I never heard of Anthony Bourdain until I read a review of his first book ‘Kitchen Confidential’.
In the summer of 1970 I had lied my way into my first restaurant job working as a Captain at Maxwell’s Plum in Manhattan, one of the most popular restaurants in the city at that time. Working in a gorgeous dining room, waiting on all the beautiful people in the Upper East Side, was an eye-opening experience to a dumb kid from Michigan. But nothing was more strange and foreign to me than my first exposure to the inner workings of a busy restaurant kitchen.
While the dining room was always bustling with movement and conversation it was nothing compared to the frenetic, intense, and seemingly chaotic atmosphere that existed in the kitchen that churned out 1000 high quality meals a day.
As a member of the service staff, the kitchen was a ‘no-talk zone’. Other than being allowed to utter “Yes, Chef” and ‘Thank You, Chef” you didn’t dare engage any of the cooks in any conversation. It was like a fraternity of half-crazed, on the edge personalities held in orbit by just one maN… The Chef. It was a world that most people never get to experience, but those that do understand and embrace their unspoken code forever.
So, when I heard about Kitchen Confidential I couldn’t wait to get my hands on it. I read it non-stop, cover to cover, often re-reading chapters that brought back memories of my time spent at the Plum.
It was the first book to ever give the reader a realistic glimpse into the world of commercial restaurant kitchens and all the insanity that often ensures within.
But it wasn’t just the shocking, out of school, anecdotes that made the book so wildly popular… it was the author’s cynical, humorous wit on display. The book would never have had the impact it did were it not for Bourdain’s gifted style of storytelling. Despite all the acclaim surrounding the book, I don’t think anyone at the time foresaw the amazing journey that Anthony would eventually take in his life and career and the immense impact he would have on so many that went well above and beyond the world of food and restaurants.
As I began to follow his ever expanding career as a world traveling chef, there was one trait above all others that I always saw in him… curiosity. (Truth be told, his cynicism ran a close second) He said “If you sit down with people and just say, ‘Hey, what makes you happy? What’s your life like? What do you like to eat?’ More often than not, they will tell you extraordinary things, many of which have nothing to do with food.”
That was when it became apparent that his interest and travels were not about just food…it was about his curiosity of humanity at large.
If you read his book ‘Medium Raw – A Bloody Valentine to the world of Food and the People Who Cook,’ you get a glimpse into the inner workings of his mind, his work, his addiction to heroin, and his early flirtations with suicide. With his unique and humorous wit, he told a story that shed light on the birth of his cynicism. With his parents, he had gone to see the movie “Old Yeller” knowing that Disney movies always had a happy ending no matter what. He said from that moment the movie ended, he sat there in silent shock and from that day forward, looked at his parents and the world with suspicion. “What else were they lying about? Life was clearly a cruel joke… a place with no guarantees built on a foundation of false assumptions, if not outright untruths. You think everything is OK and then they shoot your f’ing dog!” Classic Tony storytelling.
To me, Anthony came across in his shows as exactly who he was in normal life, but I think there were some skeptics out there that wondered if that was truly who he was. My niece Maisie had the good fortune of being the personal assistant for several years to world class Chef Daniel Boulud’s. After Anthony’s passing, she shared the following: “It was 9 days of incredible fun and hard work (and many weeks of pre-production beforehand) during which I got to know Anthony a bit when I traveled to Lyon, France with Daniel Boulud to shoot an episode of Parts Unknown. He was funny, clever, no bullshit, and unafraid of what people thought of him. Always told it like it was. A masterful storyteller, and a decent person. These things are not just trite remembrances or things one just says. Tony was so vital to our industry for always cutting through the noise to speak his…frankly….reasonable mind. We need more people like Tony. My heart goes out to his family, loved ones, and his production team.” I remember this episode well as it showed the bandwidth of his love for foods both elevated and common. He and Daniel had dinner with Paul Bocuse, the Lion of Lyon, considered one of the top French chefs ever.
It was a decadent evening of haute cuisine classics which Anthony call ‘the meal of his life.”
The next night they ate dinner in a small, local Bouchon where they enjoyed locally made sausages along with rustic country classics like Blanquette de Veau and Pot au Feu that he loved as much as the dinner at Bocuse.
I cannot begin to tell you the number of people in my circle of friends and work associates who have reached out and expressed such sadness over his passing. He touched so many of us from so many different walks of life. From his humble and rebellious beginning as a prep cook, then on to chef, author, global traveler and international icon, his impact will be felt for years to come. He had a boyish charm, infectious smile, endless enthusiasm and appreciation for traditional food and cultures and this came across in every one of his shows. Personally, I plan on re-watching every single one of them.
I have rekindled my blog and have dedicated it to my lost friend and inspiration. I promise to do my best to keep his joy, fascination, curiosity and humor alive going forward.
To our dear friend Anthony…
Cheers, Salud, Sainte, Ganbei, Chin Chin, Salute, Skal, Prost, Lechaim!