilarious. One minute he’s relaying stories of childhood or professing his heart-warming devotion to his daughter; the next he’s issuing the home-cook terse warnings on how to avoid what he considers unspeakable “food crimes” (there are many, and they make for excellent reading).
In the gospel according to Saint Anthony, America’s professional breakfast chefs need some serious schooling on the subject of muffin toasting (“everybody fucks up the muffin”). Meanwhile, if you’re thinking about putting baby rocket on your burger, Bourdain posits that “Guantánamo Bay would not be an unreasonable punishment” for you.
He also slams into truffle fanciers with a level of clout perhaps only matched by his wife Ottavia’s killer MMA roundhouse kick (there’s more on that in the book), declaring “Truffles do not make it better”. Adding, “If you add truffle oil, which is made from a petroleum-based chemical additive and the crushed dreams of ’90s culinary mediocrity, you should basically be punched in the kidneys.”
So in the rare times he is home, what does the world’s most emphatic and irreverent culinary poster boy cook?
“My daughter makes all the major decisions in terms of what we’re eating. It has to get past her first,” he says. “The food in the book is reflective of that: if my daughter’s not eating it, it’s not happening.”
So in the end that might be Korean fried chicken, his mum’s meatloaf recipe, or veal Milanese – which he says is “a father-daughter favourite” at Chez Bourdain.
“Because I’m away so much I tend to overcompensate when I’m home. As far as my daughter is concerned, I cook her school lunch, I cook her dinner, I take her to school. And we cook together as often as possible.” And because he’s no princess when it comes to caving in to what kids really want, he also cooks a heap of pancakes (“for weekend breakfasts and for sleepovers with her friends”).
In an admission most telling of his soft side, Bourdain confesses to having “uncontrollable urges to smother the people I love with food”. In the book he says, “I’ve become the sort of passive-aggressive yenta or Italian grandmother stereotype from films who’s always urging people, “Eat! Eat!” and sulking inconsolably when they don’t.”
Anthony Bourdain gave us a recipe for his own personal weakness, the Sausage and Pepper Hero (not for weak stomachs).
Appetites: A Cookbook by Anthony Bourdain (Bloomsbury) is in stores late November, but available for pre-order here.