Before Anthony Bourdain came to us with Kitchen Confidential, we chefs were society’s leftovers, swimming against the tide of college degrees and white-collar jobs: chopping onions, roasting meats, peeling spuds, and scraping floors covered with the hot ash of our tempers mixed in with the day’s scraps. Bourdain broke with the Code, revealing our lives as something out of a Kerouac novel.
He was the Bruce Chatwin of food, a wizard of booze, a kitchen iconoclast, one of the most beautifully troubled motherf***ers there ever was. We loved him dearly for being courageously vulnerable and outspokenly bold.
Following him on his journeys was thrilling. He visited places we all wanted to be, asked questions we wanted to ask to the people we would have loved to meet. He dared to eat what we might not have, drank to the point we might not have. … Or maybe would have.
I met Tony in 2010. We ate sausages and grilled pulpo somewhere on the Upper West Side of New York City, not far from where he lived.
My team at Cook It Raw and I wanted him and his crew to participate in our upcoming event in Japan. It took less than two beers for me to explain what our project was about and no more than three for Tony to jump in. I was struck by his ability to listen, process, and synthesize very carefully everything I had said. His understanding of our work is evidenced in the preface he wrote for our book.
Tony was able to find the unique nuances of a place and its people with an insatiable thirst and visceral intuition for extracting stories. He truly was the psychic alchemist of storytelling.
When Bourdain filmed an episode of Parts Unknown in Copenhagen, we sat down for a four-hour lunch at Noma. René [Redzepi] and his team swiftly adorned our table with the most succulent and delicious plates filled with intricate simplicity. All the while we marveled at how much René accomplished in such a short period of time. Later when I watched the episode, I saw how Tony was able to untangle the complex story of René’s spectacular ascent: an Albanian-Macedonian-Danish man born and raised in a rich society riddled with social problems—that’s how Tony described Scandinavian countries.
During our last day of shooting, we took a small wooden boat and filled it with friends, wine, and some exquisite food and headed toward the main canal in Copenhagen’s Christianshavn neighborhood. It was June 23, Sankt Hans, or St. John’s Eve, and as part of the tradition, a huge bonfire was burning. The midsummer ritual is said to go back to Viking times when the bonfires were believed to ward off evil spirits.
I remember watching the flames dance against the darkness and seeing Tony stare into the fire, his face intermittently swallowed by the night and painted by the flickers of light. His gaze was distant. Maybe he was caught in a moment with his own demons. I will never know.
All I know for sure is that I miss and will always miss that man and his way of seeing the world.