AUSTIN, Texas, Nov. 21, 2007 -- There's no corner of the globe too remote. No dish too disgusting to try … just once. No drink with too great an after burn.
That's the concept of Anthony Bourdain's phenomenally successful show "No Reservations" on the Travel Channel.
"For me, it's that confluence of events, when I can live my life like a Graham Green character," said Bourdain. "When I can lose myself in the film, I kind of always wanted to be in."
"You know it's a dream job," he said. "I'm getting used to it."
When "Nightline" first met Bourdain seven years ago, he was head chef at Les Halles in New York.
He had just published "Kitchen Confidential" based on an article he wrote for the New Yorker magazine — a chef's-eye view of the New York restaurant scene. It was the sort of best-seller that makes you think twice about dining out.
"Many restaurants save up their table butter, used table butter, you know a big crock of softened butter that they take out of your, little, you know, butter at the table. They'll heat it up, strain out the cigarette butts and the bread crumbs, and use that for the Hollandaise," Bourdain told "Nightline" in 2000.
Seven Crucial Years
A lot has changed for Bourdain, "pretty much overnight." He's no longer the bad boy of the restaurant scene.
Now the same man whose book warned people to avoid restaurants with dirty bathrooms is going off to Uzbekistan, where there is no bathroom.
"I was so wrong about so many things," Bourdain said. "I regret saying you should check out the bathroom and if the bathroom's filthy … many of the best meals in my life have been in absolutely septic environments, with chickens and pigs running around on the floor."
From Marco Pierre White to Marco Polo in seven short years, this master chef has now become an adventurous traveler. Bourdain is now a bona fide food celebrity. And as a guest judge on "Top Chef," he's become the Simon Cowell of food television.
"The lobster had the texture of doll head," he said on one episode. "In prison you couldn't serve it. It was wretched. We're talking cat food territory. That, that dry."
He not only has fans, he has groupies. It's not uncommon for people to approach him on the street just to tell him that he's "awesome," or in the case of one woman, to hand him a rose.
"Nightline" caught up with him in Austin, Texas.
'I'm More Comfortable in Singapore'
Bourdain has spent so much time traveling abroad that Texas is now almost a foreign country to him.
"It's a good thing it's Austin. Because if you're going to be in Texas, Austin is a good place to be," Bourdain said. "I was kind of freaked out when I first started to see my own country. When I'd go out on a book tour and I come to places like Texas. I come with all the New York prejudices. I think it took, you know, I realized I'm more comfortable in Singapore at this point, it's a lot less strange to me than Texas."
Perhaps that's why he recently took "No Reservations" to Cleveland where he observed surfing on Lake Erie, visited the Rock n' Roll Hall of Fame and dared to taste the fructose syrup that still flows through the rusty pipes of a now-defunct Twinkie factory.
Bourdain's guide at the time told him he's a brave man: "The flies won't go near it.The mice and rats wouldn't go near it. How is it? Is it still sweet and succulent?"
But that didn't stop Bourdain from taking a taste and declaring it to be "Twinkie-licious."
Often, on "No Reservations," it's not about the food. It's about the experience of being there.
And hardship is a big part of it. When he took the show to Uzbekistan, easily the most memorable scene wasn't the shashlik, but the massage he got.
"It starts out harmlessly enough as I'm mounted from behind by an oiled-up, would-be interrogator in a freaking Speedo like a Miguel Pinero prison drama," Bourdain said on the show. "But it only gets worse."
Viewers could hear what sounded like bones cracking.
"Believe it or not, even laying on a hard rock with my face buried in a sweat rag, this is the good part," Bourdain told viewers.
His visit to Beirut this summer was rudely interrupted when Israel started bombing the place. And it was there that Bourdain saw his first missile strike.
"This is not the show we went to Lebanon to get," Bourdain said.
The episode chronicled his effort to escape. It was an experience where "comfort food," dished up by the U.S. Marines who evacuated him, took on a whole new meaning.
While filming his show, he said, "Oh yeah, tune noodle casserole — score. Tuna noodle casserole. You know it's a joke dish. Synonymous with awfulness. Now, a welcome sign, a sign that things were normal, that we were going home."
Lessons From Abroad
In July the Beirut episode of "No Reservations" was nominated for an Emmy award.
"I'm really proud how the show came out. But at the time, I just didn't know that's what we were doing," he said. "You know you see things that change you. You know I don't want to sound all Sting or anything, but as happened in Beirut you come to understand that sometimes really bad things happen to really good people."
After Beirut, he had a daughter and quit smoking. Next season, that ubiquitous cigarette will be gone from the show. His old friends almost don't recognize him.
But above all, Bourdain said, travel has taught him the importance of courtesy.
"It's really important to me to be polite. I know I'm lucky to be there. I'm grateful to the people giving me their very best, even when it's not that much," he said.
Case in point, the meal he had with bushmen in Namibia. An Ostrich egg omelette, cooked on the ground. And the anus of a warthog.
"This is one time when well done is eminently desirable," he said on the show. "But no, this Hershey highway is served al dente."
No reservations indeed.