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Rogue chef hits the road

Bad boy chef and 'Kitchen Confidential' author Anthony Bourdain came to Portland recently to peddle his new book, 'A Cook's Tour: In Search of the Perfect Meal' (Bloomsbury, $25.95).

After a long, dirty climb up the culinary ladder, Bourdain is executive chef at Les Halles, a French bistro, and its newly opened double, Les Halles South, both in Manhattan. Bourdain, it appears, has gone respectable.

Fans of 'Kitchen Confidential' know it as an unforgettable, take-no-prisoners

account of behind-the-scenes life in the restaurant biz. His new book is an off-road guide to some of the world's most dangerous places and Ñ by extension Ñ its most extreme foods.

A recently completed companion series shot for cable TV's Food Network debuted Jan. 9 Ñ it airs on Tuesday nights at 10:30. The series shows Bourdain in all of his tart-tongued glory, usually blasted on the native population's local brand of firewater.

Smoking and slagging

Soon after arriving at Portland's Heathman Hotel, Bourdain requests a pint of Guinness at Higgins nearby and then asks for an ashtray.

'No,' the waitress responds. Higgins is a 'green' bar.

'OK,' says Bourdain, slightly peeved, 'I'll just take the Guinness then.'

Dressed in a black leather jacket, jeans and boots, the lanky Bourdain looks like Lou Reed, only taller. Once outside the bar, Bourdain fires up a beloved Lark cigarette and curses his recent stay in California, where smoking is outlawed even in bars.

The chef who has in the past called kitchen work 'something to do between arrests and convictions' never misses a chance to stick his knife into celebrity chefs like Emeril Lagasse. So he squirms when pressed about his own burgeoning fame.

'I'm uncomfortable with that. I'm a writer, not a TV guy,' he says. 'I have mixed emotions. Really, of all the people to ask to join the Food Network, I'd be about the last person because I've been slagging it forever.'

Cruel world

Piss and vinegar firmly intact, Bourdain nonetheless appears a tad soul-sick and world-weary as a result of his recent travels.

'They don't eat well in Cambodia,' he says. 'The country is such a variety of misery. Lots of hungry people with missing limbs. Underage prostitutes and hideously behaved Americans and British. They all live like kings there, like Col. Kurtz in 'Apocalypse Now.' '

The world at large he calls a 'panorama of cruelty. Everybody lives hard. I came away with a deeper respect for food and for what it takes to get it.'

On different episodes of 'A Cook's Tour' Bourdain might eat caviar and drink vodka with the Russian mafia as 'knuckleheads' beat each other up in a nearby cell. Other times, he might drink white lightning with the Khmer Rouge.

'I really fell in love with Vietnam,' Bourdain says. 'The people and the food. It captured my heart. I've never been treated so warmly.'

Substance abuse and war terminology are recurring themes in his books. Bourdain, who's kicked his heroin and methadone habits and most of the others, admits: 'I'm still a pothead. What can I say? I can never complain that I never had enough fun.'

Another pet peeve of Bourdain's are sanctimonious vegetarians.

'I'm not a snob,' he says. On his recent travels, 'People offered me the best of what they had, and it's very humbling.' And though he ate almost anything offered to him, he drew the line at 'cat, dog and live monkey brain.'

'I hear vegetarians say, 'Meat is murder.' I know what murder is, and it's not that,' Bourdain says.

Movie on the menu

Meanwhile, the rights to 'Kitchen Confidential' have been optioned. Brad Pitt will star as Bourdain in the movie, to be called 'Seared.' According to Bourdain, Benicio Del Toro may play a supporting role. Del Toro, Bourdain says, 'looks a lot more like the kind of guys I'm used to working with.'

Asked why his wife doesn't play a bigger role in his stories, Bourdain chooses his words carefully and says simply: 'I'm deliberately cagey about that. I would feel inadequate writing about something that important to me.'

When he cooks at home, he keeps it simple.

'I'll make a stew or a braised dish,' he says. 'One-pot cooking.'

Next up for Bourdain is a new book about meat: 'It's sort of a military-style field guide to meats: 'Full Metal Jacket' meets Julia Child.

'I'm a writer. I spend all my time doing what writers do. But my nature will always be that of a chef.

'You will never,' Bourdain vows, 'see me doing a cooking show.'