A Note about Bourdain
I got my first restaurant job at age 16 --- at Flynn’s Restaurant in Bay Shore, as a busboy. Anticipating getting my driver’s license later that Spring (after completing my Driver’s Ed course, so that my parents could pay a discounted insurance rate), I wanted to have money to spend that summer. Billy Flynn was the scion of the family and a classmate and he got me the job, which I kept throughout the summer and during the next school year (when it wasn’t a sports season). It also provided me with two years of summer work in college --- at Flynn’s Fire Island, the family’s Hotel and Restaurant in Ocean Bay Park, where I worked as a handyman and waiter. Years later, living in Boston (1984-1987) I was a bartender at Annie B’s, a nouvelle cuisine bistro on Boylston Street across from the Boston Public Library. I had heard about Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential memoir when it was released in 1999 (The Food Network a staple in my TV viewing schedule) and scooped up a first edition of the paperback in December 2000. In the Preface to the paperback Bourdain opens by saying: “Things are different now,” because of the success of “Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly.” He notes:
What I set out to do was write a book that my fellow cooks and restaurant lifers would find entertaining and true. I wanted it to sound like me talking, at say . . . ten o’clock on a Saturday night, after a busy dinner rush, me and a
few cooks hanging around the kitchen, knocking back a few beers and talking shit.” (p. xii)
He reflects later:
I’d forgotten when I wrote this thing how many people work in the restaurant business --- and, as significantly, how many have, at one time or another, worked in the business. (p. xvi)
As one who had “at one time or another, worked in the business,” I found the book more than entertaining. As everyone has noted in his/her eulogy for Bourdain, he was a “gifted storyteller.” With a style that had the energy of Hunter Thompson (and similar cynical insights) it was, in turn, hilarious and poignant. I could easily identify with the exhilarating alcohol and drug fueled kitchen life of the 1980’s, while also noting how self-destructive and negative it could be. Long before Mexicans were accused of being "rapists," Bourdain was championing them as the essential backbone to New York’s culinary world, advising all those who aspired to work in kitchens to learn Spanish. It’s a fabulous book and, if you haven’t read it, put it on your list --- it’s a treat.
The shock of Bourdain’s suicide is hard to describe and, in reading many, many tributes over the weekend, here’s a personal reflection. After reading Kitchen Confidential and becoming an instant fan, I watched Anthony Bourdain evolve from the host of A Cook’s Tour on the Food Network, to a travel and food reporter for the Travel Channel (No Reservations), to a brilliant journalist in CNN’s Parts Unknown. A number of writers have noted that Bourdain’s entire approach to his reporting shifted after a frightening experience when he filming in Lebanon in 2006 and was caught in a war zone. Certainly from that point on, his storytelling took on a broader context, deepening his appreciation (and ours) of the history and culture of those places he visited. And this is where, I believe, Bourdain remained a beacon for us, particularly since November 2016. The qualities that Bourdain embodied at the time of his death stand in stark contrast to the nation’s leadership today.
First and foremost, he was insatiably curious. More than anything else, Bourdain asked good questions --- about where he was, how that place had gotten where it was, and what that meant for us. He was an astute listener. Watch any episode of No Reservations or Parts Unknown and simply observe how he listens to those he interviews, whether they are Finnish rock’n’rollers or Barack Obama! Above all, Bourdain was the consummate globalist. Yes, he was often reporting on food, but it was so much more than that. He had managed to turn the food and travel milieu into investigative deep dives into the Haitian earthquake disaster, African life (nine visits to Africa --- and not the “tourist/safari” stops!), and the dark side of things in Moscow (long before the 2016 election). He was more than a “gifted storyteller,” and he was anything but “the ugly American.”
So, it’s with a great sadness that I say good-bye to Anthony Bourdain, who has been a guide and a teacher --- but most significantly, a model student --- for the past two decades. He was the wiseass kid you love to have in class, hiding his insecurities behind his razor sharp mind and some wonderfully quick, articulate barb. He was the chef I loved to bullshit with at closing time at Annie B’s and the ultimate New Yorker, no matter where he traveled. He was, above all, an honest soul, and one who will be missed.