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Episode 17: Bourdain Day
Anthony Bourdain left us too soon. The chef, host, and author's death by suicide in 2018 left an unfillable hole in the restaurant community, and the world at large. His dear friends Eric Ripert and Jose Andres have declared June 25, his birthday, to be Bourdain Day—an occasion for friends and fans to share their stories and keep his memory alive. But it's complicated. At the recent Welcome Conference and in an in-studio interview, Andrew Zimmern, Steve Palmer, Alpana Singh, Anthony Rudolf, Andrew Friedman, Brian Canlis, Drew Nieporent, Hunter Lewis, Gary Obligacion, Patrick O’Connell, Amy Mills, and Laurie Woolever shared their remembrances and feelings of Bourdain's life, death, legacy, and impact.
Scroll down to read the full transcript.
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Previous episode: Marcus Samuelsson
Andrew Zimmern, chef, author, and TV personality
I'm pretty sure that I've shared this before, but it is my favorite Tony so I can't share it enough times. So I joined Travel Channel 13, 14 years ago, I'm doing specials, and they're testing me for the show. Bizarre Foods is 12 3/4, in February it will be 13 years. So Tony has just joined, he's just come over from Food Network from Cook's Tour, the Travel Channel aired for a year prior to him starting No Reservations.
So he's there with an established show, so they're not testing him, right? He's actually working, but we're both at the network, and I did two specials, "World's Best Ballpark Foods" and "Bizarre Foods of Asia." As pilots, they wanted to see which one would've been better. So we meet, and we're playing New York City geography, and it's like, you know, friends of mine parents knew his mom. We both went to Vassar, we were both recovering heroin addicts, we were both cooks in New York at the same time, we had been in the same places in some of the same parties, not necessarily great places to be, at different times in our lives. So we had a lot to talk about.
And even back then, before he was Tony, and the way he was to most of the public that didn't know him, he was still the most charismatic, symphonic human being that I ever knew. He still, at that point, could talk endlessly about Polish cinema of the fifties, or 1960s pre-metal bands. I mean, you know, whatever you wanted to talk about, he could converse about. And I just instantly wanted him to like me and wanted to be friends. And flash ahead a year, season one, they wanted to do a cross-over show with us.
And we're shooting promos for it before we shot it, and we're on the Brooklyn side of the river on that wide, sort of embarcadero that's there. And we're shooting this thing, and we walk out a hundred paces, and they say, hey, when we wave, just walk towards us, don't say anything. No mouth flapping, just walk, occasionally look at each other, look out to the right, we have a camera over there, you know, typical kind of thing. They're going to capture a whole bunch of stuff with one walk to lay some track underneath. And they're having a camera issue, or mic issue, or something like that on their end, and they're fixing it so we turn to each other, and we start talking.
And I feel this is my moment, what are we doing tonight, let's go out, because now, and this is 13, 14 years ago, I'm like we're going to be friends, this is going to be fantastic. And he looks at me, and he says, and literally like he was reading my mind, he says, "The only way we're going to be friends is if we have a successful first season so don't fuck it up." And I looked at him, with that face like what do you mean, and he says, "They've tried every show before me, after me, et cetera, it's not working. This network has to work. I want this network."
I mean, with us all in, Pat Young was the person who brought Tony over, he brought me over, then subsequently a lot of others, to try to make a Travel Channel filled with immersive experts. And the glory years of that network, I think, was when Pat was running it. I mean, it just was firing on all cylinders. But for Tony to say that and articulate that that way was just the magic of him, and the pressure was on, and I was like, "You're darn right I'm not going to fuck it up."
And you know, Monday was for the first two or three years, was our night. It was my show followed by his show. And it just blew up Travel Channel, and then he kept Monday, and I moved to Tuesday, or vice versa, I forget what the, or vice versa, whatever. And that's how the network enlarged and planted flags. And then other people came up behind me, and you're like, "Don't fuck it up, you're on my night." Don't fuck up my night.
But over the years, as we realized how much more we had in common, we had wives we didn't see as much of as we wanted to or should have. We took our work more seriously than probably we should have, in a selfish way. I mean, I acknowledge that. We love what we did so much, we loved being on the road telling those stories so much, that you can't help leaning into that. We both had kids that we didn't spend enough time with. And as we became friends, you know, his words were prescient, they came true, because we became close despite the fact that because we're always on the road, we didn't see a lot of each other.
And I probably talked to him the last couple of years of his life way more than we ever had before. He became very chatty. All of a sudden, he discovered texting and DM'ing.
And I was just like, I actually said to him, "Are you fucking all right?" I mean, just joking with him because he would just like text me shit out of the blue. He would be reading my Twitter feed, I would say something nice about some random person, and he was like, "Oh, this is how I know them, blah blah blah blah blah. Why do you think they're nice?" And he'd want to have a conversation.
It was really funny, we would start to meet in various parts of the world, in cities and whatever, and have dinner and be checking in and talking about real shit more regularly. But I'll never forget that day on the Brooklyn side of the bridge, right underneath it, he also said another thing to me that day that I've never forgotten. He said, "TV is a vile mistress. You sign a contract with them, you've already given away your integrity. Don't ever think you can have it back."
Brian Koppelman, creator of Billions
I only met him once, briefly, and I brought up A.J. Liebling, and he was so happy that I brought Liebling up, and I didn't ... I loved his work. I read all his books. We met. Actually, we met twice. We met once when he had written his first novel, but at that time I barely knew who he was. Then the second time we met was years later, and he was becoming Anthony Bourdain. He already had one show on, and I brought up Liebling to sort of say, "I feel like you're chasing Liebling's ghost," and he loved hearing that. I loved being able to connect with him in that way.
Steve Palmer, restaurateur and co-founder of Ben's Friends
As a sober person and as a person in recovery, I think about sort of the first time I read Kitchen Confidential. And listen, in the recovery community, we all tell war stories, right? We all laugh, and part of the healing process is being able to look back and laugh. So it's not that when I read sort of a glamorized version of drug and alcohol abuse that I'm offended. But to read that, to see the way the public sort of glorified that behavior, put it up and then to really watch his journey about sort of acknowledging that, getting sober, and yet Ben's Friends was founded for Ben Murray, who committed suicide. None of us knew he was suffering, none of us knew he was depressed. So there was a lot of parallels. So for me, Bourdain Day is about our industry continuing to not allow people to suffer in silence.
Ben's Friends is a weekly support group. We're in six cities, going to 12, that meets for the industry that specifically addresses drugs and alcohol. It's founded by people that are sober, trying to help people that want to get sober. We are a resource, a bridge to other therapeutic outlets. Our primary purpose is to help restaurant people, not only get sober but also hopefully, and this is a secondary goal, realize that they can work in the industry and not do drugs and alcohol because there was a time not long ago that those two things, there was some absurdity in thinking you could not abuse drugs and alcohol and work in the business. So we are specifically trying to teach people that they have a choice.
Alpana Singh, master sommelier, restaurateur, and entrepreneur
I never met Anthony Bourdain, and I'm sad that I never will. But, I remember being in Japan when I learned of his passing. And a couple days prior had gone to the Lawson's, like a 7-Eleven in Tokyo, and I remember Anthony Bourdain saying that if you're in Japan you have to go to the Lawson's and eat this egg salad sandwich. It was on my list of "Do as Bourdain Would Do." So I went and bought it, it was delicious, of course, and I remember taking a photo of it, of like, "Oh, I'm Anthony Bourdain." Then of course, two days later I get a text of Anthony Bourdain passed away, and I'm like "What?" And I just sat there, and I was just devastated.
It's interesting how you can be so devastated to hear of the loss of a person that you never met, and it was in that moment like, "Wow, this guy has meant so much to me," and then I realized, he's the reason I'm in Japan. He's the reason I'm here, he's the reason that... You watch a show and you see that fearlessness of just going to Syria, and Turkey, and even just parts of the United States that you would never think to go to. I'm like "Wow, he's the reason I'm here, he's the reason why I went to this convenience store to get an egg salad." I mean, he's the reason why so many of us have a passport, and it's a tremendous loss. But I think that to honor him, is to just to keep going, and to keep traveling.
Anthony Rudolf, co-owner and founder of the Welcome Conference
I remember what I thought the day I heard the news. That even the seemingly strongest of us can't find a path to vulnerability. And that I believe our industry, and the birth of our industry, and thus the culture of our industry, play a huge role in that. That vulnerability equals weakness, and that couldn't be more than the truth. Vulnerability is strength. And certainly my heart broke for that day because I know there were thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of people that think and feel similarly, alone and unable to speak, and share. Both because it's incredibly difficult thing as a person but also because we don't champion it as peers and colleagues and leaders, and we need to.
Andrew Friedman, author and host of Andrew Talks to Chefs
I'm going to tear up as I say this. So, I think this is the one. I didn't know ... I'm always quick to say this because you and I know, we were talking the other day, I got interviewed in some prominent places about him. But I didn't know Tony that well, as with many people, more than I realized until he was gone. He was nice to so many people, I don't know how he did it. You probably have this also Kat. As I've gotten more known I hear from a lot of people who want advice and I try to give it to everybody.
I can't even imagine what his inbox was like but then when he died everybody seemingly that asked for five minutes of his time got it, I don't know what he had left for himself. So, I, at the encouragement of a mutual friend, asked him if he would give me an interview. This must have been in two thousand ... maybe fourteen ... for my blog. I had a blog. I still have it but it's been neglected. And five minutes later he sends me back an email, "Absolutely, it's probably going to take a while to schedule but I'm copying Laurie Woolever," who as most people now know was his aide de camp. And we made an appointment to talk and earlier in the week of the week we were going to meet I got ... honestly this is so weird because I have such a great memory normally ... I don't remember if it was an email or a phone call ... I think it was an email ... and it was from Laurie ... and I thought, "Oh, here's the cancellation."
And Laurie says to me, or writes to me, "Tony needs to watch the movie Chef," the Jon Favreau movie, which in passing I would say is actually a movie about middle age man's effort to master Twitter ... but that's another story. And Tony was friendly with Roy Choi who had consulted on the thing, he needs to watch it. They're sending over a screening copy, he's going to watch it a Zero Point Zero, which is the production company that did his shows ... he thought you might like to join him. Okay, so, this for me is like, a tennis fan being asked to come watch a practice alone with Andre Agassi, or Roger Federer or whatever.
"And then you two can do your interview over lunch."
So I go over there, it was me, Tony, and Helen Cho who did the social media there, that was it. We watched this movie together and I made us a reservation for lunch at The Breslin, which was nearby. And we walked over there, we sit down, it's maybe like one in the afternoon. I know he was going to China, I think it was, the next day for the show. So we sit down, and he says ... I say, "How much time do you have"? And he looks at me and he goes, "You're my last appointment of the day."
And we interviewed for about two hours, we sat and gossiped for about an hour, he gave me ... so I had seen him in San Francisco, not him I was with Jeremiah Tower in San Francisco at Zuni Café and they were filming a sizzle reel, or a like a little sales reel, for what became The Last Magnificent which Tony was the executive producer of, and I asked him in the interview, "Did you, I was in San Francisco, and I was with Jeremiah, and they were filming a sizzle reel, whatever happened with that?"
And he said, "Well, we're making this movie called The Last Magnificent, and it's going to go - I don't know if they have the title, we're making a movie about Jeremiah, and it's going to make the festival circuit, and then it's going to be on CNN."
And I said "Oh, is that announced?"
I said, "Can I announce it?"
"Sure." Just like that, "sure."
And then we were talking a little more and he mentions ... we talked about Shep Gordon, who was like an unofficial agent, he was a music figure, there was a movie about him called Supermensch. I said, “I heard maybe you were doing something with Shep Gordon?”. And he said, "Yep, you know I saw that movie, and I approached Shep and he's going to write a memoir for us."
And I said, "Is that out there?"
And I said, "I can mention that?".
And then he tells me, honestly I don't know if he ever did this, but he was going to do a sequel to Get Jiro, the comic thing, with a different artist, but the same collaborator, Joel Rose, and once again, he's like, "You can have that".
So my little blog, that at the time, probably had like, 200 subscribers, I'm not even kidding ... I wrote an interview and all of a sudden there were like 800 word write-ups on Eater, quoting from my thing ... now, everything about that interaction from inviting me to join him to watch the movie to giving me that much time, to giving me that news, he knew full well, having been a struggling writer at one point, what all that meant for me. Personally, I think, definitely professionally. And what it would mean for my stock, you know?
That's my Tony Bourdain memory. I mean, that to me was just ... I still can't believe it as I'm telling the story, you know? Because we weren't pals. I'd ask him for a ... once every year maybe I'd write him a note and say, "That was great," or "Thanks for support," you know, he would tweet my stuff out. That was our relationship. I never had, except for that lunch, I never had a meal with Tony, I didn't go drinking with Tony, I didn't have that relationship with him. I mean I would have loved it, I think it's because I couldn't get past who he was, honestly. I know writers who spent time with him and I think it was my own insecurity, I think he probably would have done those things if I had asked you know? But I was too geeky around him. I couldn't handle it, to be honest.
Brian Canlis, restaurateur
I had the honor and total pleasure of being on No Reservations several years ago, and Anthony came to our restaurant and was interviewing us about our favorite things in the city. And at one point I said something a little bit negative about another property in the city, how they had kind of sold out and they didn't have the soul that they used to. As an independent restaurant guy I'm a little maybe biased towards the independent spots. And I instantly stopped, and I was like, oh my gosh, I can't in the media say something negative about ...
And Anthony kind of put his arm around me, he was like, no, no, no, no, no, your voice matters. He was like, don't follow the rules all the time, say the thing that's on your heart. He was like, we're going to do this again, you guys. Yes, trash that place. He wasn't trying to be negative about it, but he wanted to make me care less about the rules and more about having a voice. And I loved that.
And I also love the fact that before you know it he was running into the kitchen and giving all the cooks a hug, and he knew that he was a hero to those guys, and he owned it. He was shaking people's hands, he had ... He came out with a comic book that year.
Yeah, and so a couple of the guys had comic books and he was signing ... He was ... for being such a big deal and such an icon in our industry and a guy that paved the way for so much, he was a down-to-earth cook at heart. And he was not one inch above any of the cooks in that kitchen, and came down to their level, and talked face-to-face to us, to everyone.
Yeah, sometimes you meet TV people and maybe they let you down a little bit, gosh, he sure didn't.
Drew Nieporent, restaurateur
I got a phone call from him very early in his career. We barely knew each other, but he said I have this TV thing and can you come down to a place called Siberia? It's in the depths of the subway on, I think 48th or 49th, 50th, one of those streets. I brought a whole bunch of sushi and then he filmed it and it was like a tremendously weird. It's like I wasn't close with him. He really didn't know me, but then when the program aired it's like I invite my friends over and they bring food. It's like we were like buddies for years. From that moment forward, anytime we would see each other or get together, it was like picking up where you left off, like we were, really had become friends.
He went from the ultimate outsider to much more of an insider. I think that hurt him. I think that he didn't want to be like that, but how can you not want to be friends with Jose Andres and Eric Ripert and everybody else. Very conflicted. To this day, I can't figure it out, but … He was a good guy though.
Hunter Lewis, editor-in-chief of Food & Wine
I don't call him Tony, because I didn't know him personally. But my one Bourdain encounter, when I moved to New York City in '04... You know, I'd been a line cook. Actually, I was a prep cook back in North Carolina, when a guy handed me Kitchen Confidential. This is back in 2001. And he said, "You need to read this." He had all the macho bravado of restaurant cooks that were celebrated in the book. And the book helped change my life, because it gave me the permission to go and operate in a space in this sort of liminal zone between cooking and writing. You know, not that I could write like Anthony could, but it gave me the permission to move to New York City, and quit my job as a newspaper reporter, and to try to become a cook.
And so, in a really ham fisted way, I tried to tell Bourdain this. So, I'm at a bar in the Village, and I asked the bartender what he was drinking. He was drinking Pilsner Urquell. So I bought him one, and I had a little liquid courage myself, and I gave up to him and I gave him a beer. And he looked at me, and he shooed me away with his hand. And, you know. At the time I was like, you know what? I might have done the same thing. He had just come to fame with the book, and just begun TV, and was already tired of public adoration.
But I think for me, I think about it. The other day, my five year old, Smith, was watching cartoons. I came back downstairs, and she immediately turned the TV off like she was in trouble. I said, "What were you watching?" And she said, "I was watching your hero." I said, "What do you mean?" And she said, "The guy that travels all over the place. I don't know where he was, but that's your hero, right?"
And it really touched me, because when I had kids, I watched... You know. I was much more home bound than I am now. I wasn't traveling. I wasn't going to places, because we needed to be home to take care of the kids. We watched Bourdain traveling, and what that taught me was the value of curiosity, and the value of empathy, and the value of what you learn when you're on the road. And the fact that my kid had heard me say at one point, or heard somebody else say that he was a hero, that was cool.
Gary Obligacion, general manager
I only met him once, and it was in passing. So, it's more... Okay. I have two. So, the first was that Anthony came to San Francisco, and he was dining with a... He was with a bunch of friends. He was friends with all my chef friends. So, Chris Cosentino, and Laurence Jossel, and Ravi Kapoor, and really just this great group. They went out and they had sushi, and I heard stories of that night, having sushi, for years. About how much they drank, how much they ate, how much fun they had. And it was just, that was Anthony.
The second piece was that Anthony's TV shows, both of them, were a way for me to connect my industry to my own children. My kids and I would watch the shows together, and we had this wonderful way of watching. So, to a point, my son is now an adult. He's 22 years old. He was in Brooklyn when Anthony Bourdain passed away. When Anthony passed, he went out and he bought... I don't know where he even found it, but he found a CD of The Stooges, and he took it to Les Halles, and placed it on the memorial. He felt that that was the right memorial. And the fact that I had connected to my own child, to Anthony Bourdain, through the TV shows, that he felt a need to show respect, showed how absolutely pervasive he was, and what a guide he was to all of us as humans.
Patrick O'Connell, chef
Bourdain broke new ground for us in the food industry and in the hospitality industry. He crossed over, and went beyond the margins of what many of us were led to believe our roles were in today's culture. I think that was a tremendous inspiration. While doing it, while breaking the mold, he was still able to be himself and be true to himself. He's more than an inspiration for the culinary world. He truly did what he did well enough that he was uncensored and totally authentic. If we can all get there, it'll be an amazing feat.
Amy Mills, restaurateur and author
I think the best way that anyone in the hospitality industry can honor Anthony Bourdain and the legacy that he's left is to really look inside your own house, look inside your own kitchen, look inside the front of house and see who's struggling and who needs help, and simply reach out a hand and offer to be there for someone and let them know this is a safe space. They can come to you. They're not alone, that nobody is alone. I think we feel very isolated in our industry sometimes, and just knowing that one person cares may make all the difference to someone.
Laurie Woolever, writer and longtime assistant and co-author to Anthony Bourdain
He shared so much of himself in his writing and on television. I think that, and people started to call him like The World's Most Interesting Man. He himself would say like, "I've got the best job in the world, and my life is amazing." I think, I guess, and I know that there was a sense of like you said it, "If this guy with this life and this amazing story didn't find life worth living and the world worth sticking around in, what is there for me?"
I guess I would just ask people to sort of think a little beyond that and just know that he was a gifted performer and a gifted storyteller, and that there were ways in which that things were not great. He was a flawed human being. He also was very transparent about his struggles in some ways, so just to kind of remember that that he was a full human being and that just because you have a wildly successful television program and 10 million Twitter followers or whatever, if there's some other thing that's fundamentally lacking, if there's a structure that's lacking there, it doesn't matter.
I don't know. I'm not really summarizing this so eloquently, but just that there was more to it than just the surface glamor and brilliance. That he was a flawed human being like anyone else.