I had to bully Anthony Bourdain, and I was scared down to my marrow. I was a late-to-the-game food editor, still trying to prove myself at a high-profile job running the food blog at CNN, and he was Anthony Freaking Bourdain—new to the network but already a colossus in the world at large from his tenure on No Reservations and his mega-selling back-of-house bible Kitchen Confidential (a baby-faced Bradley Cooper had played a version of him on the sitcom adaptation). When Parts Unknown was announced, the usually blasé New York news bureau, conditioned to slough off all celebrity, lost their damn minds and queued for upwards of an hour to have books signed at a meet-and-greet organized by the president of CNN. Any turf I’d gained in my year there was suddenly his—and it didn’t help that we’d met while having a highly public spat about the role of the James Beard Awards in journalism and that it almost cost me my job.
Mutual friends told us, Hey, you’re both on the same side, but you just don’t know it yet, and that turned out to be true. We finally met in person when I interviewed him some months later on the red carpet for his comedy roast, and he leaned down and said, “You and I are going to be friends.” He gave me his email address—an entirely unguessable collection of letters—and I typed it in, fingers trembling all the while, asking my new friend for a favor. Superstorm Sandy had walloped a large portion of New York City, and restaurants were suffering. Many had lost power for days and had to toss their entire perishable or water-tainted inventory. Some weathered structural damage. Others had to close briefly—or permanently. And all of this meant that the employees suffered the loss of wages.
There were few greater advocates for the unsung back-of-house workers than Anthony Bourdain. Yes, he counted the world’s most prominent chefs among his closest companions. But his tremendous empathy and advocacy was for the line cooks, porters, and dishwashers whose names would never be known or faces seen by the dining public yet without whose grueling labor restaurants would grind to a halt. I know we just properly met, I wrote, but you are the person people need to hear this from. Would you please write an essay about why people should get back to restaurants as soon as possible—and how they can help the people in the back who don’t get tipped?
The reply was almost instantaneous: Of course. I’ll have it to you soon. Stunned and grateful, I told my editors that it was coming. (And hey, maybe there was a place for me after all—they didn’t even have his email!) I waited a couple days, afraid to prod, but I had to make good on my promise. Again a quick response: I’m so sorry, but I don’t think I can do this. I want to, but I can’t find the words, and this is so important to get right. I don’t want to screw it up. I hope you can find someone else, and I promise I’ll come through the next time.
I took a deep breath and centered myself. If there’s anything I understand, it’s terror in the face of a thing you give a damn about. (This essay you’re reading, by the way, was filed a week late.) Sometimes you just need a gentle shove from someone who knows you can fly. I’d also been a professional dominatrix for several years, and sometimes when I really need to do something I’m terrified of, I weld her spine onto mine. I wrote back, Listen, I understand that, but this HAS to be by you. You have earned every bit of the esteem that people have for you, and in the realm of restaurants, you are their North Star. They will do what you tell them—I know this because they all yelled at me when you did. I understand the terror, but this must come from you, and I have no doubt it will be perfect because this comes from the core of you.
OK, he wrote back. The essay was in my inbox the next morning, and I don’t think I had to change a word. It was excellent, eloquent, and so very, very him.
In the weeks that followed he reached back out, asking where any money could best be used, and he quietly gave and gave and gave to organizations that benefited the most vulnerable restaurant workers. He never asked for publicity for it and would probably be miffed that I’m mentioning it now, but he did this often and generously because it’s the thing that fed him.
As he wrote, “They are not just in the ‘pleasure business’ of making people happy, but in the nurturing business. At the end of the day, the restaurant’s job is to feed people. And that’s something they have done throughout every crisis.”
And now we’re all in crisis, having lost our friend, hero, and guiding star. Let’s stay at the table and talk. Let’s send that $20 back to the dishwasher. Or, better yet, invite them to pull up a chair and crack a cold one and we’ll all hang out for a while. We might even end up being friends.