What It Was Like to Eat with Anthony Bourdain
Tony wouldn't have judged you for eating a hamburger in your hotel bed.
I am occasionally asked, "What was it like to eat and travel with Tony Bourdain?"
As his assistant and co-author, I visited various of Tony's filming sets around the world, but only ate on camera with him once, at Aqueduct Racetrack, in Queens, New York, where I live. While we watched the horses, we drank unremarkable domestic beer from wobbly plastic cups and ate the same spicy, savory, almost certainly mass-produced, frozen, and microwaved or deep-fried Jamaican beef patties that you can find in any grocery store or New York City public school cafeteria. Clearly, memorable food wasn't the point of the scene, but we really enjoyed those beef patties, which ended up being memorable as the right thing for that context: a salty, crisp-yet-soft booze cushion, eaten with one hand while the other smacks a rolled-up racing form against the rail.
Of course at times, eating and traveling with Tony was exactly as decadent as you might expect. While in San Francisco to promote our cookbook, Appetites, he sent me on an extremely swanky scavenger hunt for a meal of Dungeness crab, plus caviar, sour cream, red onion, salty potato chips, and chilled Champagne to be served the following night to our small entourage as we departed via private jet to Denver, the final stop of book tour. He explicitly requested perfection. "Ask yourself," he said, "would Jeremiah Tower approve?"
In Vietnam, I rode behind him on a scooter, gently leaning into the turns as he navigated the streets and avenues of central Huế, between the hushed, luxurious, old colonial hotel and the lively, crowded Dong Ba market. We were there for a bowl of Bún bò Huế, cooked by a woman named Kim Chau, who had been doing it in the same place, in the same way, for decades.
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In his TV voiceover, Tony called Bún bò Huế "a wonder of flavor and texture, the greatest soup in the world." Chau's broth was a meaty, spicy, deeply funky, and pleasant thing, within which bobbed tender beef shank, crab dumplings, rice noodles, shredded banana blossoms, fiery chili sauce, and one rich, wobbly rectangle of huyết—gelatinized pig's blood. I huddled out of view with the director and producer while Tony slurped his soup on camera. Once the scene was wrapped, he ordered a bowl for me, and I ate it, perched on a stool, pulled up to a battered aluminum counter, while the buying and selling of vegetables and clothing and dishes and spices and fish and meat and incense and flowers carried on all around us.
There persists a myth about Tony that, whenever he was hungry—and in this myth, he was always hungry—he would, without fail, seek out the best, most "authentic," most intense, most attention-seeking dish, anywhere he was in the world.
As with any myth, it's based on truth. The man loved his pho and hotpot and perfect sushi and every part of every pig, and he loved to share that love. And, owing to some of the indelible bravado of his earliest episodes of television, Tony became known as the guy with durian and seal eyeballs and warthog rectum on his plate. These kinds of extremes make for good and memorable television. After all, especially when you're first starting out in the medium, you have nothing to lose, and everything to gain by becoming known as the guy who ate the beating cobra heart.
What may have gone unnoticed was his capacity to delight in the simplest things, in an un-filmed moment, especially given how much of the world he had seen and tasted. For instance, while in Japan, Tony and I took a Shinkansen from Kanazawa to Tokyo, while the crew (and their dozens of cases of camera equipment) made the trip by van.
As we ascended by escalator to the platform, Tony spotted a typical but uniquely Japanese vending machine, stocked with dozens of varieties of hot and cold canned coffee drinks, some yards away. He took off toward it, pulling his suitcase with one hand and digging for coins in his jacket pocket with the other. He was in this moment so consumed with his desire for the novelty of canned coffee, emblazoned for some reason with the face of Tommy Lee Jones, and heated to order by the machine, that he was blissfully unaware of his paper train ticket fluttering from his pocket to the platform floor, dancing sickeningly close to the edge of the tracks in the early spring breeze.
Would it have been worth it, to miss the train to Tokyo, in order to enjoy the novelty of a frankly tinny, gut-churning beverage? Fortunately, we were both quick on our feet—him to the machine, me to chase down the flyaway ticket—and we didn't have to find out.
I have shared here the more pedestrian experiences of beef patties and canned coffee, along with bowls of noodles in a Vietnamese market, and caviar on a private jet for those who, when traveling, might be letting that mythically adventurous and voracious version of Tony Bourdain live in their heads, as the kids say, rent-free. I know I've been there—having spent a lot of time and money to get to someplace far away, and in moments of being too hungry or tired or overwhelmed to go in search of "the thing," I've felt ashamed of my own disappointing desire to eat a bag of chips in bed. What would Tony think?
Then I remember that I am not on television, no one cares what I am eating in a private moment, and that maybe after a nap, I'll feel ready for adventure. And I remember a highlight of traveling with Tony in Sri Lanka.
We were in a car in Jaffna, in the northern part of the island nation, having just wrapped a long, hot shoot at the Madai Festival, which would continue late into the night.
"Around here," said Tony in voiceover, "the Madai Festival is the most auspicious day of the year for Hindus to balance their spiritual debts. Believers show devotion through suffering; enduring acts of great pain and hardship called Kavadis, or the burden debts."
There were young men suspended by hooks through their flesh, hanging from cranes festooned with fruit and flowers, and young women walking on shoes with nails hammered into the insoles, while others played percussion instruments, chanting and dancing in a state of intense religious ecstasy. I watched the sacred spectacle play out through the car window—and looked over to see Tony with his face buried deep in his phone. He was trying to figure out if there was a KFC within walking distance of the hotel. There hadn't been much more than a few handfuls of cooked rice available in the long hours of setup and shooting B-roll before the procession began, and he knew that his crew were hot, hungry, and very far from home.
At KFC, I waited among groups of locals to order a few buckets, and up on the hotel's rooftop we pushed together some tables and chairs, and ate some resolutely western fast food chicken and biscuits, and listened to Tony and the crew members' hilarious stories from the road. He looked relaxed, happy, and pleased to be feeding and entertaining his friends. This, too, was what it was like to eat and travel with Tony.
Pre-order World Travel: An Irreverent Guide by Anthony Bourdain and Laurie Woolever (ECCO, April 20. 2021)