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The Proposition

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(Mr. Bourdain arrives precisely on time in the lobby of the Dusit Thani Hotel. He is, as always, dressed in a post-modern deshabille--white dress shirt open at the collar, Levis, Italian leather shoes, silver hair clipped short and his skin deeply tanned. He sits at the bar beside me and though he no longer smokes, he flips the lid on a chrome Zippo as he asks the bartender for a beer, the first of many that night.)

(An excerpt of our two hour conversation follows.)

MJ: …of course all the talk about the New Guinea episode and no mention of a certain bout with cannibalism?

AB: Oh man, you’re going to ask me about that, aren’t you? (laughs) Well to be fair, that was in pre Kitchen Confidential days. Not that that excuses what happened!

MJ: What did happen, exactly?

AB: Well, you see. (takes long swig from his bottle of Singha) Working at Les Halles, you get to meet some interesting types. Monied types. And, not gonna lie, my boudin noir is some of the best damn stuff you’ll ever eat. So there’s this guy, see--

MJ: Hannibal Lecter.

AB: Hey, I’m getting to it. Hold onto your ass. Anyway, this guy, he’s a real regular. Every Friday night he’s in Les Halles and always orders the nasty bits and top rack wines--Chateau d’Yquem, et cetera. The authentic stuff--tripe, kidneys, not your usual touristy steak frites and bottle of plonk. And he’s dapper as fuck, you know--the bespoke suits. You know what I’m talking about, you saw the TV. Anyway, he’s coming to Les Halles for a solid month or more every Friday until one night he asks the maitre d’ if he can have a word with the chef. Moi. I’m thinking, fuck man, if you have anything to gripe about, why are you coming back every fucking Friday?

So I grab a towel, wipe off my hands, and come out into the dining room. He’s sitting there with this extremely blank expression, right? And eyes like steel ball bearings, I swear to Christ. Suave motherfucker, swirling his snifter of Remy. And I’m there in my whites, long apron on, and I strike a pose like “What is up?”

“Mr. Bourdain?” He says. (AB shivers) A voice like--

MJ: Like what?

AB: (shrugs) Like I dunno, a wicker basket full of cobras. “Mr. Bourdain, do you have a moment?” And he gestures to the chair across the table. “I have a proposition for you.”

(We are interrupted when the bartender places a plate of crispy fried silkworms between us. I’m not tempted, but Mr. Bourdain takes the opportunity to toss a few of the crunchy morsels back, followed by a shot of the Singha.)

MJ: So…a proposition? You make it sound so delightfully perverse.

AB: I’m not making it sound that way, trust me. He did. The guy says ‘proposition’ as if he’s about to ask me for a blow job in the alley. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, right? But I’m all set to tell him to take the last train to fuckyourself and head back to tend my grill, but he leans forward, pushes the bottle of Remy toward me, and says ”I’m hosting a rather large dinner party this weekend at my house. I generally do all the cooking myself, but this time I think I need some assistance in the kitchen. I’ve seen your abilities, and I believe you’re the best person for the position. What do you think?”

I said, “Fuck off man, I’m not a caterer.”

He said, “Do you think I would hire a caterer to prepare foie gras au torchon?” And then he mentioned what he was going to pay me.

MJ: What was the figure?

AB: (mumbles something into his beer) Look, I was writing my first book, on my feet all day in the kitchens at Les Halles, and I had--let’s just say I had some affinity for the finer points of the coca leaf back then, capice? Anyway, I tell the guy I’ll think about it. He doesn’t say anything--he just slides a business card across the table, pays his check, and then scrams. Scrams in his fucking Bentley. :gestures in disgust: I’m thinking about it, let me tell you. I mean--fuck, Les Halles was a terrific fucking venue, right? But it’s still hot work, long days, and I’m not exactly getting any younger. With scratch like that, a putz like me could take some time off and crank out the book, right?

MJ: I’m not judging.

AB: (narrows eyes, gives a slight nod) Yeah. Well, I called him the next day. I tell him, ”I’m no caterer, right? You get me my meez--you know, my mise en place--you get me all the top ingredients, and they fucking better be fresh, and you get me a sharp knife.” He says “Oh. I have the knives.” (gives a hollow laugh) Fucking a, man. If I knew then what I knew now, his comments would have been funnier.

MJ: Funnier?

AB: Well, gallows humor is always funny right? Anyway. I schlep out to his place that Friday--for what he wanted, his menu, right? We decided it would take more than one day to prepare. All the weeks-long shit, the pate campagnie, the confit, he said he’d get ready. I’m thinking, who is this freak? A psychiatrist in a Bentley? And then I get to his place. Fuck me, I’m thinking--I’m in the wrong line of work. You saw his freaking mansion when they auctioned it off. The fucking front door was from Tibet.

MJ: And the kitchen?

(AB is silent a long moment. He’s peeling the label off his sixth bottle of Singha and he’s got a shot of Pappy Van Winkle waiting on the side. His dark eyes are distant, not focused on the mirrored bar back but on his own silvery reflection, on the shadowy silhouettes of the other bar patrons all around.)

AB: Fucking hell. That kitchen. You know how it is when you have a really good dream and you wake up wanting it to keep going? You want to remember every crystal-clear image in detail, so you can, so you can I dunno, recreate it in reality?

MJ: It was a dream kitchen?

AB: (hollow laugh) Let’s put it this way. It wasn’t a fucking Rachel Ray kitchen, right? Scandinavian design, solid granite countertops, recessed lighting, more stainless steel than a goddamn county morgue. A double sink big enough to sink a fucking Titanic in. And staged, you know. Everything was laid out for working. And clean. My chef’s heart just fucking soared, man. Cleaner than my kitchen at work.

MJ: Probably cleaner than most people’s home kitchens.

AB: (snicker) No shit. When you think about the fact that home kitchens don’t get a health inspection, you’ll probably never eat at your friend’s house again. Anyway--fucking kitchen was brilliant, yadda yadda. Walk-in freezer, fucking Sub Zero fridge, the works. And the meez--he had everything I asked for. Honestly, I thought about--

MJ: Thought about what?

AB: :rueful laugh: Thought about boosting some of those knives, you know. Fucking Henckels carbon steel knives. I can afford them now, but back then?

MJ: You thought about stealing Hannibal Lecter’s knives.

AB: Right? You can’t make this shit up. Anyway, so we’re cooking. He’s got the truffles, he’s got the foie gras, and I’m thinking shit man, those are some of the biggest goddamn foie gras I’ve ever seen.

MJ: Did you have any suspicions when you saw some of the ingredients?

AB: Other than the size of some things? Not really. Honestly, I can tell you--most mammals are the same on the inside. Meat is meat. Organs are--well. Anyway. We worked side by side at the counter. I was expecting him to be either weekend-chef pretentious or straight up stupid clumsy, but he wasn’t. He knew what he was doing, where to cut, how to butterfly a chicken. It wasn’t just the knives, either--I saw him make a bearnaise that did not break. If you’re not used to doing it, do you know how fucking hard that is?

MJ: Can’t say as I do.

AB: Well. He had some skills. And I’ll just say it, there aren’t too many assholes I enjoy working around, especially in the confines of a kitchen. Lecter was light on his feet and he didn’t fuck around with the ingredients. He made it fun.

MJ: Fun?

AB: :impatient gesture: Yeah, fuck, I don’t know. We weren’t just working, we were drinking a nice Chianti, he had some Debussy playing on the hifi--what, you don’t think I know my fucking composers? He starts talking about music, about Debussy in fact and the dream-like quality of the chords. Then he starts talking about Jungian theory and symbolism in art and music--while we’re working away, right?--and goddamn me if I am not thinking, this is too fucking good to be true, Bourdain--don’t you start going all gay for the good doctor. (laughs)

MJ: You were attracted to him?

AB: Look, I’m not going to lie to you. On an intellectual level? Regarding his cuisine, his intelligent conversation? I was ready to climb up on that counter myself. Physically though? I am not that into the cock, and you can fucking print that, okay?

MJ: Did he say anything that might have given you the impression that all was not as it seemed?

AB: :thinks a moment: No. Yeah. Yeah he did. I remember him talking about the, what was it, the amorality of cuisine. And that got us talking about carnivores in general, predators and prey, and then he said something about how nature itself wasn’t evil. He asked me if doing bad things to bad people made me feel good, and I said, “Fuck, sometimes doing bad things to good people makes me feel good,” and he just--he just--

MJ: What?

AB: He just smiled.

MJ: Were you on hand for the dinner party?

AB: Yeah. He invited me to stick around, even though I’m not one of the cashmere and pearls type.

MJ: Cashmere and pearls?

AB: You know, the toffs, as the Brits say. I did, though--I mingled. I wasn’t used to celebrity then. Senator ----- was there, some hotel socialites, academics of the more ivied halls, shit like that. They loved the food so much it was ridiculous. Congratulations all around, fawning at my feet, all sorts of ego-boosting shit. When I think now what they were eating and how they fucking relished it, I can’t help but laugh a little.

MJ: I have to ask. Did you eat any of the food?

AB: (glances at me, smirks, shakes his head) What do you think?

MJ: And?

AB: Do you want me to say it was disgusting? Meat is meat, unfortunately, and when it’s fairly well fed, expertly chosen, untrammeled by hormones or additives--do you think Lecter chose homeless junkies for his larder?

MJ: So you’re saying--?

AB: I’m saying that dinner was one of the most memorable and delicious I’ve ever participated in. Does that make me proud? Well. I wouldn’t knowingly have done it, of course-- :shrugs:

MJ: Did the FBI question you after his arrest?

AB: (nods) I’d had no idea, though. Nobody did. Someone so perfect, though. You know they’ve got to have a freezer chock-ful of people livers.

MJ: Does it bother you that you ate human flesh?

AB: On one level, yeah? But you know what bothers me more? Is that it didn’t taste any different than the best organic pork you can get from the farmer’s market. Let’s be honest: being carnivorous is cruel, no matter how you pamper the chicken or pig. Dead is still dead, and we’re still eating something else’s vital parts because we can.

MJ: So have you considered vegetarianism?

AB: Fuck no, give me a nice cote d’boef any day. (checks his watch) Are we about done here? I got a plane to catch.