I was still on the sofa at four in the afternoon, still half-dressed, when I decided that my life could not be complete if I did not somehow become friends with Anthony Bourdain. My son, then a young teenager, also in his underwear, was as inert and transfixed as I was. We were both locked into the ninth or tenth consecutive hour of a Labor Day weekend marathon of Bourdain’s cultural-journey-through-food breakthrough show, “No Reservations.”
I remember the exact moment, the exact image:
The long, lanky, exquisitely sad-faced visage of a road-worn Bourdain sitting on broken pavement in a South American alley – Buenos Aires or maybe Montevideo, there is no way to be sure when twenty episodes are consumed at once — his back to a stone wall, arms crossed above his knees, watching children play at rag-tag soccer with a deflated ball. And with the older men, he is sharing Siete y Tres, the backstreet concoction of cheap red wine and Coca-Cola. And all this imagery with his narration — his exquisite writing so weighted with love for other worlds and their peoples – just washing over another delicate moment.
“This guy is so fucking real,” I remember telling my son.
“This guy,” Ethan replied, correcting me, “might be the absolute coolest person on the entire planet.”
Still prostrate before the Travel Channel two hours later, I was located by my more culturally literate wife who informed me not only that my discovery of Tony Bourdain’s greatness was belated – the man was already a phenomenon in the world of cuisine — but also that we had met and enjoyed part of an evening with him at a crime-writing convention in England some years before. Freshly boosted by the success of Kitchen Confidential, Bourdain had been trying his hand at crime fiction – a master storyteller still sampling forms before simply inventing the documentarian oeuvre for which he was perfection itself.
On that night in Manchester, Bourdain compassed us both and immediately apologized for the poor treatment he had given Baltimore in his writing: “Forgive me. What I remember of Baltimore is that I was an addict at that point and I had the hardest time finding heroin there.”
Defending our city as best one can, we both assured him that this was no fair reflection on Baltimore. It merely marked him as the most incompetent heroin addict on record.
“That guy?” I remembered. “He was grand.”
“You really, really need to read Kitchen Confidential,” she told me.
And I did. And from that moment forward my primary mission for all of that autumn was to hang out and eat and drink and become friends with this Anthony Bourdain fellow.
* * *
In the end, I cold-called him. And I don’t actually remember what I said in the opening seventeen-paragraph ramble of desperate exposition that followed his simple, “Hello.”
I know only that I was talking at standard front-stoop reporter-interrogative speed, which is to say at enough revolutions-per-minute so there are no pauses long enough for the subject-victim to say “no comment” or “I have to go” or “how did you get this address, you sick parasitic bastard” before slamming the door in your face. I just kept talking until I ran out of stupid justifications for having bothered him.
The stupidest of which was, perhaps, this:
“I make television shows and I’ve got a show order from HBO for a post-Katrina drama in New Orleans that features a chef trying to make a go of it after the flood. And, Mister Bourdain, while I love great food, I’m perfectly ignorant of how it actually comes to be. In other words, I like driving cars fast and I have no idea what’s under the hood of one. Would it be possible to buy you a meal and pick your brain?”
It was Laura who came up with that lie. And it was a lie, however plausible it sounded in the moment, or however true it ultimately became. At the time that I approached Tony about helping us with Treme, I wasn’t actually thinking about the task of writing Jannette DeSautel or her culinary adventures. I hadn’t focused much on that arc or on what Bourdain could do with it. No, I just wanted a bromance.
We met at Sushi Yasuda on 43rd Street near Grand Central, with Laura carrying a pen and notebook to maintain the fraud of a work meeting. Every now and then she would write something down, but really my wife was just as smitten.
And, of course, he was as he seemed on all those hours of television: Warm, engaged, curious, all of it glossed with a veneer of self-mockery that you understood was well practiced, yet nonetheless genuine. He wore life’s mistakes as a badge and laughed at the improbability of his newfound cultural iconography. He said he felt like he was now racing through life in a stolen car, checking the rearview, but incredibly, somehow, there were no misery lights yet coming for him. And me, the police reporter from Baltimore with an HBO production deal, heard the absolute honesty and wonder in that.
A lot of people will tell you that on meeting Tony – despite how extraordinary a being he was – they somehow felt as if they’d known him for years. In part, this was the natural result of having so much of his wit and intellect bleed across our television screens. But just as elemental, I believe, was the man’s almost unlimited capacity for empathy, for feeling the lives and loves and hopes of others. He listened as few listen. And when he spoke, it was often to deliver some precise personal recollection that was an echo or simile on what was still in his ear. He abhorred a non sequitur; for him, human communication — much like his core ideas about food and travel and being – was about finding the sacred middle between people.
I am someone who can’t do two things at once. At one point during that lunch, while struggling to talk coherently about a culinary arc in Treme that I hadn’t actually thought much about prior to meeting Bourdain, I made the error of filling my soy cup with sake. Being exceedingly polite on this first meeting, Tony said nothing. Later, walking back across town, I replayed that submoronic moment to my wife, who laughed and made it so much worse by noting that Bourdain himself had savored Naomichi Yasuda’s fare without soy sauce at all. As one does when the fish is so transcendently fresh.
Oh Christ. Fuck me.
Months later, when we gathered for the first time in New Orleans to begin the actual work, I joked that given my lunchtime performance, we were lucky to have him deigning to help us write the DeSautel storyline.
“You were a complete barbarian,” he assured me. “Fortunately, Naomichi didn’t visit our table or I would have had to disavow you and all your works publicly.”
He was always that funny – either dry in his rhetorical savagery, or over-the-top hyperbolic in his foaming rage at vegetarians or micro-beer experts or elitist social or political orders. Everything built to a moment of careful, thoughtful wit. He often spoke as well as he wrote, and given the stylistic command of his prose work, this is saying something. I know a lot of writers. Only a few of us speak as we write. Shit, on a bad day, we can’t even write as we are supposed to write. Tony was never arch or florid; his comic exaggerations and rhetorical provocations were always somehow perfectly measured. He said what he meant and he meant what he said and he landed all of it. As a conversationalist, he simply delivered, moment to moment.
I could spend days explaining how perfectly his written scenes for Treme serviced Janette Desautel and her journey – and more importantly, how carefully and honestly he traversed the wounded, shoulder-chipped post-Katrina moodiness and pride of the New Orleans culinary world. The scenes were fresh butter. They need only be trimmed to fit in the expanse of fifty-eight minute episodes, and even then, what we had to consign to the cutting-room floor was entirely worthy. It died heedlessly, for space only.
His first scene of a kitchen at work crested gracefully in this moment: The worthy Kim Dickens as DeSautel, her restaurant finally reopened, plating a shrimp-and-grits entrée crowned by a crusted brown-red prawn, bug-eyes and antennae upward, praying to whatever deity governs such transcendent perfection.
“Take a picture of that shit,” she tells her waitress with pride and an insider’s voice of a cook in command of her kitchen.
From that line of dialogue forward, we had no fear for the arc – neither in its direction, nor its execution. For four seasons, in the writers’ room and on the page, Tony guided and wrote us all the way home.
* * *
Tellingly, what Tony wanted to say with the story arc in Treme was precisely the theme he was pursuing in his own work: Move, go, journey, address the new and different, acknowledge the vast distance and all of the epic social and cultural pluralism and then — at the same time — celebrate the commonality of being human as well.
Despite the hermetic tendencies of New Orleans itself when it comes to culture — all the more exacerbated and heightened by the genuine feeling of civic siege that existed there after Katrina – Bourdain insisted that creative and personal growth is, for all us, dependent on encounters with The Other, on a journey from the known and comfortable to the alien and disorienting. It was Tony who argued that once her own restaurant faltered, DeSautel should journey to a volatile culinary capital and be tossed about in Goldlilocks fashion as a line cook in various New York kitchens – this one too hot for her, that one too cool – until she lands in a place where new lessons and experiences begin to permeate. Then and only then should she return home, marry the new to the known, and be more than she would be otherwise. That’s what he argued successfully in our drama. That’s what he argued successfully in his world journeys on television.
He was precise when he told Barack Obama that he wished more Americans had passports. And indeed, it’s hard to argue against the idea that the portion of our republic that hasn’t ventured abroad is the deadweight now dragging us into national mediocrity, insisting that all points of the compass save ours lack basic liberties, or don’t exalt human values, or don’t eat, drink, cure the sick, proscribe violence or educate fools with greater efficacy than we do in this fading realm. They won’t go there. They won’t dare. Yet they already know how exceptional America is and how miserable and frightening the rest of the world must surely be.
Go, move, see, feel, eat – grow. The Church of Bourdain was founded not merely on the ever-more-vulnerable national credo that all Americans are created equal, but on the much more ambitious insistence that this declaration might be applied wherever you wandered and with whomsoever you cooked or shared a meal. He remains, for many of us, the American that we wish ourselves to be in the world’s sight. To have him widely displayed as our countryman, open to and caring about the rest of the world, and being so amid our current political degradation — this was ever more important and heroic. To lose him now, amid so many fear-mongering, xenophobic tantrums by those engaged in our misrule, is hideous and grievous.
But make no mistake: It wasn’t love of food that led Bourdain to the embrace of a shared human experience, of a world merely hiding its great commonalities behind vast and obvious culinary variations. It was the other way around. Tony was intensely political, a man always aware of those at the margins, or those who seem never to be reached by wealth or status or recognition.
When he came to Baltimore for an episode, he eschewed the usual subjects of crab cakes and oyster shuckers and instead willfully crossed to the other side of the city to highlight the palate of black Baltimore – the pit beef stands and the fried lake trout joints (not trout, and damn sure not from no lake) — that are a staple in the parts of town that never show up in Baltimore Magazine’s listings of great dining experiences. Some locals were livid at the obvious omissions; many others, long ignored, took real delight.
And it was the same everywhere. He did not journey to Louisiana to dart from one white tablecloth to another among the established New Orleans eateries. Instead, he was in search of the best pho however far out Chef Menteur Highway it happened. Or even further afield, he was hours to the west at an Opelousas campground boucherie where keepers of the Cajun cultural flame battled through a 98-degree day to disassemble an entire pig at fifteen separate stations and make all of it disappear in gastronomic ways that no Royal Street restauranteur could ever fathom.
Always, wherever he went, Bourdain hunted the street food and the street people and the street parade. Once, after a day of storyboarding on Treme, my wife and I took him to a well-regarded high-end restaurant downtown and immediately, regardless of the fare itself, I knew I had erred. He’d had this experience too many times before – shit, as the chef at Les Halles, he’d delivered this experience night after night. We would have been better going on a crosstown challenge for the best roast beef po boy. Instead of pursuing much of his entrée, Bourdain asked wistfully if he could have our then-baby daughter on his knee; his own child was then three; he missed holding an infant more than he needed another plate of sweetbreads.
Yes, Tony was political in every respect; telling his stories from the left, always with an eye on inclusion, always positioned against the empty sneer of American exceptionalism, always ready to turn his gaze on anyone uncounted or ignored. At the same time, it wasn’t necessary to hew to a perfectly progressive line to break bread with the man. Journalistically, he gathered his material with an open mind, never making the basic act of humans bonding over a meal contingent on anyone’s place on the political spectrum. He could eat barbecue and shoot automatic weapons with Ted Nugent if it said something he thought relevant about the terrain in which he was traveling.
In the same spirit, I don’t think he chose his chef friends — or any of his friends — based on their political sensibilities dovetailing his own, or even on the quality and authority of their cuisine. Instead, looking sideways at the great diaspora of people I know who admired and loved Tony Bourdain, what seems most clear is how little bullshit there is. The icons of the kitchen with whom he most clearly connected, and whom he brought to Treme – Colicchio, Ripert, Dufresne, Chang – are, for all their standing and talent, remarkably devoid of cant and flummery. For Bourdain, a man of commanding and exceptional wit and talent, the greatest and most honorable fight was to stand with ordinary men – whether a New York busboy or a vendor on a Ho Chi Minh City streetcorner, a production assistant in his crew or a fan who recognized him on a subway platform. I loved him for this. It was, perhaps, the most important predicate to the great achievement of his journalism: Wherever you go, whoever you meet – there we are, all of us, so different and so much the same. And he chose, I think, his close friends in some part for their talent, but in greater part for their ability, regardless of that talent, to be themselves with all others, in all other spaces.
So I am sure, as I tell you this next story, that he surely did not blame his best friend, Eric Ripert, for serving the most exquisite meal to Henry Kissinger at Le Bernadin – the one that took place only a few tables from myself, my wife and a copse of other writer friends. Yes indeed, there he is, firm in my memory: Hunched-troll Kissinger, curved into his seat at a four-top, dancing his little spoon across the layers of Ripert’s legendary dessert egg – only a hundred plated a night for select customers – talking political science to his crisp, waspish dinner companions, the backwards consonants of his accent grating against my ears: “Vell, it is not really so hard to zee…”
The next day, when I email Bourdain a full-throated tale of this encounter, ripe with all my stunted and thwarted fury, he will forgive Eric, who lives life in a genuine construct of Buddhist thoughtfulness, disconnected from the brutalities and judgments of a political world. Eric, he will assure me, will know little of Kissinger or his works, and is wholly innocent of knowingly feeding America’s greatest living war criminal a dessert fit for prophets and angels. Indeed, I already know as much is true from the surprise on Ripert’s face when the chef came to visit our table, minutes after Kissinger had paid his bill and departed, and I sputtered out shards of raving Wikipedia entries on Chile, East Timor and Cambodia.
Okay, I reply in another email, so Ripert is innocent. But me? I knew. I could have done something. I could have summoned Aldo, the master sommelier, and asked him for the most expensive bottle of Chilean red on the wine list. I could have had the bottle quickly decanted, taken a sip for myself, and then marched over to Henry Kissinger’s table and poured it over the bastard’s head: “Compliments of Senor Allende, you ratfucking murderer.”
I waited on absolution.
Nothing. So I wrote again, offering the obvious reason for my inaction:
“But alas, we were all guests of the chef and this happened in his full dining room. Thus do manners make cowards of us all.”
A minute or two passed until Tony emailed me two words only:
* * *
Here’s the other thing: He knew everything,
I don’t mean he knew everything about food or cuisine or travel or even world culture. I mean that for having come up in kitchens, without the formality of too much higher education, Tony Bourdain was simply a brilliant autodidact. He read voraciously and widely. He read things that were relevant to his work and he read things because he simply wanted to know everything a man could possibly know about a given subject. I don’t mean he read the canon for literature and enough non-fiction to be current or relevant at parties, I mean he read the obscure, often turgid stuff that academics wade into when they want to know the last fucking detail about something. As he was about so many things, he was obsessive about what could be learned and known.
After Treme, the project in which my production team held the most hope was a careful history of the CIA from the end of World War II through to the inevitable blowback of 9-11, examining in detail America’s postwar foreign policy footprint in the world. As we began to contemplate the staffing of that writing room, Ed Burns & I brought on espionage novelists such as Dan Fesperman and began to engage in discussions with the likes of Alan Furst and Joe Kanon. Names that made sense.
Bourdain, however, pulled me up once he got wind of the project.
“I can write that stuff.”
I humored him. You’re a great writer, Tony, a fucking natural with drama as it turns out. But for this room we’re looking for a particular level of expertise…
“Yeah, of course,” he said. “I have that.”
I began to query him politely on basic stuff: Angelton and the Italian elections, Haney and the Korean fiasco, Philby and Istanbul…
“Though, of course, never mind Philby,” he interrupted, at one point, “by then the Americans had been entirely compromised by their taking on Gehlen and his crew.”
“And what, Mr. No Reservations, do you know about Reinhard Gehlen?”
He looked at me for a moment, genuinely disappointed in my lack of faith.
“I can read a fucking book. Same as the rest of you fucks.”
And he had. Every history, every memoir, every cache of made-public government files that we had been chasing in the months of preparation to write our pilot scripts and show bible – all of it had already been acquired and read by Tony Bourdain. I told him he was in, and then hurried back to Baltimore to assure Ed Burns we had a live one on our hands.
“The food guy?”
“Ed, he knows this stuff. All of it. Cold.”
Ed, a vegan, was entirely dubious. “That guy doesn’t even get nutrition and world hunger issues right.”
I could only giggle and look forward to a green light on the series and several years of Ed Burns and Tony Bourdain yelling at each other across a Baltimore writing room over the nature and purpose of pork itself, never mind the Bay of Pigs. Problem was the green light never came.
For years, ever since the end of Treme, I’d been updating Tony on a nibble from this network or that, raising his hopes for a moment, then delivering bad news the next. A year ago, we had some belief that the BBC was going to pick the project up. But no go.
Six months ago, in December, I found myself in New York doing a charity gig with Tony for the PEN writer’s group. There were always charity gigs with Tony. Some were public, and some, as we are now learning, was Bourdain making things happen without anyone knowing, without ever playing it for pride or gain. We hadn’t been in the same city for months so we went hard at the bar even before the affair began and then we kept right on going throughout, eventually making good our escape to Desmond’s, a joint just a block up from where Bourdain used to cook. He had the home field advantage, but I tried to stay with him drink for drink. A few regulars from the old days greeted him as if it was just another after-shift respite from Les Halles. A couple of fresher faces asked for photographs. He accommodated all politely, dutifully, and in the case of a few remembered faces, warmly.
For us, there was fresh talk that the U.K.’s Channel 4 might take a chance on the CIA project if we could further enhance the role of British Intelligence in the narrative. The problem was that postwar Berlin, which featured heavily in our pilot, had been done to death already at the Le Carre-saturated BBC.
“Until we figure out how to do this without leaning on the Berlin station part of the story, all the Brits are going to be leery,” I explained.
He took that in and relayed his own status. He was bone weary at the moment, but nonetheless, he was going to re-up with CNN and continue wandering and eating and telling stories for at least another few years.
“Are you getting tired?”
“I am. But I don’t know that I can stop. I can’t sit still. I know this.”
Then he talked about the ongoing battles with Harvey Weinstein, about his girlfriend and her public stand, about the cost of it and his pride in her. His tone was of someone who had been through a grinder, but who was now certain that Weinstein and all of his lawyers and private investigators and threats would be vanquished.
“Asia,” he said of his girlfriend, “is incredible.”
We had one too many. I was ready to sleep. We stood in the cold on Park Avenue South a little while longer, then hugged, which always seemed a ridiculous gesture with Bourdain, whose height made you feel as though you were embracing a cathedral. He was flying somewhere absurd in the morning. He still had to pack.
“Travel safe,” I said, which sounded dumb even as I said it. Yup. Me, waving away Tony fucking Bourdain with a platitude about how to travel.
The next day, of course, I would get on Twitter to tease him, to brag about drinking Tony Bourdain under the table at one of his own haunts. He would reply and concede defeat, but we both knew it was a lie. By then, I had swallowed two Tylenol and three Advil and I was drinking straight Coca-Cola for breakfast. Meanwhile there was already an email waiting for me in my inbox:
“Been thinking about the Berlin problem. Might consider other crucibles of the Cold War with great character inspirations:
Vint Laurence and Tony Po in Laos.
John Stockwell in Angola.
Operation JM/Wave in Miami.
Howard Hunt and David Atlee Phillips in Guatemala Arbenz campaign.
Lucien Conein in pre-war Vietnam.
Yuri Nosenko in custody.
I read that and wondered how the fuck how. Motherfucker was as drunk as I was, and between all the travel and the Weinstein battle, so much more tired. Yet he was already in the air somewhere – I couldn’t even remember what he had told me – heading to some other godforsaken time zone. Now, today, it’s tempting for me to seize on the drinking and the weariness and the offhand remark that he couldn’t stop making those journeys and extrapolate some portentious meaning. But I know that I’d be lying to myself and grafting insight on a moment only in retrospect. No, I went to work that next day hungover but sated with smart talk, good drink, savage jokes, the hug goodbye, and the memory of my friend crossing the avenue, heading for the subway, then disappearing down the hole.
* * *