Anthony Bourdain is a genuine, bona-fide, grade-A, USDA badass.
There is no more apt way to describe Bourdain. Two hours before he was to take the stage at Pearl Theater at the Palms on Saturday night, I walked past Bourdain near the hotel’s reception desk. I didn’t immediately recognize him. He stood alone, wearing a black suit and skinny tie. He may have had a phone to his ear.
My immediate thought was he looked like the head of a Secret Service unit.
Later, Bourdain appeared onstage with one of the world’s greatest chefs, Eric Ripert. There is no question of who is the more capable technician in the kitchen. Ripert's flagship Le Bernadin in New York is considered among the best restaurants in the world. Bourdain, by his own admission, is not in Ripert’s class.
But Bourdain is a well-educated chef, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America who has managed several New York restaurants, among them Supper Club, Sullivan’s and One Fifth Avenue. His 2000 bestseller, “Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly,” led to his popular world-tour series “No Reservations” on The Travel Channel, which has subsequently led to his new CNN show, “Parts Unknown.”
It was clear just 30 seconds into the Bourdain-Ripert appearance at the Pearl, which was really a two-hour back-and-forth between the two cheekily titled “Good vs. Evil,” why Bourdain stands out as one of the culinary culture’s most powerful personalities. His first line to the audience was, “I hope you (em-effers) have been drinking!” He toyed with Ripert for his French upbringing and an incident in which Ripert punched an elderly patron in the nose for a perceived slight against one of Ripert’s waiters (Ripert said he felt physically threatened, and Bourdain followed with, “That’s the coolest thing you’ve ever done).
Bourdain, gobbling up most of the entree by speaking twice as long as Ripert, was rough on Guy Fieri, leveling shots that were equal parts needless and funny at the UNLV graduate. “How does he de-douche, is the question, at his age? What is he, 50 (45, actually)? When does he stop spelling culinary with a ‘K?’ ”
Bourdain and Ripert disagreed on what is more important to great food preparation. Ripert said ingredients, fresh ingredients are the most vital component to the craft. Even when people in France lived in poverty, he reasoned, they found fresh snails and made them a delicacy. Bourdain countered that argument by saying that he’d eaten the rectum of a pig and what those preparing the dish made of something extraordinarily unappetizing was “something wonderful.” (The two differed on their favorite Las Vegas restaurants, too, with Bourdain specifying Carnevino for its "3-year-old steaks" and Ripert predictably picking Joel Robuchon.)
Bourdain has clearly lived a life, which makes his success more intriguing. As he said from the stage, he smoked 2 1/2 to three packs of cigarettes a day for 38 years before quitting. How's he feel? “My life isn’t any better. … My lungs don’t feel any better. … My palette has not improved.” When Ripert brought up Bourdain’s drug-abusing past, asking him to list the drugs he’s sampled, Bourdain spat, “All of them. All of them.” Ripert continued to press, asking if Bourdain had any regrets about how he once lived.
“Well,” Bourdain said, “Cocaine, on balance, was probably not a career builder.”
Bourdain also tied a blindfold to Ripert’s face and asked him to taste a dish Bourdain had prepared specifically for the show. Ripert bit into the delicacy and said, “It is fried. … It is like a beignet. ...” as white goop dripped to the stage. “You are eating a deep-fried Twinkie!” Bourdain called out.
Ripert had never eaten a Twinkie before, and the guy who gave it to him is one who will try anything. Good for him. Somebody has to.