NEW YORK -- Anthony Bourdain suffered quietly as he dined on wart hog -- encrusted with sand, fur and fecal bacteria -- in the African country of Namibia.
Bourdain, host of the Travel Channel’s “No Reservations,” finished the meal knowing he would become terribly ill. But who was he to complain as a VIP guest of the same arid landscape where Angelina Jolie delivered Brad Pitt’s baby?
Spitting out nasty bits of wart hog would be rude to the locals he was dining with.
“The chief is there in front of his whole tribe offering you his very best,” Bourdain said. “Show respect. I’m lucky to be there. I’m lucky to see that. I’m lucky to have that experience. Chewing some antibiotics is a small price to pay.”
Taking culinary risks is nothing unusual for Bourdain, a former New York City chef and obsessive gastronome whose appetite for food and adventure has few limits. As the sardonic explorer of “No Reservations,” an off-the-beaten-path look at cultures and cuisines, he famously chowed down on raw seal in Quebec, eyeballs and all. He also sampled stinky tofu in China and fermented shark in Iceland. In a previous series, he swallowed a still-beating cobra heart in Saigon.
“If you see me eating on the show, I really eat it, and more often than not I have seconds,” Bourdain said before ordering a nonthreatening salad at a French restaurant in Manhattan. “I’m in it for the long haul. I might see that guy again.”
At 51, Bourdain prides himself on keeping it real. His bestselling memoir, “Kitchen Confidential,” published in 2000, served up the restaurant industry as page-turning entertainment and recounted the rampant drug use and other unseemly behavior. It also launched his career as a celebrity chef and author.
He quickly snagged a short-lived Food Network series, “A Cook’s Tour,” and later jumped ship to star in “No Reservations,” which debuted in 2005. The show, nominated for an Emmy, is the highest-rated series on the Travel Channel, according to a network spokesman.
“The show has a voice, and it’s very much his voice,” said Travel Channel president Pat Younge. “He tells it as he sees it. If it’s good that means it’s good; if it’s bad, then he’ll tell you it’s bad. And that’s a credibility that comes from experience, from knowledge and from being true to himself.”
Though he may not be a household name in the U.S., yet, Bourdain is somewhat of rock star in certain parts of Asia.
“People are really proud of their show, and when they see something on television of a kooky American guy who likes and appreciates what they do, then they seem to appreciate that back,” he said. “First time I landed in Kuala Lumpur, I walked through customs and all the taxi drivers and limo drivers started screaming at me: ‘Tony! What do you eat? What do you eat tonight?’ ”
Even weirder: One of the his cameramen, who was shown accidentally knocking over a large stack of plates in an episode in Indonesia, was recognized as “clumsy man” by a local family while filming a segment up in the Himalayas, Bourdain said.
With final say on the show’s destinations, Bourdain finds himself drawn to places with “tragic histories. Pathos. I’m looking for kind of a dark or kooky side.” He prefers Asia, an “enduring passion,” and learned his lesson from taking the crew to Sweden, where “everybody’s happy and everything works. Hate that.”
Like him or not, Bourdain has delivered a much-needed dose of personality to the Travel Channel, as Emeril Lagasse did when he helped build the Food Network on the appeal of his kick-it-up-a-notch enthusiasm. But while Lagasse is upbeat and family friendly, Bourdain has a macho swagger and a hit-list that includes vegetarians, shorts-wearing tourists and fellow celebrity chef Rachael Ray.
He winces at comparisons between quick-and-easy cook Ray and legendary Julia Child.
“Julia Child was about aspirations, about becoming better, cooking better, saying ‘you can do this,’ ” he said. “I don’t just feel that’s the business that Rachael Ray is in. Somebody with that kind of power and influence to aim so low -- it bothers me.”
He hopes, he said, to never sell out, as he sees it, in the way other TV chefs have.
“I have, to date, endorsed no products, I have no line of merchandise -- not yet,” he said. “You know, never say never. . . . [But] I gotta wake up tomorrow, look at myself in the mirror. Life is good. Do I really need to endorse cat food? No.”
If there’s anything he’s endorsing these days, it’s fatherhood: Bourdain and his Italian wife have a 4-month-old daughter whom he hopes will grow up to be “one cool kid.” When she gets older, he plans to uproot the family for a while and head to Southeast Asia to write a book on the region.
“I know there’s deep inside [me] some lazy hippie who’d be perfectly happy to lay on the couch, smoke weed and watch ‘The Simpsons’ all day,” he said.
“I’m really afraid of that guy. I don’t like him. I don’t want him around. And my whole life is kind of constructed to avoid reverting to that guy: Stay busy. Stay focused. Try not to mess up.”