My first job was in the sales department of Wiley Publishing, where I spent forty hours a week for a year, inputting formula into spreadsheets using Excel for Dummies, a book published by Wiley. For me, monotonous days in that year repeated. I would quit the following summer, but not before I tore through my copy of Kitchen Confidential and took a vacation day to see Anthony (“Tony”) Bourdain and Eric Ripert on stage at Symphony Hall, the first home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
A decade after it had been published, I carried my copy of the paperback with me on the plane, as well as Eric Ripert’s Avec Eric. Ironically, eBook sales on Amazon at the time had just started to surpass paperback sales, and my friends in publishing all had iterations of the first readers. I had a Nook. If I sat in the sun, the words on the page became blurry like the letters during routine eye examinations.
After checking-in at the hotel, my dad and I dressed in semi formal-ish attire and set out in search of the concert hall. Although these renowned chefs had done the morning show circuit, that evening, Bourdain and Ripert would lead a discussion titled Good vs. Evil. Bourdain had named it that. If I had to guess what Bourdain was referring to by the good, it was the subculture with which he so closely identified.
Bourdain: “I’m asked a lot what the best thing about cooking for a living is. And it’s this: to be part of a historical continuum, a secret society with its own language and customs. To enjoy the instant gratification of making something good with one’s hands-using all one’s senses. If I had to guess what was evil, it was the celebrity chef culture, which Bourdain hated. He had said of it in Kitchen Confidential:
“The new celebrity chef culture is a remarkable and admittedly annoying phenomenon. While it’s been nothing but good for business-and for me personally-many of us in the life can’t help snickering about it. Of all the professions, after all, few people are less suited to be suddenly thrown into the public eye than chefs. We’re used to doing what we do in private, behind closed doors. We’re used to using language that many would find…well…offensive, to say the least. We probably got in the business in the first place because interacting with normal people in a normal workspace was impossible or unattractive to us. Many of us don’t know how to behave in public-and don’t care to find out. Fans of our many TV chefs, and the multitudes identified as “foodies,” have come to believe, it appears, that chefs are adorable, cuddly creatures who wear spotless white uniforms and are all too happy to give them a taste of whatever they’re whipping up at the time. The truth, as professionals well know, is somewhat different. What’s been lost in all this food-crazy, chef-and restaurant-obsessed nonsense is that cooking is hard-that the daily demands of turning out the same plates the same way over and over and over again require skills other than, and less telegenic than, spouting catch phrases and schmoozing.”
Before he had fans, he had served eggs to the masses and drank and did drugs in excess. He eventually replaced those addictions with others –extreme travel, martial arts, an Italian actress. But my suspicion is that he didn’t know how to cope with losing his anonymity. So, he channeled the insecurity he may have had about being a now-famous chef and writer, and the pressure of becoming a parent at 50 years of age, and became a travel documentarian, who spent 250 days a year on location (or thereabouts).
At twenty-one, I couldn’t have guessed what went on behind the scenes in Tony’s life. I was just focused on finding my footing in a new industry (publishing) in a new city (Hoboken, New Jersey). With the little disposable income I had, I bought food from higher end markets so that I could mimic the foods I saw Bourdain tasting on his show. It was the only reason I had a cable TV subscription at the time. I liked being able to keep tabs on where Bourdain landed next on his show, No Reservations. Each episode left me ravenous and eager to see the world.
The writing was evocative and personal – not Barefoot Contessa personal. Who could stomach another story about what Ina was making for her husband Jeffrey? Bourdain’s narration helped me to discover my immense interest in food and beverage and storytelling. I’d seen the episodes with Tony in Osaka, Japan, and Sicily, Italy, respectively, where the chef had sipped beer and sake and drank too much wine on his birthday, after fishermen tried to pass off store bought dead seafood as fresh catch. These episodes were a joy to watch because Bourdain’s surroundings were serene and beautiful, and the food he was eating was so fresh. Like Bourdain, I wanted to eat new things with new people and write about it. At discovering this, I graduated from the International Culinary Center’s Intensive Sommelier Training Program, the only program then accredited by The Court of Master Sommeliers, worked on the floor of Michelin-starred restaurants after starting out as a server, and enrolled in a graduate writing studies program from my alma mater. I was well on my way to paving my own path in the culinary and food writing space.
Like Tony, restaurants thrilled me. As he’d described in an interview, restaurants are, “A very militaristic organization. A mix of chaos and considerable order.” He and I both identified with the work, which was hard. And we both felt immense respect for ourselves at being there and being a part of this subculture. We’d both overcome being at the bottom of a steep learning curve, as he described it. He, a dishwasher, so he could cook. Me, a server, so I could somm. The difference being he got published in the New Yorker, and I didn’t, yet.
Few people know, but Tony didn’t write the original piece that became Kitchen Confidential for the New Yorker. Initially the piece was given to The New York Press, a paper that paid Tony $100 but never ran it. There’s more to that story, but the gist is that that one story, once it was published, changed the course of his life. It helped him break out of the restaurant hierarchy. He no longer had to wash dishes or wait for a local paper to decide his fate. He could write it.
It wasn’t in the cards for Tony to be content to sip coffee at European cafes on screen. In Haiti, on the edge of Port-au-Prince, Bourdain and the No Reservations crew, found their efforts to feed the hungry fall short. And during their first visit to Beiruit, the Israel-Lebanon conflict broke out, and Bourdain and the crew had to wait to be evacuated. They returned to the city that Bourdain called, “glorious, messed up, magical, maddening, and magnificent,” in a subsequent episode, but these experiences changed the show’s approach, and the attitudes of the people who made it.
“There was a sense of discomfort with relentlessly returning to food when that’s not the most important thing perhaps. We’re in the storytelling business. We’re not in the food business necessarily. It got us thinking about a lot of things. What’s important in life. I went home and made a baby with my wife, my then girlfriend. I mean it was a big, everything changed sort of thing. Everyone who was there with me – the crew that was there with me, we all changed. It’s a place we all love going back to.”
Rather than raving only about the food, Bourdain and his crew captured the hopefulness of the people in these places, who were struggling with how to survive everyday life. He’d said of travel, rather fittingly after observing so much, “It isn’t always pretty. You go away, you learn, you get scarred, marked, changed in the process. It even breaks your heart.” I’m sure amid all the travel and filming, Tony missed homelife, even if he didn’t realize how much he’d been affected by what he had seen and what he had missed. I’m just glad my dad and I didn’t miss seeing Tony in person when we still could, at that show at Symphony Hall, in March of 2011, in Boston.
Seven years later, I was in my kitchen when I caught sight of a chilling byline on my iPhone – Anthony Bourdain dead at 61. I opened the story and scrolled. I don’t remember much else other than how I gripped the back of the high-top chairs at our countertop and how I wanted to cry but couldn’t. My favorite storyteller had taken his own life. For weeks afterward, it haunted me to see the number of tributes people wrote, and to see the number of flowers and personalized notes strangers left Tony at Les Halles. It occurred to me just how many unknown parts there were to this Part’s Unknown star’s story.
Three years after his death, I heard his distinctive voice. I was in my kitchen, again. And he had come alive for two minutes. “You’re probably going to find out about it anyway, but here’s a little preemptive truth telling. There’s no happy ending.” Images of him then flashed across my Mac. It was a preview for the new documentary film, Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain.
I’d been journaling about food when the commercial aired, and posthumously, he brought me back in an instant to that trip I’d taken with my dad to see the two chefs at Symphony Hall talk about food before eating some ourselves. Much to my dad’s disappointment, I’d made us a reservation (how ironic) at Zagat-recommended restaurant that served French food. He’d wanted to know why we weren’t eating Italian food, and I wanted to know what duck breast tasted like. To this day, he and I still laugh about how juicy that damn bird was. That was what happened when I threw caution to the wind and followed the flavors that were unfamiliar to me. Tony taught me that. And while duck breast may not be exotic to most, to my dad, who doesn’t skip a dish of pasta if he doesn’t have to, the meal was plenty adventurous.
My dad and I went to Symphony Hall before the show for a book signing. Bourdain probably thought it was ludicrous that people were still reading his book, let alone downloading it on tablets. I couldn’t imagine presenting him with a Nook and asking him to sign its case. I was so glad that I had a physical copy of his (and Eric’s) book(s) in my purse.
At the signing and during the live show, he joked with fans, and seemed prickly as usual, but not uncomfortable. In the documentary film Roadrunner, it’s revealed how Bourdain at a certain point had developed agoraphobia. According to the Mayo Clinic, it’s a type of anxiety disorder in which you fear and avoid places or situations that might cause you to and make you feel trapped, helpless, or embarrassed. For the better part of two decades, Bourdain tipped us off about how he preferred the back of the house to the front of it. But this confounded us, his fans, and I think Bourdain himself, because if he wanted his popularity to retract, it had done the opposite. Eater had even published stories about Bourdain’s food-related projects right up until his death. And over time, he had seemed to warm up to the camera.
But it was all there for us to see. How he’d lost track of his interview with two asylum seekers in the final episode of his show Parts Unknown, and his erratic and distracted signature in the lower left quadrant of my copy of Kitchen Confidential. Perhaps the most chilling part still, is this quote from Bourdain. “It is considered useful and enlightening and therapeutic to think about death a few minutes a day. What actually happens to my physical remains is of zero interest to me. I don’t want anyone seeing me. I don’t want a party. Reported dead.” It seemed cruel, but I guess this ending was more normal than all of us expecting Tony, a college dropout who didn’t get along with normal people, to lead a normal life.
Nikki Palladino enrolled in the graduate writing studies program at Saint Joseph’s University to write about her passions, food, and wine. She has worked as a sommelier on the floors of Lupa and Oceana in Manhattan and became the wine studies program coordinator for the International Culinary Center. Her creative nonfiction explores the culture and personality of the wine and hospitality industries and she’s currently at work on a young adult novel about a first-gen Italian American teen with a passion for pastry arts. Follow her @nikki_pall.