On Anthony Bourdain

It was the kind of day familiar to many career restaurant folks: I worked a double yesterday. What’s more, it was a double between two restaurants in the group where I’m employed. I was literally running during lunch because we were short-staffed, the patio was hopping, and I had tables sitting left and right. I had just enough time between lunch and dinner to grab a sandwich, go home to put on some more supportive shoes, mix myself my third (or fourth? who’s counting, anyway?) iced coffee of the day, and head out for the dinner shift.

Dinner was busy, because it’s patio weather, and if there’s one thing people love this time of year, it’s to sit on a patio and drink margaritas and snack on bowl after bowl of chips and salsa. The serve staff ended up essentially doing a group close, because the best restaurant staffs are in it together, always. Plus, all clocking out at the same time meant grabbing a drink together.

It’s a time-honored tradition in restaurants, whether you’re working front of house or back of house, to all wind down together with an array of vices until you collectively look at the time and realize it’s past midnight and if anyone wants a chance at some sleep before doing it all again tomorrow, it’s probably time to cash out. (The tab is always larger than expected. We always tip well no matter what.) Being on the cusp of thirty (ancient, in server years) and a new (ish) mother means that I can’t make it to last call anymore. It’s probably for the best; it’s not sustainable behavior. But it was fun when I could do it.

I came home with dinner from a chef who fed me some of the best Mexican food of my life all through my pregnancy. Along with short rib enchiladas for myself and my husband, there were two little cheese enchiladas tucked in for my son, who’s learned early on that the good stuff can come from somewhere other than a Gerber-branded jar. I’m not normally a touchy-feely person, but I was so overcome with joy at seeing those cheese-filled tortillas that I gave the chef a hug. He’s always been one of my favorite coworkers: he always lets me taste stuff, he calls me Catalina, he laughs at my gringa-fied Spanish, and his passion for cooking is true joy to witness.

The enchiladas went into the fridge and I went to bed. I guess it would be more poetic to say that I thought of some of Anthony Bourdain’s words, some specific quote profound yet profane. I didn’t, though. I didn’t because his writing, his spirit, and his grumpy old asshole persona has permeated my consciousness for nearly a decade. I almost wish I had, though.

 


 

I got to sleep in today. It wasn’t exactly a genial exchange; I was just too tired to wake up to give G his morning bottle and I poked Alex until he got up to do it. I snatched another hour or so of sleep. I woke up to my phone buzzing.

Anthony Bourdain.

Like what an awful week.

Makes me so sad.

The messages from my sister were all truncated enough to show up on my lock screen in full. All I could manage in reply was What.

She elaborated.

The only word I could come up with was four letters born of an adulthood working in the salty trenches of restaurants.

 


 

My memory of being introduced to the oeuvre of Anthony Bourdain is murky. I might have been twenty? Twenty-one? I do know I was in college, and coming out on the other side from a dark place I’d been in, and learning to make sense of the world through cooking. Up until that point, cooking was something done either by family matriarchs or the shiny happy personalities on the Food Network. It seemed pretty out of my grasp; it’s not really a surprise that my fretting over precision and perfection led to the carefully-measured world of baking. Faith in myself to make messes and abandon the recipe came a little later.

I do know that No Reservations came first. It could just be my memory packaging things up in a tidy box with a bow, but I distinctly remember Netflix binges of No Reservations with my boyfriend at the time that started when I was at his place and we got unexpectedly snowed in early on in the spring semester. We walked to Snoopy’s and subsisted on coupons for hot dogs and fries that we’d gobble down while watching Bourdain eat pho on the streets of Hanoi. I was transfixed. I was envious. I wanted to make food.

I ran across Kitchen Confidential not long after. It couldn’t have taken me long to read it; tales of coming up in the NYC restaurant world were far more fascinating than conjugating German verbs or reading the poems of John Donne. I don’t know if that’s when I first felt the irresistible, indelible pull towards the restaurant and hospitality industry, but somewhere in between reading that book and getting my first barista gig, the feeling caught its hooks in my soul and I should have known right then that I’d never be satisfied in a conventional nine-to-five.

This isn’t to romanticize the industry. After all, Bourdain certainly didn’t. What drew me was his utter frankness about how hard it is. I’ve got a loving and supportive family and a four-year degree and all kinds of potential to get a cushy gig with healthcare and PTO, but somewhere in me is always that itch to prove myself. The itch to fit in with people who feel as outcast as I do.

Maybe the kinship I always felt with Anthony Bourdain lies in this particular madness; he himself said that he had potential and opportunities that were wasted for the longest time. Reading Kitchen Confidential made me believe that with enough grit and a proper turn of phrase, maybe I could overcome my own wasted potential too.

 


 

I spent the bulk of today moving and doing and engaging my mind in every way possible that didn’t involve ruminating on the untimely death of one of my heroes. I ran errands. I bought groceries. (Though, my purchase of rice and beans and Goya Sazon perhaps betrays a long-felt kinship with a man who advocated tirelessly for the Latinx cooks and dishwashers ubiquitous in the industry.) I took my son to the doctor and talked about books and night weaning and growth chart percentiles. I went for a long walk with G in the stroller and the dog on her leash. It wasn’t until I had a moment to sit down and give G his last bottle of the day that it all hit me. Tony Bourdain is dead. Dead by his own hand. Darkness is everywhere, even in our personal sources of light.

I’m still not entirely sure how to process this. My twenties and entire career trajectory were shaped by only ever having the stones to make the leap toward restaurants, because everything else felt impossible, and in cooking I could prove myself without the burden of a grade point average or quarterly review. Darkness pushed me to stop believing in myself, and it wasn’t until I found the saving grace of cooking and baking that I realized just how much I could believe in myself once more. All along the way I kept a copy of Kitchen Confidential, and Medium Raw, and the constant presence of Anthony Bourdain in my Netflix queue. I learned to respect every member of a kitchen crew, down to the dishwashers that no one thinks about until they’re not there to keep things clean and running. I learned more Spanish. I learned that there is a place for outcasts and misfits. I learned that none of us really ever left some of our dark places – addiction and substance abuse is a real problem, and seeing local chefs tackle the issue gives me hope for the evolution of a traditionally toxic environment – and that of all the people I’ve worked with, the ones who truly cared the most and stuck with me through thick and thin (outside of my family) were my fellow culinary renegades.

I learned from my family that food is nourishment for the soul. I learned from the greats like Julia Child and Alice Waters that food is nourishment, plain and simple, and that nourishment doesn’t have to be boring. I learned from Anthony Bourdain that food, and the making of it with a bunch of other weirdos, is nourishment for the neuroses, for that part of you that didn’t find belonging until now, for one of the last true meritocracies that cares more about your work ethic than your avant-garde flair. I learned that food is craft, is love, is the greatest unifying factor across cultures. That cheese melted into tortillas can be more delicious and more meaningful than the finest organic fare because it was made with caring that transcends haute cuisine. That life and love are an adventure you can live on your own terms while still advocating and caring and uplifting. That family can exist in so many places. That there’s nothing wrong with being a grumpy cuss with a soft heart.

Thanks to Anthony Bourdain, I found home. I can only hope that now he’s found his.

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