We’re at Straits Kitchen in the Grand Hyatt with the culinary equivalent of a rock star. Anthony Bourdain’s the edgy 49-year-old former executive chef of a French bistro in New York who gained fame with his bestselling book, Kitchen Confidential, which revealed the unglamorous underbelly of the restaurant world. The tall, sinewy man attracts female groupies as if he were Mick Jagger because he munches the nastiest foods with a devil-may-care swagger and a foul-mouthed sense of humour hosting A Cook’s Tour, the TV show that the book spawned, in which he travels the world to eat the beating heart of a cobra and fried worms, among other such exotica. But we’re not getting him to sample satay or other local delicacies that Straits Kitchen is famous for. After hosting his show, nothing much surprises him anymore.
Instead, we lead him to the eatery's teh tarik counter. His mouth has taken and delivered enough abuse (you’ll see what we mean). This time, we want his hands to do the talking. On hand to judge Bourdain’s virgin ‘tea-pulling’ attempt is the restaurant's tea expert, Hamid, who has 35 years of teh tarik-making experience.
After observing the master for a while, Bourdain coolly grabs two mugs and tariks with surprising deftness, transferring the steaming tea from one receptacle to the other at a great height. As if it were frosty beer and not scalding liquid likely to give him second-degree burns with one wrong move. An amused Hamid gives him 70 marks out of 100 for his efforts. Feeling bad we made him do this (actually, our editor made us do this to him), we whip out some gourmet bak kwa that we had brought along. “Oh man, this is good,” he gushes as he munches on a slice. “It reminds me of good bacon.”
8 DAYS: Is there anything you’d never eat again?
Anthony Bourdain: You’d have to pay me to eat the putrefied shark I had in Iceland in my upcoming show, No Reservations. But there’s nothing I’ve ever eaten that’s so unpleasant I wouldn’t do again for a price — or love.
What’s the best thing you’ve eaten in Singapore?
I really like chicken rice. And I love the crab bee hoon at Sin Huat Eating House in Geylang.
Were you intimidated by Ferran Adria of [the now-defunct] El Bulli restaurant, one of the best chefs in the world, when you hosted Decoding Ferran Adria?
Imagine you’re Eric Clapton and you’re seeing Jimi Hendrix perform for the first time — you’d go home crying. Most chefs aren’t geniuses; we’re craftsmen. But Adria is a genius.
You’ve scoffed at Jamie Oliver. Do you think you’ve sold out and become like him?
No, I’m not cute and I don’t have a catchphrase. I got famous for writing a book [Kitchen Confidential]. I told the truth, was obnoxious and I never had to be anything other than what I am. I’m the same miserable bastard I always was. If I had to make a show called The Naked Chef, I’d hang myself.
Then why did you appear on The Oprah Winfrey Show?
Being on Oprah is like watching my parents having sex — I know I shouldn’t be there. But I was aware that I could sell an extra 15,000 copies of my cookbook (Anthony Bourdain’s Les Halles Cookbook) on the show. During the show, I was in a fugue-like state and all I could think was: “Oprah didn’t shave her legs too closely today.”
Do female fans proposition you?
Er, yes. But I find girls who like me because I’m on television creepy. Have you seen Kathy Bates in the movie Misery? I think about that. Or Robert De Niro in a Mohawk in Taxi Driver? Now, imagine him in a skirt.