I was flipping channels one night and came across the most delightful episode of a television show. I didn’t know whose it was or what was happening, but I was mesmerized and stayed with it until the end. The setting was the Philippines, at Christmas, and there were cover bands and office parties and booze and the loveliest people you would ever want to meet and right in the middle of it all was this tall white dude calling himself Bob from accounting. That’s how I came to know and be charmed by Anthony Bourdain.
I knew who he was, of course. I knew he was a chef and had a few TV shows and I kind of thought he traveled the world and ate weird stuff like a couple of other television shows that I refused to watch. They seemed to be gross for the sake of being gross. I took a hard pass and hadn’t given poor Tony a chance until I happened upon the above-mentioned episode of Parts Unknown and then I was hooked. I delighted in his smarts and his dark humor, but also in his compassion and his insightful storytelling. He did eat weird stuff, but it wasn’t the focus of the show. He shared his love of food with people around the globe and they, in turn, shared their souls.
At some point, I discovered Bourdain had risen to fame after the publication of Kitchen Confidential, a book that looked behind the curtain and under the tables of the restaurant industry. While it had been on my radar to read at some point, it jumped to the top of the list after Bourdain’s tragic suicide just last week. What else could I find out about this fascinating man who left us way too soon? Celebrity memoirs are a dime a dozen; some shallow, some deep, some inspirational, some funny. Considering Bourdain wasn’t yet a celebrity when the book was published, this choice seemed unique in the genre and would give me some insight to where his journey began.
Kitchen Confidential came into being after the publication of Bourdain’s article, Don’t Eat Before Reading This, was published in The New Yorker. He sent the article unsolicited, and it was published anyway. It’s an eye-opener and has made me rethink every meal I’ve ever ordered! Interest in the article spawned the book and a reluctant star was born. In Kitchen Confidential, Bourdain gives us his earliest memory that starts his love of food and it’s not a shabby one. He and his family were on a trans-Atlantic voyage on the Queen Mary to his father’s home country, France, and a young Bourdain, fresh out of fourth grade, ate vichyssoise. According to Bourdain, it was the first food he “really noticed.” He also recounts the story of a neighbor, once they arrived in France, who took the whole family out in his little boat. Monsieur Saint-Jour, an oyster fisherman, reached into the water and brought up oysters for the family. Bourdain was the only one who, defiantly, would eat a raw oyster, much to his family’s disgust.
This is where Bourdain thinks the spark of his adult persona started all those years ago. “I frequently look back at my life, searching for that fork in the road, trying to figure out where, exactly, I went bad and became a thrill-seeking, pleasure-hungry sensualist, always looking to shock, amuse, terrify and manipulate, seeking to fill that empty spot in my soul with something new. I like to think it was Monsieur Saint-Jour’s fault. But of course, it was me all along.”
From that trip, Bourdain guides us through his early years and to Provincetown, Massachusetts, where he had his first job in a restaurant. The rivalries were fierce, the drinking was hard, and the sex and drugs were plentiful. This was the 70s, after all. Just after the Age of Aquarius and anything goes. His first summer in a restaurant was exhilarating and he was eager to come back again the next year, puffed up with a little experience and a lot of hubris. He was smacked down hard by the new owner and crew at his old restaurant and decided to go to the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) to exact his revenge, to become better and faster and more skilled than these guys in a Provincetown seafood house. We’re all the better for it. Imagine Anthony Bourdain as a Vassar student, wearing nunchucks in a holster around his hip; at the CIA taking advantage of the naïveté of his younger fellow students in card games and drug deals; a CIA graduate with “…field experience, a vocabulary, and a criminal mind”; a young entrepreneur basing his catering prices in relation to the going price for cocaine. It’s all there, every glorious, scurrilous detail.
I’m sorry I waited so long for this one. The writing is fresh and realistic and makes me want to drop everything and join the pirate ships that are restaurant kitchens. Bourdain’s journey is a crooked, blurry line and he takes us through restaurant after restaurant and character after character until the end of the book. It’s a wild ride and, as Bourdain says, “…I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.”
You can watch several seasons of Parts Unknown on Netflix for an extended run. (The Christmas Philippines episode remains my favorite. Watch it for yourself – it will change your life!)
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the haunting mental illness behind the suicides of Bourdain and designer Kate Spade in the same week. I suffer from mental illness, many people I know suffer from mental illness, and probably many more people I know suffer as well but are too afraid or ashamed to mention it. The battle is real and it’s uphill all the way. It’s a tough illness to face and the demons are hard to back down, no matter your lot in life. I can’t give you advice on how to fight your war, but I can assure you that you have allies. You just have to keep looking until you find them. Furthermore, if you know people who have a mental illness, help them find help. Listen to them, don’t shrug it off and tell them to toughen up. We would if we could and, hear me when I say this, depression does not discriminate. Get help or be help. That’s all.