2000s Archive

Kitchen Cowboy

Originally Published August 2001
He swaggers and swears, and the public wants more. But Anthony Bourdain is more than just the food world’s favorite outlaw.

We’re sitting in the verdant 17th-century Hotel Posada San Francisco, in the beautiful colonial Mexican town of Tlaxcala, waiting for a bad mood to hit.

We’re here because Tony Bourdain, chef and best-selling author of Kitchen Confidential, has a theory that the finest French cooks in New York come, not from Paris or Provence, but from Mexico, more specifically from this state, Puebla. But while Puebla may be renowned for its signature dish, mole poblano, it isn’t a rich culinary tradition that drives its men to the Great Kitchens of El Norte, it’s poverty. Along with sugarcane and mangoes, Puebla’s major export is cheap, hard-toiling labor.

And among its native sons is Edilberto Perez, Tony’s sous-chef at Manhattan’s Brasserie Les Halles. Eddie left his home village, Tlapanala, about 12 years ago, when he snuck over the border. Having worked his way up from dishwasher to the top of the kitchen ladder, he is proof that the American Dream lives on. Today, at age 32, he owns two homes in Mexico and rents an apartment, with his wife and two daughters, in Park Slope, Brooklyn. He’s just one of the 500 or so citizens from Tlapanala (population 3,000) who work across the border every year. Walking through the quiet streets, it’s easy to detect the other husbandless homes—they’re the ones with satellite dishes on the roof.

Also with us are two cameramen, Matthew Barbato and Jerry Risius, who are shooting the trip—the highlight of which will be a traditional Mexican barbecue hosted by Eddie’s family—for a 22-part series for the Food Network. The show, A Cook’s Tour, will tie in with the publication of Tony’s upcoming book of the same name (due out this November). At heart, it will be a sociocultural essay on the role food plays in various cultures, but what’s going to get everyone’s attention is the extreme eating that Tony engages in.

Like the jumiles, the edible ants that the production office in New York has assured us we’ll find in abundance here. The little critters are served in paper cones—you drop a squeeze of lime and a pinch of salt on your tongue, tip the cone, and out they march, right into your mouth, all nice and crunchy. It’ll make great television—or would have four months ago, when jumiles were in season.

The bigger problem appears to be Tony himself. Like the host who invites you to dinner and then retreats to the kitchen to wonder when the hell you’re going to leave, Tony can be a grinch. He treats the camera like a prying neighbor, he doesn’t smile naturally, and he is, in his own words, “incapable of being adorable for extended periods of time.”

“I don’t want to be a friend to millions of Americans,” he tells me. “I truly don’t give a f— about the show making it or being renewed, or about ever working in TV again.”

So why’s he doing it?

“The access, man. It’s irresistible.”

That access has allowed Tony to swallow a live cobra’s heart in Saigon (“Tastes like an oyster, only throbbing”) and shaved pig ear, snout, and cheek tacos in Oaxaca. It’s also brought him into situations normally closed to foreigners: a sumo wrestler camp in Tokyo and a lamb slaughter in the Moroccan desert that took place nine hours by car, one hour by Land Rover, and two hours by camel from the nearest village. Two nights ago, in Puerto Angel, the locals prepared boiled iguana, and as guest of honor, Tony was served the head. Being a ninja eater, he dug right in, though he admits the texture was “akin to chewing on GI Joe” and the taste reminiscent of “the bottom of your childhood turtle tank.”

In a TV landscape dominated by Survivor, A Cook’s Tour could be a hit in spite of its star. “You’ve seen the perky programs,” says Eileen Opatut, senior vice president for programming and production at the Food Network. “Tony’s not perky. He’s critical, and at the same time he’s a pilgrim, an essayist.”

Put another way, if Emeril is the Food Network’s spice, and Jamie Oliver is the sugar, Tony Bourdain will be the salt.

Today, our star is on edge. He’s just untangled his six-foot four-inch frame from the back of a tiny knee-squeezer after a grueling three-hour drive. We’ve come here to Tlaxcala to sample two beloved pre-Hispanic delicacies: escamoles (ant eggs) and gusanos de maguey (the worms that ­burrow in the maguey cactus). Except Tony refuses to go into the kitchen to meet the chef. “I don’t like outsiders in my kitchen,” he says. The only good sign is that he’s sent back his espresso in favor of a Margarita. Maybe the tequila will lighten the mood.

At the table, Eddie and Martin, our driver, are salivating in anticipation. These two dishes constitute Mexico’s natural Viagra. “They give you mucho cachondo,” says Martin. “Power for the girls.” And the taste? “Very special. They fry the worms golden brown and when you first bite in it’s crispy, like pork skin. Then you chew and…”

Tony sits down, trying not to look too grave. “I hear that word special and I get nervous.”

After two mega-Margaritas, the ant eggs, sautéed in butter and parsley, are served. They resemble a pile of orzo. Tony wonders aloud why the eggs are bigger than the ants, but before the answer comes, he’s chewing studiously. “They’re perfectly good,” he says, “with a slightly aromatic, woody background, almost fungal.”

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