When legendary author and chef Anthony Bourdain died in France last month, many writers came forward with their own personal memories of the man. This story is different. It isn’t ‘cool’. It was downright embarrassing at the time. Nevertheless, after almost a decade of hiding the recording of our interaction in the bottom of an old hard drive, trying hopelessly to forget it ever happened, it’s time to dig it up and give it back to the world. This is my Bourdain story.
Eight years ago, a medium-sized parcel hit my desk with a thud. It was just what I’d been waiting for, the latest book by Anthony Bourdain, Medium Raw.
An entire generation of youth, myself included, had been corrupted by the gonzo confessions of an unknown journeyman chef in his seminal 2000 masterpiece, Kitchen Confidential. But 10 years on, with no-one having compelled Bourdain to drink hemlock yet, he had written a sequel. So, I deemed it prudent to abuse the privileges of my unpaid internship to obtain an embargoed review copy from the publisher.
It also seemed surprisingly easy to tee-up a 9:30 pm (New York time) phone interview with the esteemed author. Imagine my excitement, dialling the personal cell phone number of – to put it lightly – my goddamned literary hero.
They say you shouldn’t do that – interview your heroes, that is – and my attempt was a case in point. Fourteen minutes later, there in that cramped basement booth at RMIT (smartphones had only just come out, so phone recording wasn’t as easy as downloading an app), I hit play with no way of preparing for how miserable it would make me feel.
Green as I was, interrogating an icon of such stature may have been a bit of a tall order. I was star-struck, stumbling on segues and faltering at my own questions like a shy nag in a muddy steeplechase. After such intense anticipation of this interview, the big moment, I wanted to shrivel up and disappear. I barely listened to half the recording before switching it off in disgust at my own ineptitude. I buried the mp3 file at the bottom of a hard drive and wrote it off as an undergraduate crime no-one else would ever know about. And there it remained, beating like a tell-tale heart beneath the floorboards… until a Friday night, just over a month ago.
The ABC24 anchor’s grave intro told me everything I needed to know in a second: “Author and television presenter Anthony Bourdain…”
Surely not. Don’t say it.
“…has died of a suspected suicide….”
Fuck. Another one.
The next day, I pull my copy of Medium Raw down off the shelf. The pages are buckled. Between them is a handful of A5 notes, torn from a Spirex pad. They’re my interview questions. I groan. There’s only one thing that can really come next – where’s that old hard drive?
Listening to it again and reading along, eight years later, I’m met with a surprise – there’s nothing really wrong with these questions. Where did I go wrong? Why didn’t I just stick to the script?
I remember the journey into the city that morning. Did I write the questions on the train? I probably did. I remember the pad on my knee, my jangled nerves. I was cramming. What the fuck was I thinking?
In the booth, I dial the number, and he picks up – “Hello?”
“Hello Mr Bourdain, this is Ben.”
“Hey man. How’re you doin?”
It’s him. It’s really him.
That’s as far as I got – all my well-rehearsed lines crumbled beneath this disturbingly normal greeting.
“I’m not actually a professional food writer,” I blurt. “I’m a student journalist, but I really appreciate you doing this.” Dude, seriously, what the hell?
I’m aghast at this former version of myself, cringing as my naïve doppelganger chokes midway through the third question, stuttering to silence as he realises how inane it sounds, apologising while he digs through his notes for a better question, like a dog after a bone. But it’s futile. The question, although framed generally on the page, comes out as the ridiculously specific: “Obviously Kitchen Confidential was an extremely influential book: how many people do you think it has drawn into the kitchen world?”
I have no words right now for how stupid that question really is. I’m sure you can make up a few choice ones yourself. Bourdain even sounds a little annoyed in his reply: “I mean, I know a lot, I’m sure a lot.”
And that’s pretty much the last I remember before burying the piece. But my memory of the interview is wrong; I was too hard on myself. Although I may have annoyed him with my initially clumsy execution, he knows what’s up. He is a gentleman and a consummate professional in every way. He waits patiently, and when I get my shit together, he comes back warm and friendly. I abandon my notes. Soon we’re having a real conversation…
In your new book, you mention that you’re shrugging off your title as chef?
Well, I’ve been writing for 10 years. So, the fact is I don’t work as a chef every day, I haven’t for 10 years, so I feel uncomfortable using that as a title. You know, I may have earned the title, I’ve earned the right to be called that, I guess, if I insist on it, but I’m uncomfortable at this point being referred to as a chef. It implies that I still work as one, and things are very different to that time. But I guess travel writer, TV guy, whatever it is I do – it’s not working in a kitchen.
You’ve also dedicated a warning chapter to people who want to drop everything to become a chef?
Well, I just see a lot of people who have done it or are doing it, who are dropping everything and rushing off to cooking schools, often not particularly good cooking schools, in the naïve hope that they’re going to a) make money, and b) you know, be happy. All I’m saying is: before you do something so rash, spend a year or two working in the business to see if you’re the sort of person who will thrive in it. The chances are you won’t. The great majority of people, that is to say, normal people, won’t like it and can’t handle it.
Obviously, Kitchen Confidential was an extremely influential book: how many people do you think it has drawn into the kitchen world?
I mean, I know a lot, I’m sure a lot. I do a lot of travelling and speaking engagements, and talking at cooking schools. I meet a lot of cooking students. I certainly live in a world of travel, in a world where I’m constantly meeting chefs and young cooks. So clearly a lot of people – at least as many people were drawn into the business as [were] frightened away.
That’s very flattering for you.
Of course, sure, especially if they’re happy; if it inspired them to come into the business. If they, in fact, came into it with realistic expectations, and they’re now happy in that business and fulfilled. Then yes, of course, I’m very pleased, and proud.
Reading Kitchen Confidential again recently, I got a strong sense of its subtext as a treatise on how to run a successful business. Is that something you intended while writing?
I don’t know – I honestly don’t know what the hell I was doing when I wrote it. I didn’t have time to think about those things. I just woke up in the morning before I went to work, and I wrote my life and what I’d learned in that life. I mean, you know, it was a pretty narrow view of the business. I wasn’t a particularly accomplished or talented chef, but I’d been in the business for 28 years, and I’d seen a lot, and had a lot to say, and I said it in as entertaining a way as I could.
But things have changed; you have a child now.
That is definitely a change. You’ll see a suspiciously high number of shows in western Europe these days because I get to travel with my family then. I’m trying to be a good dad. I’m trying to balance this fantastic life with being a responsible parent. She turned three in April.
Tell me a bit about your writing influences – I know Gonzo is a huge factor.
Early Hunter S. Thompson was a huge influence on me, no question about it, I mean when I read Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (and later Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail) while they were being serialised in Rolling Stone, I mean I was 13 years old, they had a huge influence on me.
The thing is, he didn’t really write anything after that, and that also was something of a lesson or a cautionary to me, because on one hand, he was a hero, but on the other hand, he found himself trapped, as I could easily, in a persona that doomed his writing, and I think ultimately doomed him.
Do you think you’re breaking out of a persona that you set for yourself?
I try very hard to never give a shit about it in the first place.
But people who influenced me a lot, I mean George Orwell was certainly somebody I thought a lot about when I was writing Kitchen Confidential; someone I see as a sort of moral example of the kind that I would like to place myself in the world – in opposition to certain things.
Medium Raw is billed as a sequel to Kitchen Confidential, but it has a different feel.
It’s about specifically addressing what I’ve done since Kitchen Confidential. And how the business that I described so knowingly, as seemingly knowingly as Kitchen Confidential, how that’s changed. It’s changed a lot.
Have you ever revealed who Bigfoot is?
No one would know him, so it’s really useless to. He’s not a well-known restaurateur. Anyone who’s ever worked in the West Village in New York knows who he is; anyone who’s ever worked with him knows who he is; beyond that, the name would drop like a stone down a well.
What do you think of Top Chef as an actual test for chefs? Is it a valid competition?
I think that, of the cooking competition series that I’ve seen or had anything to do with, it is far and away the best. What they ask these chefs to do is very-very-very-very difficult; I would not survive if I was on that show; a lot of very good chefs I know would have a very [chuckles] difficult time on that show.
We have this show that’s just finished up in Australia called MasterChef are you familiar with it?
I mean, yeah, moderately. They take amateurs?
What do you think about these amateur competitions that try to turn people into chefs?
I think that anything that pushes people to cook is a good thing. To cook better, to cook well, it raises interest in cooking, that raises awareness of food and expectations, it’s on balance a good thing, so I’m okay with it, and the fact that it’s probably knocked off a general election debate…
[Bourdain refers to a political debate between PM Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott that was bumped for the Masterchef grand final]
Oh, did you hear about that?
Oh, I think it’s hilarious. I mean it’s a measure of how just pathetic our political leadership has become, and how empowered chefs are. It’s kind of fantastic. It's good times. I’m all for it.
It’s been getting amazing ratings here. Not by U.S. standards, but the final night topped five million viewers.
That’s a lot, that’s…
That’s nearly a quarter of the population here.
The TV sitcom, Kitchen Confidential? What happened to that? It was hilarious.
You know what, it debuted I think the day of the Superbowl or its second episode was opposite the Superbowl. I have no idea, I don’t understand these things. It was a sitcom, it was a good experience for me. I felt a little awkward, looking at it then, but in retrospect, looking at it now through the haze of history, it really wasn’t that bad, was it?
It was a good show, but that theme song at the start, who put that there?
I can almost hear a trace of disappointment in his voice when we wrap things up. “Oh? Alright man,” well, thank you, thanks for the support.”
It sounds like he would have been perfectly happy to chat longer, but instead, I thank him from the bottom of my heart, the closest I come to saying something eloquent in the entire conversation. “It’s been a real pleasure to talk to you, thank you, Tony. You’ve been a food writing hero of mine for the past 10 years, and it’s really nice to be able to speak to you.
“Thank you, man, I appreciate it, thanks for the support…Okay, bye-bye.”
Bye-bye? He said “bye-bye”. Anthony-fucking-Bourdain said “Bye-Bye” to me!
At least I managed to keep myself from fanboying out until after he hung up the phone. It’s what he would have wanted.
I am rarely sad about celebrity deaths. But the day after that terrible news, I was in mourning. Even now I have to stop myself from choking up, just so I can finish this goddamned story. I feel terrible because, when I stood up to eulogise my uncle who recently passed, I was nowhere near this upset.
But Bourdain wasn’t just an icon to me. He was a guy who gave me the time of day, even though I was too ignorant to learn from the experience sooner. His books genuinely changed me as a person, by giving me impetus to try. He led by example, championing the attitudes of which I'm most fond. When he told me about the way Orwell influenced him, I could have burst. Bourdain was the juxtaposed everyman we all want to be: cool and proud, yet humble and giving. Fallen, and risen again.
We all know the opportunities we’ve pissed away: the job you couldn’t finish; the girl you didn’t kiss; the friend you didn’t say goodbye to. But at some stage you just have to say, “fuck that, I’m not missing the next one”. And that’s what Bourdain did. He showed us all it was possible to go through hell and come back, and still make it, middle-aged and pushing shit uphill. He showed us that drug addiction, or any torment, doesn’t have to scar you for life with the stigma of its abuse. He gave more than any rehab could: an example of what happens when you decide to take control of your destiny.
And that was a big part of why we loved him. He was brutally honest about his personal life, and that allowed us to believe in him, and watch him become (quite possibly) the world’s greatest food writer. Sorry, Steingarten – but you’ll always be my number two.
I was surprised to learn just how far-reaching Bourdain’s following was, as mourners turned out on social media. To paraphrase an old friend about her partner, a successful musician I’ve also known for decades: “Dan’s not even much of a foodie, but this one seems to have shaken him more than the musicians that we’ve lost in recent years. He’s always joked when touching down in New York City ‘What Would Bourdain Do?’ I know we will still think about him when we travel now.”
Not only was Kitchen Confidential the finest portrait of the culinary underbelly since Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London – Bourdain is also probably the most popular travel journalist since Melville; since Marco Polo even. And like Orwell, Bourdain earned that rarest of unofficial literary honours: a name that can convincingly be coined as an adjective for his unique, written style – Bourdainesque.
Bourdain’s first work of non-fiction gave voice to the chef's ancient credo, a spirit of rebellion. Even from his first promo tour, that first appearance on Oprah when it all began, ‘telling all’ about the restaurant trade, blowing tiny minds with his practical secrets about fish on Mondays and Chef’s Specials; in that moment, before they had even read his work, Bourdain began to inspire thousands of acolytes, wannabes like me. Kitchen Confidential made me so jealous of my apprentice chef mates that I took a job scrubbing pans and chopping onions. While the qualified chefs used their surnames, I had my first knife engraved with a warning to would-be borrowers – FUCK OFF.
Re-watching A Cooks Tour, I notice something. It’s hard to put my finger on, but then it strikes me: the awkward gait; the uncomfortable stances. There’s a shot set up for ‘Chef Tony’ to say his line and then turn and walk into the distance that made me think: A man so obsessed with the authentic – he probably would have cringed too, watching himself loudly blurt a scripted segue and clump off in pantomime departure. Even if he never did actually feel that way, I find the idea very comforting.
Many of us, meeting a new challenge as it crops up, see all our shortcomings and wonder how we’ll blag our way through this one – pretending to be something we’re not. But you have to “give yourself permission”, someone once told me. I fucked up because I saw myself as a pretender – I hadn’t earned my stripes. Bourdain, a man telling me how he had relinquished his rightful title, probably understood.
So, What Would Bourdain Do? He’d get back on the horse (perhaps in one figure of speech, not the other), and he’d make that pig’s ear into a perfect meal. He’d follow the example of all those who fucked up and managed to make good on it anyway.
All these things and more are why Anthony Bourdain was a hero. To me, and millions of others. Thank you, Tony.