I'd eaten countless times at Les Halles on Park Avenue South before I quit my career in fashion and luxury goods PR, and applied to culinary school. I had no idea who was behind the burners, or what went on in the life of those who inhabited the kitchen down below the vibrant dining room, where I periodically indulged in frisée a lardons, steak tartare, and cassoulet. The place was local-ish and it scratched an itch when I had a hankering for classic French bistro fare.
It wasn't until years later, after I'd graduated from culinary school at Peter Kump's (now called the Institute of Culinary Education) and was already working the line at San Domenico NY, on Central Park South, that my parents gifted me Anthony Bourdain's breakthrough book, Kitchen Confidential. (The dedication is here, at right, with a final "Congrats on your cooking" -- the simplicity and earnestness of which I love).
I remember devouring the book very quickly. And though I had my doubts then, and still do, about the veracity of some of the anecdotes within those pages, I quickly decided that this guy was speaking on my behalf, and on behalf of those in my line of work. He spoke for those of us who loved cooking professionally and making people happy, but also those of us who reveled in the hours working when others were playing, playing when those others were sleeping, and sleeping when those others were in their office cubicles, restrained in suits and lucky to get a glimpse of the sunshine during their too-brief lunch hour. This was new to me, having gone from the necessarily image-obsessed offices of fashion and entertainment PR to the back of house, among the uniformed (a.k.a. dressed-down) ranks of the brigade-style upscale restaurant kitchen. This kitchen was a place quite often more brutal than a classic office environment: the pressure is intense, the competition among the cooks is fierce, the level of artistry high, while an atmosphere of militaristic menace and command-obsessed precision reign. So, that part Bourdain nailed. And he'd worked mostly at lobster shacks and mid-range restaurants slinging brunch, so his experience involved less artistry, more delinquency. The industry as a whole is indeed full of misfits and ne'er-do-wells (I had to throw that term in there) whose resumés did not look like mine when I entered through the kitchen doors. But their drive to make delicious food, with swagger, was intoxicating. And I was enthralled. I never looked back. And never did I long to sit in a cubicle over the hottest and messiest of kitchens.
Fast-forward to my years living and cooking in Rome. I almost never watched Italian television because, frankly, with a few rare exceptions, it's awful. It was the aughts, and my expat friends and I had developed an elaborate network of DVD swapping and TV show (illegal) downloading so that we could participate in the English language zeitgeist that required working knowledge of series like "The Sopranos" and "Sex and the City" and "Lost". Once I'd learned to master downloading onto my laptop and viewing the shows through my computer attached to my television, with surround sound coming through my speaker system...well, when I wasn't working or running around enjoying the food and nightlife of the Eternal City, I watched as many shows as I could fit into an evening at home with my Roman kitty cat. And having seen some of Bourdain's shows in the late '90s back in New York, I knew to download all of "A Cook's Tour" and "No Reservations" (as they aired) and again devoured Bourdain's work. I even downloaded the single season of the TV adaptation of "Kitchen Confidential" starring Bradley Cooper (!) as Bourdain's character in this chef-driven drama (a series on Fox isn't a terribly relevant adaptation of the book, but Cooper is always magnetic and some of it was actually pretty funny). I ADORED these shows. In his travel shows, Tony's snarky-but-open-minded commentary on locales both exotic (Vietnam, various African countries) and familiar (U.S. cities and most of Western Europe) struck a chord with me. He was hilarious. Insightful. Worldly. Sweet. Sardonic. He was from Jersey. He smoked on camera and got drunk and ate anything and everything. He was my kind of chef.
Oh, how I wanted to take him around Rome and show him my second home, the city that I love. Oh, did I want to drink with Bourdain. But most of all, I was grateful for what he gave me (and so many others, as it turns out): a window onto the world, an invite into the global kitchen, a glimpse at cultures we may never experience for ourselves. It was the ultimate armchair traveler's experience, and more specifically, it catered to the food-obsessed -- chefs like myself chief among them. I loved all of Bourdain's shows but to me, despite his award-winning later work at CNN, I loved his "No Reservations" series most of all. He was still relatively curious without an overabundance of cynicism (though of course, that New Yorker cynicism is part of what makes him Bourdain). He represented the best of what travel does for humankind. And for each of us on a personal level. I felt he was there for me, especially when I was living 5,000 miles from home and felt detached, felt distant from my family, felt somehow traitorous living so far from my beloved NYC after 9/11. Bourdain made me feel like my wanderlust, my culinary curiosity, my love of exploring the world -- it wasn't a negative, it wasn't a liability, it wasn't even un-American. It was the greatest gift I possessed. It was to be nurtured, not extinguished.
I was, of course, traveling when the news broke that Bourdain had taken his own life while filming an episode of "Parts Unknown" in France (his first international travel destination as a kid, where his journey began, and probably no coincidence, where it ended). I was in the Florida Keys with my family, and my husband woke me up in the early morning with cries of "no, no no!" He had been reading the news on his phone while I slept, and he shook me awake and said, "hon, oh noooo, you'll never believe it!" The news hit me like a ton of bricks just a few weeks after Kate Spade had taken her own life. First it was an icon of fashion, my former industry, and now an icon of the food world, and of New York -- my current career and hometown -- had taken his life too. That he would leave his best friend chef Eric Ripert to find his body seems uncharacteristically cruel of him. I've always admired Ripert since the day he taught us lobster butchery and cooking in culinary school. My heart has gone out to Ripert in dealing with all of this, and losing his best friend in such a terrible manner. But the question still lingers: why? While we'll never actually know, my immediate thought was that it was a combination of romantic heartbreak, and his addictive personality and problems with substance abuse in the past. You can get over the former but you can rarely shake the latter, at least not completely. It seems like it's always the loveliest of souls who never stick around for the long haul. Back in Manhattan, the now-shuttered Les Halles (the last place of Bourdain's cooking employ) was covered with notes of remembrance, photos, love letters on post-it notes and an outpouring of sympathy and sadness, the sidewalk covered in flowers the length of the storefront. Tony was most certainly loved.
While there's a huge hole in my heart that Bourdain used to fill with his acerbic wit, his mellifluous and spot-on prose, and his gorgeously-filmed and insightful and funny television programs, at least we have all of that which he left us. It's down in writing, on film. And his interviews are a thing of beauty, whether podcast or radio show or television interviews. To read the things he's written and said is to mine pull quote gold. And so, below, I give you a few of my favorites. He was not "just a chef" -- a phrase I hate. We are all multi-hyphenates, as humans -- some of us much more than others, and Bourdain was one of those. He knew music and cinema and literature as well as any professor of any of those subjects. It makes his thoughts on culture and politics relevant. Personally, I will always look to someone who is well-traveled, who has really lived, to give his or her opinion on things over an "expert" quote-unquote, any day of the week. It breaks my heart to have to write this reflection in memorium, on what is Bourdain's birthday, and what Ripert and José Andres have dubbed "BOURDAIN DAY." We miss you, Tony. We always will.
"As you move through this life and this world, you change things slightly; you leave marks behind, however small. And in return, life--and travel--leaves marks on you. Most of the time, those marks--on your body or on your heart--are beautiful. Often, though, they hurt."
“If I am an advocate for anything, it is to move. As far as you can, as much as you can. Across the ocean, or simply across the river. Walk in someone else’s shoes or at least eat their food. It’s a plus for everybody.”
“Basic cooking skills are a virtue... the ability to feed yourself and a few others with proficiency should be taught to every young man and woman as a fundamental skill. [It’s] as vital to growing up as learning to wipe one’s own ass, cross the street by oneself, or be trusted with money.”
"I'm very type-A, and many things in my life are about control and domination, but eating should be a submissive experience, where you let down your guard and enjoy the ride."
“My hometown New York also has a big heart. It doesn’t like to see itself in that way, but we do come together when need be, often in moments of crisis.”
“Maybe that’s enlightenment enough: to know that there is no final resting place of the mind; no moment of smug clarity. Perhaps wisdom... is realizing how small I am, and unwise, and how far I have yet to go.”
And I've got to include his thoughts on Trump:
From Eater's post-election interview:
So, did you vote? Yes. No fan of the Clintons am I, by a long shot. But I’m a New Yorker, Donald Trump is a New Yorker. And the New Yorkers I know, we’ve lived with this guy for 30 years. I’ve seen Donald Trump say things one day, and then I saw what he did the next. I’ve seen up close how he does business. Just like if you lived in a small town, you’d get to know the sheriff, the guy who runs the hardware store, the guy who runs the filling station — Trump comes from that era of guys you followed, guys you knew about every day: Trump, Giuliani, Al Sharpton, Curtis Sliwa. I’d see him at Studio 54, for fuck’s sake. I’m not saying I know the guy personally, not like I’d hug him, but I’m saying that as a New Yorker, we pretty much are neighbors. And my many years of living in his orbit have not left me with a favorable impression, let’s put it that way. There’s so many reasons to find the guy troubling. When Scott Baio’s the only guy you can find to show up at your convention, you’re in trouble... ...And Trump — the man eats his steak well done! I don’t think he’s a good person. I remember the Central Park Five, and what he said. I’ve seen how he’s treated employees. I saw what he did to Atlantic City. I saw what he did to the west side of this town. It’s fuckin’ ugly. He’s going to make the whole world look like the back of Rick James’ van."