Remembering Anthony Bourdain: The chefs and writers he knew and inspired reflect

"People didn’t care about chefs until 'Kitchen Confidential,'" says author Andrew Friedman

Published June 8, 2018 7:00PM (EDT)

Anthony Bourdain (Getty/Neilson Barnard)
Anthony Bourdain (Getty/Neilson Barnard)

There was a pause this morning when the news of Anthony Bourdain’s passing landed. A stunned silence, and then a buzz. ”I got 45 text messages, almost all at once,” said chef Scott Bryant, whose mastery Bourdain chronicled in his book, the 2000 breakout success “Kitchen Confidential.”

“It’s mind-boggling. I’m in shock. Just last week I called [Eric] Ripert to make a reservation at Le Bernardin for a customer. Eric said ‘sure, I’ll take good care of them, but I’ll be on the road. I’m going to Alsace with Tony that week.’”

Ripert and Bourdain were close friends and often traveled together. It was Ripert who is reported to have discovered his dear friend’s body this morning in Bourdain’s hotel room in France.

“Years ago, back when Emeril Lagasse had like five shows on at once, I used to be in the kitchen at Indigo working six nights a week,” remembers Bryan. “Tony used to come in and visit late in [the dinner] service and tease me, ‘Hey, Scott why don’t you call up the Food Network, get yourself a show.’ That wasn’t me. I don’t speak good English and, for the most part, I’m a misanthrope — I hate people. Tony would laugh and say, ‘You’re the last of the Mohicans,’ and maybe he’s right. But I’ve never seen Tony depressed. I’ve never seen Tony angry. I’ve never seen Tony pissed. He’s always been a happy-go-lucky guy. Smoke a little weed and get mellow. He never let fame get to his head.”

It’s a sentiment echoed by Andrew Friedman, author of “Chefs, Drugs and Rock & Roll,” a history of American chefs. “He created an interest in chefs. People didn’t care about chefs until ‘Kitchen Confidential,’ not really. I read in Publisher’s Weekly that one year Bourdain wrote the most forewords to other people’s books, and you know what he said about that? He said ‘hey, there was a time I had just written my first book too; I just want to make it a little easier, just help where I can.”

“Tony treated writers as well as chefs as colleagues. It was flattering,” said Friedman. “I really think he knew what he meant to people and he wore that mantle very comfortably.”

Bourdain was a writer and a TV personality, but he took responsibility for the stories he was telling, made sure they were the stories he wanted to tell, told the way he wanted to tell them. “He totally was aware of what appropriation was. He came into people’s houses as a participant, not a tourist,” said Michael W. Twitty, chef, historian and author of "The Cooking Gene." "He is there totally, and with respect. He experienced the lives of others. He displayed and celebrated the food cultures of West Africa. Nobody, really nobody did that. All of it -- music, dance politics, culture -- he knew you had to include it all. And he broke bread with everybody: Felicia 'Snoop' Pearson from ‘The Wire,’ Tahitian transgender folk, kids in Haiti, poor white Americans, President Obama, everybody.”

“It’s hard,” said Twitty. “It’s hard to see someone so full of life, so loved, a father, a seeker, just gone. I woke up this morning and I heard the news and I thought, ‘Wow. I’ll never get a chance to shake that man’s hand and say, just thank you.’”

Last year, Bourdain sat down with Salon’s Alli Joseph on “Salon Talks,” along with director Lydia Tenaglia and celebrated chef Jeremiah Tower, the subject of the documentary "Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent" that Bourdain executive-produced for CNN. Here is their conversation:

You two have worked together for many years in production of your projects. How did you come to find Mr. Tower and what made his story interesting?

Anthony Bourdain: I’d read Jeremiah’s memoir, originally titled “California Dish,” and it was shocking to me… of course it was wildly entertaining that it was shocking to me for a number of reasons. First, it made a compelling and inarguable case for the way in which Jeremiah transformed the American dining scene, how we look at American ingredients, how we eat today, the role of the chef in our culture, all of these things to a very great extent starting with Jeremiah. But also, what resonated was that I’ve been cooking a lot of dishes and feeling his influence without ever even knowing it for much of my cooking career.

I felt a sense of outrage and injustice that Jeremiah’s contribution to the way we eat today and the role of the chef, from which I personally benefited ,that he’d been, to a great extent, written out of history by the complicity of knowingly lazy journalists who first started telling sort of an alternate version of history and then, because they’d invested so much time in telling a false version, just continued to tell it, and that was my original sort of driving force that it pressed my justice button. But of course, it’s so much more than that. What we ended up with was a really terrific portrait of a complex and brilliant artist.

Who is Jeremiah Tower, the artist, now, many years after leaving Stars, the restaurant that you became very famous for creating? You were gone for about two decades, correct?

Jeremiah Tower: Yeah, 15 years or something like that. But you know, restaurants are very noisy places and Stars was a full Berlin symphony orchestra. Thank you for calling me an artist, but I think as an artist, you need good balance, so I just needed the quiet of a tropical beach for a little while and to go scuba diving. I found my balance and now it’s time to be back.

It seems that there’s a real important and strong tie for you between food and love. Is that the case, and initially, in the lack thereof, this became something you could pour yourself into?

Tower: I never thought that until I saw the film and, actually, they’re asking me the questions and I thought, “Yeah, that’s probably right, absolutely.” I mean, I thought it was great to be left alone. You’re in a huge suite in London’s most fancy hotel in the ’50s and my companions were the waiters doing the room service; I had a great time. I would go down to the dining room, there’s no one there, and it’s a vast dining room, and eat caviar, McSalmon until I couldn’t eat anymore, so this was fun; but obviously, that became imprinted somehow as the best thing in my life, the only thing in my life at that time. I think you’re right, yes.

What is your favorite dish to cook and why?

Tower: You go first.

Bourdain: I like baking. For most of my career, I was cooking French food or American food. I like cooking Italian food, really rustic like a ragù of oxtail, Naples’ style, slowly braised neck, shoulder, or oxtail and a red sauce with some pasta. I’m very happy making pasta.

Tower: With wonderful buttery noodles to the sauce, yes.

Bourdain: There’s something magical at that moment where the pasta takes in the sauce.

Tower: Takes in the sauce, yeah.

Bourdain:  That’s still magic for me.

Watch our full conversation with Anthony Bourdain

Anthony Bourdain discusses his love of food with Salon and chef Jeremiah Tower

As such accomplished chefs, is it difficult to be served? Are you always imagining criticizing what you’re eating and/or can you really appreciate it?

Bourdain: For me, and I think it’s true for most chefs I know, the last thing you want to do when you go out to eat is think about food in a critical, analytical, professional way. For me, a perfect meal is something very, very rustic where I could experience it in a purely emotional way, like a child. I don’t want to think about it at all, and the further away I could get away from that, the better.

Tower: Yeah, you don’t want to think about it. You just want to jump in and roll around in it.

Every chef has maybe a top five ingredients that must be in their kitchen at all times. What are those ingredients for you?

Bourdain: Butter, good olive oil, some sea salt, that’s the beginning, and a sharp knife and the rest will come.

Tower: Those are my first three as well, so yeah. I just tasted this salt someone gave me in Seville. He gave me some sea salt from Ibiza which… okay, beach clubs and everything, but I didn’t know about the salt -- it is absolutely incredible because it’s salt, but it doesn’t taste… it’s not strong, it doesn’t burn, and it slowly evolves in your mouth. I never had a sea salt like that before.

Bourdain: But if you have those three things, you can pretty much conquer the world.

How do you conjure up elements of simplicity and unusual food, which people find unusual but so tempting and satisfying at the same time?

Tower: There should never be more than three or four ingredients on a plate. It’s just too confusing, especially now that you’ve got all these dots going around. I’m supposed to take my fork, dip it into each dot and taste it separately. Am I supposed to take my finger and smear them up together and taste it? That’s all rubbish.

Bourdain: It’s an oblong dish and it requires instructions by the waiter: “Starting on the left, chef prefers moving clockwise. Eat this first.” It makes me stabby. I get really angry and upset, and I’m taken away… right away, I’m taken out of that possibility of an emotional experience and now I’m thinking, “I've got to think about how to eat.” I've engaged my waiter in a way that’s intrusive and I’m boiling with rage. This is not a good way to live.

This, you’re referring specifically to when something comes on a plate and you don’t know how to eat it, versus say courses in flights and things?

Bourdain: No. They’ll come and tell you. In a way, I think we both kind of have to… we're partially responsible, particularly Jeremiah, in the sense that before Jeremiah, no one cared what the chef thought. The last person you wanted to see in the dining room was the chef. Jeremiah was the first professional chef in America who customers not only wanted to see, but insisted on seeing. It was an important part of the experience. It was part of that power shift where people started to care what the chef thought, and now we've reached at times absurd extremes where the chef is providing you with a long instructional on how you’re going to eat your chicken.

Tower: I mean, it’s not food anymore, it's the chef — “Me, me, me, me, me.” But a great chef, I think we both agree, a great chef is someone who finds perfect ingredients, knows how to store them, knows how to cook them simply and properly, and let them be the grandstand. Let the ingredients say everything and the chef stands back.

Is there anything you refuse to eat?

Bourdain: Johnny Rockets hamburgers. Worse meal ever.

Lydia Tenaglia: No, it isn’t.

Bourdain: Yeah, the worst.

Tenaglia: No, you’re wrong. I disagree with you.

Bourdain: Heinous.

Tower: For me, there’s only one that I refuse, something in the Philippines called “balut,” which is the egg with the fetal duck -- and it’s all the way from first fetal to final fetal with feathers and bones sticking in your teeth.

Wait, they give you all the stages?

Bourdain: No, it’s in the egg.

Tower: You choose your stage, but it could be. When they take the top of the egg off, it could be a little beak sticking out and I just said, “No.”

Bourdain: My 10-year-old daughter loves balut.

Tower: Really?

Bourdain: It’s crazy. I’m really impressed, I mean because I’m not a big… I mean I’ll eat it, but I’m not a big fan.

That begets the question, you cut the head off and then you have to eat it?

Bourdain: No, you slurp it and then spoon it right in.

What is your favorite food city in the world?

Bourdain: Tokyo.

Tower: Tokyo, yeah. I would have to agree, though Rome is a real close runner-up.

Bourdain: If I’m planning on dying there, I’d say Rome, but spending considerable amount of time eating, Tokyo.

What would be your last meal be if you had to choose?

Tower:  My last meal. Oh, my goodness. If I’m going to die, I might as well kill myself, so there’s at least a case of champagne involved in the beginning. You’d be halfway to death if you drink the whole thing, so that’s fine. Then I would have someone find me a two-kilo tin of beluga caviar, and I say that not just because it’s a fancy food, it’s because I haven’t seen it in decades. It's becomes so rare, but it is absolutely delicious when you eat it with a spoon and then I’m nearly dead at that point. Then, I think I’ll have a baba au rhum with old Martinique rum and a great big jug of English cream, until it’s drowned and then I’m done.

Bourdain: I would be eating some really high-test sushi in Tokyo, and I'd just work my way through all of the sushi and around just as they serve me the tamago, the omelet, at the end, if you would shoot me in the back of the head, as I slump to the ground leaking my life’s blood onto the cold tile floor, I would have no regrets. I would not feel cheated having just experienced that meal.

Tower: But as you’re just about to… on the floor, you’re gasping… what was the last thing they’d put in your mouth?

Bourdain: Yeah. It’s probably unagi.

But I mean in reality, it’s probably going to be some hotdog on the street. It’s the closest I’ve come to death in my life. I was really hungry, and I’m halfway down the dog, and I didn’t order any liquid, and I start to choke. I’m choking and asphyxiating on the street. I’m too embarrassed to stop passersby to, like, Heimlich me, and I'm struggling to breathe with a big wad of like dirty-water hotdog in my throat and I suspect that it's much more likely to be this scenario.

Tower: That would be embarrassing in New York for Anthony Bourdain to have a hotdog shoot out of his mouth.

Bourdain: I mean Mama Cass will always be remembered for that ham sandwich and I suspect this is my destiny as well.

By Manny Howard

Manny Howard is the author of "My Empire of Dirt: How One Man Turned His Big-City Backyard into A Farm." @mannyhoward

MORE FROM Manny Howard

By Alli Joseph

Alli Joseph is a writer/producer and family historian; a Native New Yorker, she is a member of the Shinnecock Indian Nation.

MORE FROM Alli Joseph

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Anthony Bourdain Jeremiah Tower Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent Salon Talks