It’s late evening outside Phnom Penh’s O’Russei Market, and Anthony Bourdain is sitting at a foldout table on the street, slurping a bowl of beef noodle soup. Around him, food stalls hawk everything from the obvious to the exotic, from pork buns to bird fetuses to fried snake. As he spoons chili sauce onto his beef balls, a camera zooms in for a close-up. But something, in the made-for-TV sense, isn’t right. “More condiments!” a crewman calls out, and a bottle of fish sauce and bowl of fresh basil are placed on the table just so. Bourdain takes a swig of his Angkor beer, as motorcycle drivers, vendors and strolling families look on curiously. This must be the most rigorous mise-en-scène this humble street-side joint has ever seen.
“Those noodles were really good,” the American TV chef and author tells me after the shot. The camera has stopped rolling, his bowl of noodles remains half-eaten. This might well be his fourth meal of the night, and he and his crew are wrapping up a 10-day trip to Cambodia for his hugely popular food-and-travel show Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations. In the past decade, Bourdain has eaten his way through every continent and become a seasoned globe-trotter, following the breakout success of his 2000 book Kitchen Confidential, an insider’s account of the not-so-fine side of New York’s fine-dining restaurants.
But this wasn’t always so. Back in 2001, when he was catapulted into Cambodia for an episode of his first TV series, Cook’s Tour, Bourdain was still relatively untraveled, making his odyssey to the country all the more startling. “I had just come out of 28 years in a kitchen, having been almost nowhere, and I found myself making television first in Japan, then in Vietnam and then here. Japan was like dropping acid—like living inside a pinball machine—and exciting and luxurious. Vietnam fit in with my romantic notions of a place I’d always wanted to go.”
Then there was Cambodia. “I came here really stupid and arrogant and was just unprepared for it,” he says, with a pause. “Frankly, it was horrifying, enraging and heartbreaking, and I had a very difficult time handling that.” It didn’t help that Bourdain flew headlong into Cambodia’s darker corridors in his search for an experience out of Apocalypse Now. In his show’s episode on Cambodia, he mentions traveling by boat from Siem Reap to Battambang, not in search of Colonel Kurtz but in order to get to Pailin. The bleak border outpost—notorious for black market gems, bandits and sex workers—headlined an itinerary that honed in on Cambodia’s shellshocked state following three decades of civil war, a stretch of brutal Khmer Rouge rule, a Vietnamese invasion and factional fighting that finally ended in 1997.
Back then, Bourdain notes, the country couldn’t afford the luxury of a “cuisine,” and his quest for food worth traveling for was foiled by encounters with tripe that, he observed at the time, smelled “like wet dog.” At one point on that journey, he packed a baguette, honey-baked ham and Camembert cheese, all washed down with a white Bordeaux, to ease a long boat trip up Cambodia’s Tonle Sap river. Even this blissful throwback to the fine dining of the former French colony was interrupted when a motley collection of men in military fatigues interrupted the voyage and insisted the boat take a “shortcut.” Bourdain, carefully pondering what intentions these men had, talked himself out of that predicament.
Fast-forward to October 2010 and the instantly recognizable TV chef is enjoying grilled pepper squid with one of Cambodia’s leading human-rights advocates, Kek Galabru, while strolling in the town of Kep on the country’s tranquil coast. “The pepper squid and the crabs out there are awesome,” he tells me. To be sure, the seaside villas he and his crew are touring were laid to ruin by the Khmer Rouge, but overall Bourdain’s return to the country has been positive. “I’m overjoyed to say that Cambodia has changed a lot,” he says.
With the eyes of a chef used to understanding— and spotlighting—cultures through food, Bourdain sees tell-tale signs of Cambodia’s improved quality of life: families enjoying morning katuey noodles together at roadside restaurants, vendors roasting hearty cuts of beef, children munching on satay on their way home from school. It also helps that he’s now seen more of the world. “I’ve been to Liberia since. I’ve been to Nicaragua. I’ve been to other places where really bad things have happened and people have suffered,” he says. “So I’m now better prepared to visit Cambodia and deal with it in a non-hyperbolic way.”
Just as Cambodia has stabilized, so too has Bourdain, whose former life as a sleepless, drug-dependent chef in New York was well documented in his first book. Nowadays, he presents himself as a family man—he has a wife and three-year-old daughter—and his energies are spent writing and filming TV shows. Not that he’s lost his edge. His response to food remains refreshingly raw, something that’s essential to his appeal. Says Bourdain: “When you’re making food porn”—a favorite expression of his for TV programming about food—“does it really help if I tell you it’s a ginger-garlic with a mineral component? No, it’s ‘This is fucking good.’ That’s enough for me to get off on watching someone eat a bowl of noodles on TV. I just think food is fundamentally a non-intellectual pursuit in a best-case scenario.”
If Bourdain still has some demons, he’s exorcising them in much safer platforms these days. His most recent adventure: a gory graphic novel that’s scheduled to come out next year. “It’s Yojimbo-like,” he says, referring to the 1960’s samurai cult-classic flick directed by Akira Kurosawa. “It revolves around a stranger, and two clans with opposing culinary philosophies want control of this very talented individual.” Though, in case this medium doesn’t prove cathartic enough, he did make a return trip to Phnom Penh’s notorious shooting range. With no food in sight, he fired off a few clips from an AK-47—just for good measure.
[Published in the January 2011 issue of Travel + Leisure (Asia)]