Anthony Bourdain wasn’t my culinary hero. The closest I have to culinary heroes are Masaharu Morimoto (for my memories of him as an Iron Chef), Albert Adria for raw artisanship, and Jacques Pepin for his ability to teach.
Anthony Bourdain was a literary hero for me, and a role model for how he approached food and life. He is still an inspiration for me as a storyteller because of his ability to remove himself from the center of it. He could write himself almost as a narrator, bearing witness to the food, the people, and the stories of their lives that THEY had to tell.
That was his greatest gift to me, I think. Not just inspiration to BECOME a cook (he certainly provided that as well), but an object lesson in how to connect with others, and help them tell their stories.
Lately I’ve been plowing my way through a pile of food writing books- M.F.K. Fisher, James Beard, Harold McGee, Kevin Alexander, and more. I’m still looking for a good collection of work by Jonathan Gold. They all have their strengths, and I’m pulling lessons from all of them. As Hank Green said, “I really think that reading is just as important as writing when you’re trying to be a writer because it’s the only apprenticeship we have, it’s the only way of learning how to write a story.”
Then, a month or so ago, I decided to take a break and listen to an audiobook of Tony’s “Medium Raw”- in my opinion, one of his best works. Tony narrated it himself, and goddamn if I didn’t get sucked directly into his storytelling right away. By the second chapter, I felt like I was just getting fired up to start culinary school again.
“If I could connect with people and tell a story like Tony, write as romantically about ANYTHING as McGee writes about eggs, I could pave my driveway in Pulitzers.”
I don’t know if I ever wrote about exactly how I was first exposed to Tony’s work. It was the single shining moment in an otherwise beige period of my life.
I was living in Southern New Jersey, driving 40 minutes every once in a while to see the girl I was dating at the time. She was attending Rutgers Law, and said outright that she wanted to move to Alaska after graduating at the end of the next year. I didn’t think I’d want to go, but we both decided we were having fun and what happened happened.
Besides the obvious “expiration date” on our relationship, the only things we really connected over was geek culture and food. I was working too much as an EMT at the time, she was wrapped up in school work, and if I’m honest she worked harder at keeping me around than I did at trying to stay. The relationship would eventually end one night the same way it started- two people shrugging and going “oh well.”
Of that entire relationship, I can credit her with two things- she introduced me to the work of Anthony Bourdain via episodes of No Reservations, and she was the one who convinced me to apply to culinary school. She also tried to convince me to drop out and join her in Alaska, where the small village she wanted to work in needed EMTs- but that’s beside the point.
When I say that was a “beige” point in my life, I mean it had little to no color to it. I worked. I was overweight. I lived near the sea in New Jersey, but I didn’t really go out or party much. Days bled into each other. I baked and cooked as a hobby, and made everything too fatty, too sweet, too salty, to make up for the sack of nothing that was my life.
Anthony Bourdain was a thunderbolt in a grey sky.
“Holy shit, this guy is awesome! Look at him travel the world! He thinks the same way about food as I do! He likes to read and write! He’s from the fucking suburbs of NEW JERSEY!
Maybe I can do this too!”
Flash forward nearly a decade. Life is not quite so beige anymore.
I did move to the Pacific Northwest- but to the frantically mutating madness of Portland Oregon, rather than going the “Northern Exposure” route in Alaska.
That girl and I honored the expiration date on our relationship. Last I heard, she did make it to her tiny Alaskan town, found a nice guy and got married. Good for her. I found Emily a few years after we split.
I haven’t traveled as much as Tony did, though I’d still like to- but I have learned to write about food and this wild culinary life he introduced me to, so that’s still something to develop.
And, of course, Tony Bourdain himself is gone. I’m never gonna sit down with him. We’re never gonna share a beer on a beach, I’ll never get to teach him how to make a great pie (he was notoriously spiteful when it came to desserts, as he never quite mastered baking,) we’ll never compare favorite books, and I’ll never get to point him to MY favorite places on the Jersey Shore.
More than anything, I’ll never get to tell him “thank you.”
If there is goodness and justice to be found in this universe, hopefully he is enjoying the peace that managed to elude him so often in life.
In my minds eye, I see him at a dive bar- surrounded by other good cooks gone too soon, and raising a glass to a very long day’s work. Somehow, he’ll get his hands on a bowl of bun cha, and have a crime novel in his back pocket for when it gets quiet again.
Happy Birthday, Tony.