Anthony Bourdain

David WilhelmBooze & Bites16 Comments

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!

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  1. Bryan Tsunoda

    David, thank you for the fitting tribute of Anthony Bourdain. After his passing, I was blown away to see how many lives he has touched and influenced. I appreciate hearing personal stories such as yours because it gives me deeper insight into this amazing individual.

    You are an excellent writer. I hope you keep it going, it was a pleasure to read this piece.

  2. Dan Khoury

    I give talks every Tuesday night at the old house of Gloria Swanson/Carroll Righter in the Hollywood Hills on the science behind Astrology. Last week went into detail on the psyche of Anthony Bourdain. Very interesting chart on the internal and external of personality. A life long struggle.

  3. JOANNE REDWOOD

    I am so glad you are writing again! You’re an excellent writer. I felt the same way as you did about the many celebrity suicides, what a waste, but then Kate Spade and Bordain in one week? It made me very sad. Also, this is not a criticism, but it’s easier to read black type on a white field instead of reversed.

  4. Samantha H.

    Hello David,

    I am so touched by this email message. I used to be a restaurant writer for The Register here locally and also worked for Picket Fence media writing local stories on wonderful restaurants. I’m sorry I did not meet you sooner during those years and would have loved to have written your story.

    I have been a fan of Anthony Bourdain for years and was and still am devastated by his death. I’m just so sad about it and I’m just so sorry that the folks close to him didn’t see this coming. I’m excited to see your blog. I’m also starting a blog because of all the experience I’ve had in food writing and experiencing great food.

    You are a beautiful writer with so much heart and soul.

    Take good care,
    Samantha H.

  5. Greg H

    Thank you for your piece. I loved Anthony’s shows and perspective on food and life. Made sure I visited Les Halles – downtown on my first trip to NY.

  6. Greg Rizzi

    David,

    I share your sentiment about “Bourdain”he was and will always remain parts: Chef, mentor, a food and travel journalist, a no bull shit; speak your own mind and not always politically correct story teller, humanitarian, motivational speaker, author and with a bit of a Rock “n”Roll attitude all wrapped within a talented and sensitive human being.

    He was a CREDIT too the true ART of Restaurant Hospitality. I Look forward too reading your blog and too viewing the two remaining, unreleased “Parts Unknown with Anthony Bourdain”… he is a hard act to follow, one of a kind GEM.
    RIP

  7. Siri Gottlieb

    Hi David,

    What a lovely tribute to Tony Bourdain. Maisie shared it with me. I have been really broken up by his death. I can’t quite grasp how he could lose sight of the brilliance of his life nd who he means to others. He must have been in very bad pain. The truth about depression is that it LIES.

    Like you, I first learned of Bourdain when Kitchen Confidential came out. I followed him closely over the years. I sure was a proud Mom when my daughter spent ten days in Lyon with him and DB. She knows many world-class chefs, but Tony was a standout in the food world for her. We are all very sad.

    I hope you keep writing, your post was very meaningful.

    xo Siri

  8. Denise

    I enjoyed every word you wrote about Anthony , the piece gave me just an little inner perspective of yourself. I am looking forward to all of your future writings.
    And by the way I like white print in a black field❗
    Thank you,
    Denise

  9. Jim deane

    Dave- good to hear you are re-inspired to start up your blog again. I got hooked on all the food shows while I was recovering in the hospital with leukemia . Anthony’s show was different from the others. It was edgy. And he brought you into the culture of that country’s food with out all the Hollywood hype. Very introspective. Zen like. Thanks for sharing your story. We got to get together again to play some golf with ron & solly… jim deane

  10. Nancy Cooper

    Hello, David. I too wish to thank you for your tribute to Anthony Bourdain. It’s very painful to loose someone, particularly to suicide. You are not alone. Suicide affects millions each year. May I recommend a site where you can find resources for loss and healing. https://afsp.org/find-support/ive-lost-someone/ You are a wonderful writer, I hope that you continue.

  11. Samantha Hammer

    Hello David,

    I am so touched by this email message. I used to be a restaurant writer for The Register here locally and also worked for Picket Fence media writing local stories on wonderful restaurants. I’m sorry I did not meet you sooner during those years and would have loved to have written your story.

    I have been a fan of Anthony Bourdain for years and was and still am devastated by his death. I’m just so sad about it and I’m just so sorry that the folks close to him didn’t see this coming. I’m excited to see your blog. I’m also starting a blog because of all the experience I’ve had in food writing and experiencing great food.

    You are a beautiful writer with so much heart and soul.

    Take good care,
    Samantha Hammer

  12. John Aguilar

    My culinary life was elevated by Anthony Bourdain. He made dining in any elevated restaurant or food truck as if he were a chameleon. Adapting to all with his clever, cynical, wordsmith talents. Just returned from a Lyon trip that took me to the Paul Bacuse flagship restaurant……I am still in awe of the ceremonious plates and perfection that flowed out of that kitchen . It was in the same manner that Bourdain received…only that both Paul and Anthony were not present.
    I will miss that foul mouthed, fun loving, hard drinking man that opened my eyes to the world of both food and parts that were unknown! Thank you David for this opportunity….