The standing room only, overflow crowd at Borders at the Time Warner Center in New York City was eagerly awaiting the arrival of their foodie heroes: Anthony Bourdain, Mario Batali, and Marco Pierre White. White, who was in the U.S. to promote his moving, fascinating, and very British memoir, The Devil in the Kitchen. I imagine it was the same way last year when Cream—Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce, and Ginger Baker—reunited for a tour.
I was surrounded by people clutching books by all three men. People who just couldn't wait to see their culinary heroes on stage talking, not cooking. Bourdain, the ascerbic, edgy, mega-successful writer and personality, was going to interview Batali and White, who was perhaps Batali's first cooking hero. Batali had of course been shaken to his core about 20 years ago, when, as a young cook working in White's kitchen, he had been viciously attacked by White with a hotel pan full of risotto, courtesy of White's legendary temper.
Bourdain was his usual smart, funny self. He has mastered self-deprecating wit by now, a quality all too rarely found in rock-star chefs. When he was asked what dish he was most proud of inventing, Bourdain said, "I never invented one dish when I was in the kitchen."
Batali was the red-haired, pony-tailed teddy bear. When asked by an audience member what dish he was most proud of inventing, he said with a wicked smile, "Teddy Bear Pancakes." Batali's greatest disappointment: He wished he and his wife had had a little girl to go with their adorable sons.
Bourdain asked White about the infamous Gordon Ramsay reservations book incident. (Ramsay claimed that, many years ago, just after leaving White's employ to open his own restaurant, White stole his reservations book just to wreak havoc on Ramsay's new endeavor. Recently, in a New Yorker profile, Ramsay admitted that he had stolen the book himself just to garner the publicity.)
White shrugged his shoulders and pulled no punches in his response: "That just shows what kind of person Gordon is. He's a liar, a thief, and a huckster." White was not letting bygones be bygones, and rightfully so. Ramsay had done him an awful turn in a most nakedly ambitious way.
All three men were immensely appealing, funny, and charming, but White, who has not quite achieved rock-star status in this country (he's still the revered chef spoken of in hushed tones by in-the-know chefs and food lovers), was in many ways the most interesting of the three. He remains as fiercely iconoclastic as ever, but he looked like a man who had somehow been pulled back from the abyss by a bit of soul searching 20-some years after he began cooking.
White actually renounced his 3-star status from the Michelin. "I had three choices: I could have stayed in the kitchen and been miserable. I could've lived a lie and pretended I was still cooking. Or I could give back my stars." So the latter is just what he did.
When asked by a young female chef in training if he had any advice for cooks just starting out, White said, "Chase things for the right reasons. Ask yourself what you want and why you want it. I didn't, and it took more than 20 years for me to recover from that mistake. I thought I wanted those stars, and wanted a lot of other things, and it turned out I didn't want or need any of those things."
I asked White after the talk was over, when he was signing books, whether it was hard to write the book, which finds him coming to grips with many demons, including the loss of his mother when he was very young and the desperate search for his chef father's approval, an approval that was never really forthcoming and which caused an off-and-on estrangement that lasted years.
He said, "It was the toughest thing I have ever done in my life. Every day my journalist friend who was actually writing the book would tell me things like, 'Today we're going to talk about your mother dying.' And there were many days when I couldn't deal with a question like that. And when I would finally unburden myself to him about my mother, I would get so upset I couldn't speak to or see anyone that day." It was essentially psychotherapy for someone who was not used to looking inward to find his real motivation for doing things.
Bourdain was irascibly charming and brought bad boy brio to the house, Batali was charmingly funny, smart as hell, and quick-witted, but it was White who brought the precious commodity of real emotion to the stage at Borders tonight.