In early 2000, nearly broke and nursing a bad case self-pity I took a low paying kitchen manager position at a bookstore cafe. It consisted of ordering food, scheduling, and pressuring trust fund babies into making the crap we served look like the laminated photos taped above their stations.
“Come on Dougy…fuck, man…look at the picture…con-cen-trate…two slices of white bread, a squirt of that honey mustard crap, three pieces of brie, four slices of apple, two slices of that processed ham, close it up and toss it in the panini press. What’s so goddamn hard about that? Does your mom know you can’t even make a grilled cheese sandwich?” Coaxing anything resembling a work ethic out of the staff was like squeezing a tree for water.
A normal response to my prodding was either “what?”, “this is too hard”, or “can I go on break?” Luckily, true rushes, like the hours-long stampedes I was used to in fine dining, were rare. Most times, Dougy and his co-workers congregated around the dishwasher station and chatted about video games, hot freshmen girls and how much they hated me.
During peak lunch hours, I also expedited. When the dining room would fill up—which happened on occasion—it’d be a long, fucked up day at the end of which my voice was gone from yelling at the kitchen crew. It was mindless, soul destroying work for a guy, who, a year earlier, was proudly cooking his own creations for a packed dining room.
After my shift, I’d buy a 12-pack of Milwaukee’s Best (The Beast) and close myself off from my girlfriend in the spare bedroom in our apartment. I’d kill beers until the weight of inebriation forced me down the computer chair and on to the floor. The self-loathing was overwhelming.
No one liked me at Bronte Bistro except my ex-sister-in-law, the general manager. And honestly, I think she only tolerated me because she couldn’t keep kitchen managers on staff to save her life. Being nice to me was a smart business model. As contritely as she could, she pulled me into the coffee storage closet one day and told me I wasn’t going to last if I kept being mean to the kitchen staff. She said Davis Kidd’s HR department already had an “open file” on me after one of Dougy’s accomplices called the anonymous hotline. And although I’d never been written up, she informed me that she’d been “asked to put me on final warning”. It was her passive-aggressive way to keep me in check. I didn’t fight it. As a favor to her, I toned down the Gordon Ramsay antics after that and let the pubescent inmates run her asylum.
During this dark period, any accumulated respect I’d accrued as chef at Café Samovar and River Terrace evaporated quickly. Cook friends uncomfortably changed the subject after I told them where I was working, if they didn’t outright ask me why I was working at a bookstore cafe. When I’d see a colleague or old customer perusing the stacks, I’d hide in the prep kitchen until the coast was clear. Pulling my cap down over my eyes whenever in view of customers, I’d sleek around the bookstore like a hunted celebrity. Should Erling Jensen, Jose Gutiérrez or anyone in their employ happen through and see me with my ill-fitting Bronte golf shirt on berating a sixteen-year-old for fucking up a grilled cheese, I’d be the laughingstock of kitchens I once called home. The embarrassment would send me into a spiral of depression.
My sister-in-law would intermittently leave the premise with my lighter to “check on her cats”. This meant she was smoking pot–usually out of a hollowed out carrot–with her boyfriend in his car. After they’d aimlessly wander around East Memphis for an hour or so, she’d return glassy eyed, hungry and paranoid. These departures were my cue to hide out in the cookbook section. Crouched down below the display shelves like an infantry soldier behind sandbags, I ogled cookbooks by George Perrier, Charlie Trotter, Thomas Keller and read biographies by Julia Child, Jeremiah Tower, Ruth Reichl. Cookbooks and chef bios have always provided me with escape and inspiration. These are people who care about food, own their own gastronomic temples, have tv shows, are successful. I was decidedly not. I was hiding from my staff, for Pete’s sake. I wanted what the people in those books had: a cookbook, a famous restaurant, industry-wide appreciation.
It was there one day, away from the watchful eyes of my employees, prominently displayed in the biography section, that the famous cover photo of model-thin Anthony Bourdain in full dress whites brandishing a pair of Turkish army swords in his apron string with that fuck off look on his face, changed the trajectory of my life. I was immediately transfixed. Feeling slightly guilty about turning the kitchen over to my apathetic infantry, the lanky, punk rock-looking badass, snarling on the cover of that book gave me comfort. The guy looked dangerous, like he would, with little provocation, slice through your jugular and go back to portioning fish like you were just another slab of flesh on the prep list. That was very attractive to me at the time. The glossy cookbooks full air-brushed smiles and easy bruschetta recipes on either side of the bio section stood out in stark contrast. There was a grim pride and weathered elegance to Bourdain. He’d been around, fought some battles, perhaps lost a couple. I didn’t have to read a word to relate to the hundred-mile stare in his eyes.
Any thoughts of returning to my post and bailing out Dougy and the Dipshits vanished when I read the first line:
“Don’t get me wrong: I love the restaurant business. Hell, I’m still in the restaurant business—a lifetime classically trained chef who, an hour from now, will probably be roasting bones for demi-glace and butchering beef tenderloins in a cellar prep kitchen on lower Park Avenue.”
Fascinated, I skipped ahead and read The Wilderness Years. In that chapter, he recounts a particularly depressing period of wandering around New York kitchens trying to find himself after giving up dope. The clarity, wit and the gut-wrenching honesty of his writing was delicious. I was swept up into a swift-moving river of familiar characters doing familiar things and side-splitting hilarity and I wanted more. One line particularly resonated with me:
“It is one of the central ironies of my career that when I got off heroin, things got really bad.”
Until that point, all of the chef biographies I’d read were either self-serving manifestos regaling readers with bullshit stories of heroic ladders climbed in hard kitchens or sunny recollections of perfect childhoods canning jam with grandma. Boring as fuck. In those books, one definitely didn’t talk about shooting heroin, stealing cooks or submachine gun sales on the hot line. Warts and screwing up were verboten subject matter. I had warts, cuts, burns, pretty much torched every bridge I ever crossed and was in the middle of an epoch of career disaster. Reading about Bourdain’s dark nights of the soul, his self-destructive behavior and poor life choices and how he triumphed over them felt good. His stories gave me hope and made me laugh. Maybe I would run another respectable kitchen again.
Unable to put the book down, I quit my job as soon as my sister-in-law returned from getting high. Thankfully, she took it well and even slipped me a few bucks “for food”. Grateful, I chucked my knife kit in the car and returned to the cookbook section to finish the book.
I answered a Craigslist ad a couple weeks later and scored the executive chef job at The Crescent Club. Having landed on my feet after nearly a year of wandering through my own wilderness, life finally started to get good. I paid the back rent and child support arrears I owed, and I even had a few bucks in savings. My girlfriend seemed to like me again and loyal customers from the Samovar days came to see me at my new digs to tell me they missed me.
By that time, I had almost every line of Kitchen Confidential memorized. I annoyed co-workers with verbatim quotes lifted from its pages. When a cook would come whimpering to me with a cut finger, I’d tell him to cauterize the wound on the griddle. Burns? “Burn spray is for pussies. Work through the pain.”
Since becoming enamored of Bourdain’s work, I had been practicing, with little success, the writing of my own memoir. Looking back, I had little to contribute to the culinary continuum, but that didn’t stop me from trying to craft a more interesting version of myself on the page. Everything I wrote was tainted with Tony-isms. I invented staff members to fit descriptions in Kitchen Confidential. In my version–something I was calling Kitchen Confidential South–kitchen staff weren’t the sweet African American Baptists inhabiting the real Crescent Club kitchen but heavily tattooed Ecuadorians, Filipinos and Guatemalans that would give “menacing looks at waiters” and “stab each other in the parking lot”. Silly. That I would have been banished from the club and arrested for allowing such behavior didn’t matter. Who was going to fact check me? I wanted my imagined readers to think of me the way I thought of Anthony Bourdain. Because of that misguided aspiration, what was on the page bore very little resemblance to the life I was living. But writing was great release. Truth could come later.
Bored at my office computer one day, I Googled Bourdain and found out that he was a recurrent contributor on a foodie message board called eGullet.com. He had just done a popular Q and A with fans a few days prior and seemed to be enjoying his new celebrity. His last name was a constant under the “Who’s Online” header. A Cook’s Tour, his follow up to Kitchen Confidential, had just come out along with his Food Network show by the same name. I had just finished the book and heaped praise on him on eGullet for “getting out of the kitchen and doing something with his life”. He thanked me for my “kind words” and called me one of the “good guys” because I was still in the kitchen.
Like an emboldened stalker, I sent him a private message. Something to the effect of “I am writing my own chef memoir and wonder if you have any tips.” Two or three minutes after I pushed send a three-sentence response appeared in my inbox.
“Find something to like about your villains. Don’t give a fuck about who reads your stuff. Don’t write about writing, it’s pretentious. Best, Tony”
He took the time to respond. I was totally blown away. And what great advice.
After that we corresponded frequently. He even gave me his personal email address. Once I had written nearly two hundred pages of manuscript for a lie-larded memoir I titled The Food Fighter I asked him if he’d help me get it published. I was so painfully naïve. But that was to my advantage. If I would have realized how sophomoric my writing was in 2002, I would never have burdened Bourdain with reading it. But his email response was encouraging:
What I suggest is that you send me a copy of your manuscript at Les Halles, 411 Park Avenue South, NY, NY 10016 and as soon as I can, I WILL read it. Enclose phone, email and mailing address with the manuscript. Worst case scenario, I’ll take it along with me and read it on the beach. No promises, but I will give it a read. Best, Tony Bourdain.
You’d have thought I won the lottery the way I danced around the kitchen. And I’ll be damned if He didn’t read at least part of the manuscript I sent Camilla at Brasserie Les Halles. His observations were uncharacteristically gentle, but I could tell by his lack of praise that he found little publishable about my “stuff”. He gave me a list of books to read including: Ludwig Bemelmans’s Hotel Bemelmans, Orwell’s, Down and Out in Paris and London, Joseph Conrad’s, Heart of Darkness and Graham Greene’s, The Quiet American.
He even hooked me up with Michael Ruhlman, author of some of my favorite trade books like Soul of a Chef, The Making of a Chef and Reach of a Chef. Ruhlman, unlike Tony, minced no words when he assessed my writing as “uneven”, “meandering”, “collegiate”. I would have been crushed had I not just been panned by the two most preeminent food writers of new millennium. I had been writing about “my career” for less than two years at that point. Bad press was still press.
Soon after my exchanges with Bourdain and Ruhlman, Bourdain quit Food Network over creative differences and started filming episodes of No Reservations. Once he made the transition, his eGullet posts waned and our emails stopped. He’d gotten too famous, had too many fans. Too many people wanted a piece of him. There was no way he could attend to all of our needs. His last email to me was his take on a chef memoir we both despised, a scandalous (and biased) book written by Alain Ducasse protégé, Doug Psaltis. In Seasoning of a Chef, Psaltis glorifies his rise in top kitchens and shit talks the chefs he had used for a resume entry. Before the book had reached stores, Psaltis was being sued by the chefs he’d written about. When I read the chapter on his time at The French Laundry—a hard to read condemnation of Thomas Keller, a chef we both considered at the top of the heap—I fired off a short rant. His response was classic Tony:
“As Mary McCarthy said of Lilian Hellman’s bio, every word is a lie—including “and” and “the”. Rich Trustafari. Lawsuit’s ridiculous–but the book–and author are loathsome.”
I had to look up the references. He basically called Psaltis a lying communist sympathizer.
In the two years since his suicide, many have come out of the woodwork to share similar stories of Tony Bourdain’s generosity. Put a mike in front of anyone who met him, and they’d gush about the guy with a maniacal gusto. “He wouldn’t leave until he signed every book in the room”. “He saved my restaurant.” “He donated time and money to cancer patients.” “He lifted craftsman from obscurity.” “He offered me career advice.” “He was never late.” “He blurbed my book.” A greater hero to the underdog doesn’t exist.
Publishing unknown writers who, he felt, had something to say, was a constant throughout his public life. Marilyn Hagerty, food writer for the Grand Forks Herald in Grand Forks, North Dakota found that out firsthand when a review of The Olive Garden that praised the chain for “generous” portions of chicken Alfredo and an “impressive” dining experience drew public ire. Bourdain, hearing about the fallout heaped on her by food snobs, contacted the poor lady and published 100 of her reviews on his own imprint, Anthony Bourdain Books. He made a friend for life that day.
So, I guess what I’m saying is that I’m not all that special. Bourdain didn’t see anything in me but a chance to be nice to fellow chef. He was a nice guy with time for fans (in the beginning) and a quote worthy line for every person he met. I will tell you though, as you may have already guessed, that’s not how I’ve spun my interactions with Tony Bourdain. I don’t know what it is about men that they have to tell fish tales. Maybe it’s something missing in our lives. But I road that coattail—telling people that Bourdain “liked” my stuff—long after people stopped giving a fuck. I was that guy. This, I guess, is my moment of contrition. Here it is: I regifted the truth so that I looked cool. Oh, well. You would too. I don’t feel bad. The truth is, Tony Bourdain died without remembering my name, having probably known and helped thousands of Spencer McMillin’s, but I’m good with that now. He changed my life for the better. I know more because of knowing him. He was “good for the world”, as he’d say.
Bourdain’s death rocked me to the core. As his mother said, “He was the last person I thought I would do this.” He had everything: money, talent, fame, love, a life of travel and the unencumbered freedom to wander the Earth, filming and writing whatever he wanted. If he wanted to film an episode of Parts Unknown where he did body shots off of Romania strippers while Daniel Boulud cooked him Poulet en Vessie out of the strip club kitchen, he could have probably made it happen. To most of us “lifer chefs”, this sounds like a pretty great way to retire. But Tony was a complicated guy. Whatever caused him to string a bathrobe belt to the bathroom door of a luxury hotel in France and stick his neck through it, the world will never know.
However, I have a plausible evidence-based theory. Not that it really matters in hindsight.
No, I don’t think Tony was a victim of a cabal of covert pedophiles on a mission to silence him for exposing them in an upcoming film. That ridiculous conspiracy has long been debunked. I think his suicide had more to do with heartbreak, an irrevocable compromising of his (well-documented) ethos concerning the #MeToo movement and depression. I don’t know how he reconciled his sturdy public image with the fact he, weeks before he died, paid off an actor his girlfriend had years earlier sexually assaulted. If anything, Tony was honest. That’s one of the things we liked about him. But how could he square himself with the hush money payment and the public image people have of him as a right fighter and teller of all secrets. The revelation that his final girlfriend, Asia Argento, the same woman who, months before Tony’s suicide, called out Harvey Weinstein for raping her—giving the #MeToo movement a healthy dose of social kindling—had forced actor, Jimmy Bennett, then seventeen, to have non-consensual sex in a California hotel room must have been devastating to a man who prided himself on showing everyone the skeletons in his closet. He couldn’t expose those ugly truths. No way. His credibility would be shot and that “brunch gig” would loom as a real possibility.
He he was with a big secret involving a woman who he’d been “almost disturbingly affectionate with” who drained his bank account, compromised his hardened principles and threatened his credibility with his fans. The paparazzi photos of Argento in the embrace of another, younger suitor days before his death probably didn’t help either. Tony, weeks earlier, had left Argento in Rome to go do the Alsace show. From the date stamp on the incriminating photos, it was clear she was on the prowl shortly after Bourdain left to film. Ouch. Clinical depression may have been the oxygen, but the above mentioned betrayals were most certainly the accelerants in the fire that finally consumed Tony.
If there was any good that came out of Tony’s death, it was that it forced me to write again. I felt like I owed it to his legacy to get something published. Maybe, I could finally write ‘the thing’ as a tribute and he’d give me thumbs up from where ever he is now. Of course, it’s not that easy, and I knew that going in when I sat down at the keyboard on June 9th, 2018. But maybe I could mine my life in professional kitchens, then going into its 36th year, and write a Kitchen Confidential-like book that didn’t suck as bad as The Food Fighter. If I’m being honest, this was the impetus for writing The Caritas Cookbook: A Year in the Life with Recipes.
Determined to see it through, I pushed on when writer’s block and nearly constant self-doubt threatened to table the effort. Figment of my imagination the potential diagnosis, I felt Tony looking over my shoulder telling me when lines sucked, when I wasn’t being honest, or when I was spinning off into self-indulgence. During the writing, I often referred back to advice he gave me in emails and eGullet. Write for your fry cook. Don’t write about people you hate unless it’s central to the story—and even then—make them likable (if getting published is your goal). Vilify your heroes and champion your enemies. Write a bunch, walk away for a few weeks, then pull it out of the drawer. Don’t get bogged down in punctuation. Edit later. You’re not fucking Proust. Write like you talk. Say the line after you write it. He “said”. He certainly never “blurted out”. Stay golden, Ponyboy. (Yes, he really said that last part).
The pain of losing Tony is still visceral. I hear him, full of snark and beautiful adjectives, ripping into the scenery when I get together with other chefs and talk shop. We channel him. Regarding a duplicitous sous chef, someone will say, ‘Judas needs to go. He’s spreading cancer on the hotline. It’s time to throw him overboard, Papi Chulo. Or if someone makes a nice plate of food, ‘this tagilatelle of wild hare, with pea and pecorino is unimprovable by God or man’. He created a whole new language that was derived from life in a cellar prep kitchen and honed by travel and experience. It cut through the white noise lives we all lead and called for a culinary truce. Tony spent the last eighteen years of his life making heroes out of chefs, cooks and writers who do the exact same thing. I wonder if he ever really knew of the impact he had on this world or that this, the impulse to deify people for their positive–usually culinary–contributions to the human condition, was the central irony of his post culinary career.