In memory: Anthony Bourdain

We devoured "Kitchen Confidential", especially the son who planned to become a chef. So, when Tony Bourdain came to Toronto in 2007 to promote "No Reservations", we turned up at the bookstore early, eager to get good seats.

We need not have worried; Bourdain had the charisma to command a room four times as large. He was rakish, voluble, irreverent, and on fire about food as culture.

What I remember most is the Q&A. He was asked to name the best and worst meals he had ever eaten. Bourdain said the best was difficult—he had enjoyed so many— but singled out Thomas Keller's cooking at his French Laundry Café.

The worst, he said, was easy: a vegan potluck brunch in San Francisco, "nasty, bitter, joyless food, served by nasty, bitter, joyless people." A gauntlet may have been thrown, because vegan home cooking has leapt so far forward since that Bourdain, who long resisted 'knowing for sure', would have relented.

A young woman stood to bear witness: "I was a vegetarian before I started reading you", she said, "and now I love bar-be-que!" He replied, "My work on this planet is finished, I can go now." That retort, witty at the time, chills me now.

And now, his seat is empty. Our son, who grew up to be a butcher, and considers Bourdain his idol, is bereft.

Bourdain's message, one I have repeated for years, and which he delivered with utter conviction, was, Sit with people and eat their food. That's how you will connect. Forget your likes and dislikes, your habits. Break bread together, talk, laugh, compliment the cook—whether a pro or someone's mom. You can go back to your tofu-ginger scramble or cheeseburger tomorrow.

Even food critics say their tastes were expanded. The reluctant turned to putty: he led Anderson Cooper to tripe, sea urchin, and the martini. Anthony Bourdain made being a picky eater lame: it just wasn't gonna be that night's program. Admit it: could you say no?

In a world of manicured human "brands", he was an enthusiastic bon vivant, a meticulous professional, an empathic traveller. (The "No Reservations" segment shot in Beirut as war erupted is a masterwork.) Not many like him, not enough.

He was an activist in an industry rife with every sort of sleazy practice. Both sons worked in restaurants for years and applauded Bourdain's fight against systemic abuse, his chronicles of the nightly, gut-wrenching stress (and the dangers of after-hours remedies), and his appreciation of the heroes of the kitchen, the line cooks.

We ate at his restaurant, Les Halles, a short time after "Kitchen Confidential" came out. We ordered many bottles of Fiji Water, not realizing our litres of fancy fizz would add up to more than the single bottle of decent Beaujolais we also drank: $90 seventeen years ago. (The price has since come down.)

So, in memory, a Fiji water toast to Tony Bourdain, who had an extraordinary, vivid life, and should still be here. And a martini, because we are not Anderson Cooper.


Beautiful memorial. I too am feeling gutted by his loss.
Ellen said…
Although I never agreed with his politics, he was an awesome human being. I will always disagree with him on tripe, but to each his own.
Marla said…
Lovely tribute! Anthony was truly an original, and because of who he was, I think many of us felt that we knew him personally. The news of his death hit me hard and it still doesn't feel real, even though he is a man that I never met or even saw in person.
Jean Shaw said…
Lovely post.
And you and your son might enjoy reading David Simon's beautifully written tribute @

That was wonderful, Jean, thanks.

I also loved the comment about depression and snow, as we've had an extremely hard and isolating winter.

I'm thinking about a friend originally from Vienna, who retired there after decades of professional work in Toronto, and frequent visits here in Montréal, staying with a friend who had been a lover long ago. He was so looking forward to the city as an architect's dream, and drinking coffee, tea and wine in ancient cafés. I promised to visit, and he promised to show me the Vienna school of social housing (think back to the film Julia, where the workers are defending their "castles" against Austrofascists).

Alas another friend visited him there, and he was chain smoking and binge drinking all day long, and watching TV. Friend didn't speak German. I do (imperfectly) but I'd have still been uncomfortable in such a space. He died. More of smoking than drinking as an immediate cause (heart attack) but these things add up.

And while this is important, we must think more positive thoughts and take joy in the snatches of loveliness life offers. Beautiful afternoon here, my little black cat happy as a toddler with the soft red fleece blanket I bought for her (she is solid black) and seeing her cat friends in the "Allée verte".
Thank you for this lovely tribute...
Both my husband and I loved his shows on CNN, we have two recent episodes recorded and will watch them in the next few days...he was an amazing human being and he leaves a huge void with his passing. Its very sad indeed.

Thank you for saying this so well. I can't believe how hard this news, not only hit me, but so many others that he touched as well. I could not believe that this life embracing, irreverent, funny, knowledgeable man, who always seemed so full of life, could take his own life at such a young age. It just doesn't seem possible. I think the one good thing to come out of it is that more people seem to be talking about depression and how we just never know how another person is truly feeling. Just so sad.

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