Alcohol, smoking, a heroin history and a rock-star lifestyle were always a part of Tony Bourdain’s story. He may have gotten over those things, he may have built a gentler life with financial success, and love and parenthood.
But it was the dangerous part that drew us, that sense of a life sharpened by fire, a man who had successfully navigated the knife’s edge.
A drawing of a knife’s edge is how he signed a book for me, the first time I met him. It was at Park Road Books in Charlotte, right after he published “A Cook’s Tour,” his 2001 follow to “Kitchen Confidential,” the book that put him on the map. His photo on the cover of “A Cook’s Tour” always seemed like the perfect Bourdain to me – Jagger-skinny, canvas bag slung across a worn camouflage T-shirt, a jaded and bemused expression with a hint of Humphrey Bogart.
He stopped at Park Road Books in the middle of the afternoon, and I went by to cover it. I expected an empty bookstore and an easy interview. What I found was a long, reverent line of cooks – line cooks, the real cooks, the ones who live the life he described so vividly in “Kitchen Confidential.” They usually don’t go to work until late afternoon, so a whole bunch of them were free to go see Tony for themselves.
I still remember how excited they were, like kids in line to meet Santa, and how many of them had copies of “Kitchen Confidential” that were furry along the edges, a book devoured at 2 or 3 in the morning when they were trying to calm their nightly adrenaline enough to sleep.
Instead of getting a food book signed, I grabbed one of his novels, “Typhoid Mary,” a historical book about the spread of contagion in New York. “Kitchen Confidential” was his ticket to fame, but it wasn’t his first attempt. It made him look like an overnight sensation, but he’d been a scribbler long before that: “Bone in the Throat,” “Gone Bamboo,” “The Bobby Gold Stories.”
He laughed when he saw me with “Typhoid Mary,” tickled that someone had noticed he had written other things.
I still have that book, with his signature inside: A scrawled chef’s knife, dripping with a few drops of blood, over his name.
That was the first time I met Bourdain, but it wasn’t the encounter that I immediately remembered when my phone buzzed with the news of his death. No, what I remembered was a Bourdain who was more complicated, more fun but also capable of more anger.
Back in 2002 or 2003, when I was in the early years of what turned out to be a long haul working for the awards committees for the James Beard Foundation, I was at the Marriott Marquis in Times Square for the annual awards gala. Bourdain and Mario Batali came on stage to present an award, both cutting up. Bourdain was still a defiant smoker, and he threw unlit Kool cigarettes – of course, he was a Kool man – into the audience.
Hours later, after the usual awards-show hoopla, I headed to the bank of elevators to go collapse in my room. This was still in that uneasy era when people smoked but you couldn’t smoke anywhere. The Marriott Marquis still had ashtrays by the elevators, each one filled with sand that was kept meticulously clean, stamped with the hotel logo.
Alone by the elevators, I looked down and noticed: All four of the tall ashtrays had a Kool cigarette stabbed right in the middle of the stamped design in the sand. It was an unmistakable message: “Bourdain Was Here.” The broken Kools were like middle fingers sticking up from each one. It was funny, and such a waste: Cigarettes were, what, $3 a pack at that point?
That was the Bourdain I’ll remember. His career is a rare example of someone who got more mature even in the spotlight’s glare – he went on to do brave things, like stand by his girlfriend, Asia Argento, when she accused Harvey Weinstein of rape, and stand against Batali after he was brought down by accusations, too. I always thought the bravest thing Bourdain did was his show about returning to Beirut.
But he wasn’t always a nice guy. In the early days of the internet, before we even knew we were going to call it social media, Bourdain used to interact with some of us on a website called eGullet. He could be snarky, and sometimes mean. One tirade, over someone’s innocent question about whether New York or San Francisco was the better food city, was so over the top, I printed it out and kept it pinned up by my desk for years.
It was a masterpiece of fury and word play, brilliant and defiant. I kept it, not just because it made me laugh, but because it was also a reminder of how far we can go, how we can waste our words when we don’t consider the value of the target.
It was a stab wound of a post, not a careful balance on the knife’s edge. And that was the Bourdain I will miss, too.
Featured photo: Anthony Bourdain in New York in 2015. Photo by Alex Welsh/New York Times