We were bumping down a mountain road, bracing ourselves in the back seat of my aunt’s car as she and my uncle screamed at each other in English and Spanish. The day was overcast, the road was decrepit, and my stomach was rumbling, ready for the treat that awaited us. This was my husband’s first trip to Puerto Rico and his first time eating this particular island specialty. As we pulled down the main strip (such as it was) of Guavate, we began to spy whole roasted pigs in lechoneria windows.
A few minutes later the four of us sat at cement picnic tables, our Styrofoam plates piled high with lechon, morcilla (blood sausage), plantain, rice and avocado. I was thrilled. I had wanted to visit this place (the “lechon capital of Puerto Rico”) since I’d seen Anthony Bourdain visit it on his show “No Reservations.” Now I was there enjoying the food he talked about, sitting amongst the people he spoke warmly of…I was following in the footsteps of someone I respected, and finding the “good stuff” was a tiny dream come true for me.
“Context and memory play powerful roles in all the truly great meals of one’s life.”
In the early-2000s, Mom came home from the library with a book-on-tape. She popped the first cassette into the tape player (yes, it was literally a book-on-tape) and listened to it while she single-handedly renovated our entire home like a one-woman army. One afternoon, as she was making dinner, I wandered into the kitchen and heard a New York accent issuing from the old, grey boom box that had once been mine.
“This is a great book!” Mom told me, “It’s about a chef who travels around the world in search of the perfect meal!” Intrigued, I perched on a step stool, soaking up “A Cook’s Tour: In Search of the Perfect Meal.” Some stories were exciting, some disgusting, some enthralling…but what struck me was the fervor with which this man wrote. I was in my mid-teens and came from a family that appreciated good food, that cultivated my adventurous palate. But I hadn’t heard anyone outside of my family speak with such palpable excitement about food…food and other places. Other cultures. The way Anthony spoke about Vietnam, the reverence, the love, the obsessive level at which he described eating phở for example, was totally fascinating and exciting to a teenager just about to embark on the great adventure of leaving home.
“The world is amazing,” he told me. “The great big world that you are about to step into— it is full of incredible foods, and people, and adventures. I demand that you enjoy it.”
“If I am an advocate for anything, it is to move. As far as you can, as much as you can. Across the ocean, or simply across the river. Walk in someone else’s shoes or at least eat their food. It’s a plus for everybody.”
When I moved to San Francisco, I listened to this book (again, on cassette) as I painted my new bedroom. His enthusiasm was infectious. I had never sampled much of what he rapturously spoke of. I’d never eaten Vietnamese food, never had a bowl of phở. I’d never eaten Indonesian food, and didn’t know what bun cha was. Until now, I hadn’t cared. I was planning to enroll in the local community college, complete two years of general ed and then transfer to U.C. Santa Cruz to study environmental science. My family members are currently laughing, I’m sure, but as an eighteen-year-old with zero self-awareness, that was what I thought I’d do. My first semester at City College was a disaster. I hated academia, and knew immediately that pursuing a four-year degree wasn’t for me. Eyes streaming, I stood on the steps of the science building, talking to Mom on my cell phone, explaining that I just couldn’t go on.
“Well what DO you want to do? You can’t do nothing,” she said, in a sympathetic tone. I gazed over to the cafeteria, to the buildings that housed the award-winning culinary arts department.
“I want to join the culinary program.”
“But I do think the idea that basic cooking skills are a virtue, that the ability to feed yourself and a few others with proficiency should be taught to every young man and woman as a fundamental skill, should become as vital to growing up as learning to wipe one’s own ass, cross the street by oneself, or be trusted with money.”
And so I embarked on my culinary journey which was life-changing, formative, and essential for the person I would become. Part of that transformative experience was formal education, but part of it was something happening in my personal life which I attribute to Anthony. After “A Cook’s Tour,” I received “Kitchen Confidential” as a birthday gift and devoured it. It was overblown and full of bravado, but I loved what he had to say about restaurants and I loved hearing the story of his life.
I kept returning to “A Cook’s Tour,” though. Again and again I returned to chapters Anthony wrote about finding “the good stuff.” Until then I had been intimidated by a lot of the good stuff. I hadn’t tasted dim sum, Vietnamese food, or Korean food (which I was convinced I’d hate). I had no memories of eating Indian food. I didn’t want to eat offal, I wasn’t attracted to stinky, sinewy or weird things. I didn’t like oysters, and I hated blue cheese. And I didn’t think any of this was a problem.
But Anthony, in his strident, sarcastic, and genuinely buoyant way admonished me. With my attitude, I’d be the schmuck eating McDonald’s in France. Ok, maybe not that bad, but almost. I was never a picky eater, my parents saw to that. But I wasn’t as adventurous as I’d thought, either, and I didn’t yet see a reason to be. I hadn’t yet fallen deeply in love with food, and Anthony was changing that. He was teaching me chapter by chapter what the good stuff was, where to find it, and why.
“Bad food is made without pride, by cooks who have no pride, and no love. Bad food is made by chefs who are indifferent, or who are trying to be everything to everybody, who are trying to please everyone… Bad food is fake food… food that shows fear and lack of confidence in people’s ability to discern or to make decisions about their lives.”
After reading the chapter on Vietnam in “A Cook’s Tour” about seven times, I ventured out into the city alone one evening, ending up in a Vietnamese noodle joint on Clement street where I had my first bowl of phở. It clicked. I got it, Anthony. You’re right. Chase the good stuff! The real stuff. It is always worth it. The stuff that grandmas make. The stuff that poor people feed you if you visit them in foreign lands, offered with a generosity of spirit that underscores the emptiness of corporate greed. The stuff that white Americans shy away from. The things you’ve never heard of. The good stuff! Make your life rich with it! Share it with others! Don’t settle for anything less.
“Food is everything we are. It’s an extension of nationalist feeling, ethnic feeling, your personal history, your province, your region, your tribe, your grandma. It’s inseparable from those from the get-go.”
This moment in a relatively dingy Vietnamese noodle shop on Clement street didn’t just change me, it changed my family. Case in point: every time my Dad would visit San Francisco, and I’m talking every single time since we moved to the Sierras in 1998, he’d make a lunch stop at a beloved burrito place. This ritual was iconically Dad. We teased him about it, his burrito obsession, feeling that we could all never eat another burrito again and die happy.
Anthony changed this. The next time Dad visited, I asked him if just maybe we could get Vietnamese noodles instead of a burrito? Dad was gracious. We drove to Clement. He had never had phở, and instantly adored it as much as I did. The next time my sister visited, we took her. She too fell in love. And just like that, the decade-long burrito ritual was usurped, wholly and completely, and Dad has seemingly never looked back. We developed a new ritual, a new tradition for the three of us that lasted for years…it continues to this day! It was Anthony who urged me to try the good stuff, and to share with bubbling, surging enthusiasm the joy of the good stuff with the ones I love.
There are many things I began to love because of Anthony, and many things I learned. I learned to love blue cheese, oysters, and Korean food. I learned to love the challenge of surprising or intimidating foods. Yes, kimchi smells like compost, but I learned to devour it. It was the good stuff. I learned the names of chefs, like Fergus Henderson, who had changed food culture. As I planned an imaginary trip to Wales, I penciled in a stop at St. John, Henderson’s London restaurant and the birthplace of nose-to-tail eating. I learned why nose-to-tail eating was significant, and that Henderson’s bone marrow and parsley salad revolutionized food. This summer, along with my sister and my husband, I will eat at St. John because of Anthony.
“I’ve long believed that good food, good eating, is all about risk. Whether we’re talking about unpasteurized Stilton, raw oysters or working for organized crime ‘associates,’ food, for me, has always been an adventure.”
In 2006 I flew to Philadelphia for a trade show with Mom and our family friend, Abby. On the flight, I had the (somewhat breathtaking and intimidating) fortune of being seated next to a tall, blonde, very long-haired, astonishingly handsome man in his twenties. In her bubbly way, Abby introduced herself to him, shook his hand over my lap, asked what he did, and was delighted to discover he was a chef. “OH! Vanessa’s in culinary school! You should talk!” Heart aflutter, I acknowledged that I was indeed in culinary school. With some prompting from this kind and stunning man, I admitted that my current inspiration was Anthony Bourdain.
“Hah! Well, I like him. He’s interesting! He’s no chef, though. And that’s why I like him. He doesn’t claim to be.” My face fell. Talk about a backhanded compliment. It was instant disappointment. Gone was any flutter of intimidation. I wasn’t about to argue the point with someone clearly more experienced than me, so I said something like “Hah…yeah. He…doesn’t.” We went quiet for the remainder of the flight. I declined to exchange contact information.
A few days later I found myself, breathless once again, being seated with Mom and an old family friend named Ashok, at the Manhattan restaurant Les Halles, the restaurant Anthony Bourdain had headed as Chef de Cuisine for many years. Mom had orchestrated this surprise with Ashok knowing that I loved Anthony, and I was taken totally by surprise. By this time Anthony was no longer at the helm, having hit the big-time with a Food Network show four years prior. However, I thought there might be a chance that someday I would meet him, and if that came to pass I didn’t want to embarrass myself by having to admit that I ate at Les Halles and ordered a burger. How embarrassing! I scanned the menu for a dish to be proud of…and bingo, there it was. The tripe Les Halles. I’d never had tripe and Anthony himself said that he thought it tasted like “wet sheepdog,” but *this* was the good stuff! This was the kind of eating he encouraged!
It was sensational. I loved it. Five months later at Christmas, I opened a package to reveal a photo in a gold frame. It was a picture Mom took of me standing in front of Les Halles, the gold lettering shining on the window behind me, a moment of delight on a wonderful day. I still have that photo Mom kindly framed for me. I was so proud of that experience, and so grateful for it.
No relationship is perfect, and my relationship with Anthony (such as it was) waxed and waned. Around 2007 I dabbled with vegetarianism, venerating the example Mom had set for me with her two decades of vegetarianism. The strident, somewhat ignorant and utterly obnoxious opinions about vegetarianism Anthony was famous for spouting began to grate on me, and by 2010 I’d heard one too many of his hypocritical criticisms for vegans and vegetarians. A friend who was opening a restaurant in San Francisco called me offering two tickets to a talk Anthony was giving in the East Bay that evening. I refused them. Despite my gratitude for his significant influence on my life, I accepted that Anthony was just a human and that I was beginning to lose respect for him over this issue alone.
Don’t get me wrong. His vocal, often obnoxious ad hominem attacks on other food personalities never failed to delight me. Because you see, he had shaped my food values. He had taught me that good food takes time. That hard work and honesty make a good cook. That gimmicks, and corporate interest and phony people aren’t to be idolized. That chefs endorsing huge corporations can’t hold a candle to your grandmother’s cooking, and never will. And with his razor wit (or perhaps ham-handed wit) he eviscerated the likes of Paula Deen, Rachel Ray, and Guy Fieri, all soulless slaves to their Food Network corporate overlords. He refused to bow at the altar of Alice Waters, something I commend him for to this day (having myself worked for chefs who did time at Chez Panisse under Waters and confirmed his claims), wrote a blistering but accurate critique of her in “Medium Raw,” and hosted an astoundingly good documentary on the real talent behind the Chez Panisse phenomenon, Jeremiah Tower, which aired in a “Parts Unknown” time slot. He detested dishonesty, cults of personality, and undeserved accolades. He was quick to call out people he felt were phony, or who used anything other than authentic food or culture as their primary motivators. In this era of the “celebrity chef,” I applaud him for this. It didn’t make him a lot of friends, but it earned him a lot of respect.
As the years went on I, and millions of others, enjoyed his many international adventures on “No Reservations.” But his chief achievement, in my opinion, is the show that came after this: “Parts Unknown.” It is the single most beautifully produced television show of all time. Certainly the most sophisticated travel show of all time. With “Parts Unknown,” Anthony used cuisine less as a central theme and more as means through which the culture, spirit, and experience of people are made known. He is always gracious to his hosts. He is always generous with his deep, poignant commentary. He is always gentle with his questions, that in their simplicity seem to evoke answers painfully genuine, answers that could never be scripted.
Anthony made himself the go-to man for how to see, and what to see, and where to see it. Before any trip, real or imagined, his shows are the first thing consulted to ensure nothing essential is missed…to make sure the “good stuff,” the places where the locals go, is included.
“Travel isn’t always pretty. It isn’t always comfortable. Sometimes it hurts, it even breaks your heart. But that’s okay. The journey changes you; it should change you. It leaves marks on your memory, on your consciousness, on your heart, and on your body. You take something with you. Hopefully, you leave something good behind.”
But for me, Anthony’s spirit, enthusiasm, and values have transcended the page and the screen. They came to rest in my consciousness, speaking to me subtly in ways I didn’t even realize until today when I learned of his death. Often when cooking a beloved family recipe, I’ve caught myself thinking “If I got the chance to host Anthony for a meal, which family recipe would I make for him? Which meal best characterizes our family? Best showcases our heritage? Which would he enjoy the most?” When enjoying a meal in a hole-in-the-wall, locals-only restaurant in the Caribbean, or eating the thing on the menu that sounds alarming at first glance, my husband and I will look at each other and say, smiling, “this is so Anthony Bourdain!” Recently I suggested we eat at Swan Oyster Depot soon, not because it’s a San Francisco institution but because “Anthony Bourdain said it’s one of his favorite places in the whole United States to eat!” When planning vacations, we shun resorts. Because of Anthony, we know that you don’t go where everyone goes…where the hoards of doughy tourists flock, drinking cocktails with mini umbrellas in them. We avoid those places. We seek out the real, the overlooked. The good stuff. That is our value, and it’s a value we hope to pass on to our children.
His New York accent and attitude, his liberal use of sarcasm, and his love of 70’s punk bands like The Ramones all contributed to making him feel like a relative of mine. Indeed, this death doesn’t feel like a typical celebrity death. It feels like a friend dying. He was a friend, he just didn’t know it. My sister put it succinctly today on Instagram: “Our family’s love language is food, and he helped us love each other even more.”
He did. Whether we were griping about his unfairness to vegans, admiring his stand against fast food (with the notable exception of In-N-Out!), or laughing at his colorful descriptions of snooty food personalities (“Pol Pot in a muumuu” comes to mind, again taking aim at Alice Waters), we were always talking about him. He cropped up all the time in conversation, underscoring the fact that no matter how we felt about him at any given moment, we cared about what he had to say. We often respected it. We wanted him to keep telling us where to go, what to see, and why. We turned to him to show us the way to the good stuff.
Part of the shock I felt this morning when I read the headlines and burst into confused tears, feeling like a train had just run me over, was that I had believed he would continue to be there. I believed that the arc of his life was success. That the ex-heroin addict, ex-cocaine addict with previous suicide attempts, extreme depression and insatiable workaholism…I believed that the story of this man’s life was that he had transcended that. I expected that he would continue to comment poignantly on the lives the less fortunate, to turn white America’s attention away from itself and break down xenophobia one bowl of noodles at a time. I wanted that. I wanted this sarcastic, brilliant writer, teacher, and friend to keep going. It never occurred to me that he wouldn’t.
“Life is complicated. It’s filled with nuance. It’s unsatisfying… If I believe in anything, it is doubt. The root cause of all life’s problems is looking for a simple fucking answer.”
The irony is that the person who could provide the most poignant commentary on his passing…was him. That’s not true of everyone who commits suicide. He was able to cut through the bullshit and speak to the deep, dark pain always lurking in shadowed recesses of the human heart. I imagine what he would say now. There would be self-deprecation. There would be joking sarcasm. There would be commentary that makes you sit, silent for a long time after the credits start rolling. Would there be regret? It is maddening that we will never know. He has passed into parts unknown, where we cannot follow.
It’s very easy to react to victims of suicide with anger. Indeed, this cruel and misplaced response is often the reaction we turn to to protect ourselves from just feeling our actual pain..but in allowing ourselves to feel our actual pain, we remember the beauty this man brought to our lives more fully. We’ll never understand why it had to end this way, it wasn’t supposed to end this way! But it did. And I’m extremely grateful for the way Anthony shaped me, and the values he instilled in me.
“Maybe that’s enlightenment enough: to know that there is no final resting place of the mind; no moment of smug clarity. Perhaps wisdom…is realizing how small I am, and unwise, and how far I have yet to go.”
*all photo credit to NPR and CNN.