Remembering Anthony Bourdain
In the spring of 2009 I received a phone call from someone who worked for a programme on the Travel Channel called No Reservations, of which I had never heard. He told me they were planning to shoot an episode in San Francisco over the summer and would I be interested in appearing. As no one had ever asked me to be on television before (or since), I said: ‘Sure.’ I was told that the star, Anthony Bourdain, had borrowed a copy of my book of essays, Cutty, One Rock, on a long flight to Sri Lanka from one of his staff and liked it so much he wanted to have me on his show. ‘That’s nice,’ I thought to myself.
I asked a young friend who worked in the restaurant industry if she was familiar with the show and knew who Bourdain was. She got so excited she was nearly speaking in tongues. I soon gathered that Bourdain was like a god, or God himself, in the restaurant kingdom.
A few months later I met his advance team in my local bar, the Persian Aub Zam Zam Room. The bartender and a number of regulars were on hand, along with my friend from the restaurant industry. After the sound checks and lighting, whatnot, Bourdain turned up, taking a stool next to mine before I even realised he was in the room. ‘Hello,’ he said, ‘I’m Anthony.’ ‘I’m August,’ I said. And we proceeded to drink for the next eight hours, first at the bar and then downtown at a restaurant called The House of Prime Rib, being filmed all the while. It occurred to me that much of my life could have been documented in this fashion, at least my drinking life, perched on a stool, chatting with the person next to me, like some endless Warhol movie or Robert Wilson extravaganza, no more or less interesting.
The thing about Bourdain was that what you got in ‘real life’ is almost exactly what you see on television. He was a lovely guy, truly, bright, curious, enthusiastic, charming. After he died, on 8 June, I got messages of condolence from several friends. Even my two stepsons sent me notes, the 14-year-old asking his mother: ‘Is August all right?’ I was, I am, but very saddened. If Bourdain and I were friends, and I suppose we were, it was for those eight hours, drinking and chatting about this and that. He was great fun to bat it back and forth with, and could be quite naughty and indiscreet. He didn’t seem cowed by much, least of all by his fame. When we walked, blinking in the harsh sunlight, out of the bar, a huge and immediate crowd gathered around us on Haight Street. I asked Bourdain how he dealt with the fame. He said he was tickled and surprised by it all, especially as not so very long before he’d been checking in and out of methadone clinics, trying to get clean. We talked a bit about that, which wasn’t recorded, and he told me he didn’t expect to live very long. He seemed to think emphysema would get him, sooner rather than later, after so many years of heavy smoking.
We were already pretty well boiled by the time we made it to The House of Prime Rib. The room was filled with well-fed tourists from around the world, who nearly jumped out of their collective skin when Bourdain walked in the room. He was already famous, it seemed, everywhere on earth. His wife and recently born child were back at the hotel. She would call him on his cell every so often and, judging by his reaction, shout at him for leaving her alone in a hotel with a baby and getting stiff in front of TV cameras with a nobody poet in San Francisco. At one point, he effused, as new fathers are wont to, about the wonderfulness of his new baby and the perfection of the little whorls in the child’s ear. ‘It’s the one thing that makes me believe there is a God,’ he said, or something like that.
I suspect we got on, at least in part, because he grew up in the next town or two down the hill from me – he in Leonia, I in Fort Lee. He was six or seven years younger but we were very much of the same generation, dancing to the same music, taking the same drugs, though he got immeasurably deeper at that end than I ever would, recklessly so. But he struck me as someone fearless, quite open to abandon, at least when he was younger. He had been married to a woman who came from right around the block from the house where I was raised. They stayed married for twenty years, which struck me as remarkable given his lifestyle. I didn’t know her but she must have been very much out of the ordinary to keep that particular train on the tracks, or mostly, for all that time.
Bourdain had a hugely successful non-fiction collection entitled Kitchen Confidential, which, effectively, made his career. But, as I learned over the course of our friendship that afternoon and evening, what he most wanted to be was a ‘serious’ writer – that’s to say, a writer taken seriously by serious people – and he knew he never would be. He paused in his gushing about the whorls in his baby’s ear to say: ‘I guess that means I’ll never be a real writer.’
His assorted shows over the years – No Reservations, Parts Unknown, and the one or two series between – are all enormously watchable. Food is always interesting, as are exotic ports of call, but Bourdain was the draw. The shows pretty much all operate on the formula he had already mastered by the time our paths crossed, and – given how curious, bright and restless he was – must have long ago begun feeling like schtick: schtick of the very highest, most engaging order, but schtick nevertheless. I can’t imagine it’s a very comfortable place, being so widely loved but not for the reasons one might wish to be.