It was 2009, and America had dodged a bullet. At least for the moment. Barack Obama was safely in office, having defeated John McCain. But we hadn’t heard the last from his vice-presidential hopeful, Sarah Palin. A few hundred people formed a long line at the Henrietta Borders book store, eager to get her autograph on her book, Going Rogue.
On the other side of the city that night, more than a thousand people were in the Auditorium Theater listening to Anthony Bourdain talk about food, dish on his fellow celebrity chefs and dispense wisdom from his world travels. He was erudite, and marvelous.
All of the local media attention was on Palin. Bourdain, who drew a much-larger crowd, one that actually paid to be at his event, drew hardly a mention.
Perhaps people are just smarter than the media.
The news is always bad these days. But the news of Bourdain’s suicide, at age 61, is particularly heavy for this beautiful Friday morning. I didn’t know the guy. And I don’t use the word “fan” often. But I was a fan. I was a fan from the moment I read “Don’t Eat Before Reading This,” a 1999 story he wrote for The New Yorker about his career working in restaurants: All of the drugs, sex and questionable food practices that almost made you want to work in food services. I read the book that came out of it, Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly. I watched his television show A Cook’s World, and the shows that followed, Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations, and Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown.
Through it all, Bourdain evolved from talking chef to television travel companion. What attracted me to him was his immense curiosity. He wasn’t like one of those overly garrulous Food Network hosts who would eat a warthog anus for a cheap laugh; Bourdain would eat a warthog anus out of respect for the Namibian culture that he was experiencing. Bourdain liked to drink and laugh, and he knew how to tell a story. That night at the Auditorium Theatre, he mocked television chefs such as Guy Fieri, who simply drops in on restaurants to rave about overblown cheeseburgers.
Bourdain walked away from the kitchen to experience the world. He was compassionate, immersing himself in important issues. Immigration was one. I remember one Bourdain show where he pointed out that, if it weren’t for immigrants, the New York City restaurant industry would have to shut down.
There’s a weekly column in The New York Times book review section, “By the Book,” a Q&A for authors. One question that’s always asked is: If you were the host of a dinner party and could invite anyone, living or dead, who would it be? That often prompts me to ask the same question of myself. The list shifts quite a bit. Musicians such as Tom Waits or Lucinda Williams. Or historical figures, Ben Franklin. Thinkers, Neil deGrasse Tyson or Carl Sagan. Gadflies, Tom Snyder, the host of the old Tomorrow show. Writers, William Burroughs, Margaret Atwood, Dorothy Parker or James Baldwin. Sometimes I think of the excellent essayist Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who might even have an interesting basketball story to tell.
Bourdain was always on my list, without fail. Living or dead. I guess he’s still on the list.
BE THE FIRST in your neighborhood to know when a new Critical Mass has been turned loose. Go to the “Subscribe” button on the web site jeffspevak.com for an email alert. You can contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.