I’ve had this book for a while, but when the world lost Anthony Bourdain on June 8, I was devastated and forced myself to read it, finally, even though I knew it would hurt.
It definitely hurt. Tony’s first book, the one that made him famous, made me ache, made me belly-laugh, and made me hungry. Usually all at once.
I was on vacation, sweating in a kayak on Lake Erie, when I read about the author’s life-changing first slurp of oyster, the pre-adolescent moment that made him a foodie. “Everything was different now,” he wrote. “…I had had an adventure, tasted forbidden fruit, and everything that followed in my life…would all stem from this moment. I’d learned something. Viscerally, instinctively, spiritually—even in some small, precursive way, sexually—and there was no turning back.”
As it was with reading the book, written for cooks or anyone in or wanting to know about the restaurant business but also, I have to think, for Tony himself, to recount for his own pleasure—for he was a pleasure-loving guy—as many subsequent adventures as possible. As sarcastic, irreverent, and cutting as he could be as a TV personality, he was known also for being incredibly humble, often quoted as saying he had “the best job in the world,” that he couldn’t believe he got to travel and eat and write and be paid for it. The disbeliever in him probably wanted to write it all down, lest the lifestyle catch up to him and steal his memories of working the line.
This is a different kind of memoir than the ones I normally read, because I was first drawn to the person rather than the subject. After losing him from the world, many of us wanted to get to know him better. Sales for Tony’s books skyrocketed this summer.
I remember the first few episodes of No Reservations I watched from an old apartment somewhere in the Midwest, a decade or more ago. I adored how this ex-addict saved himself with food and writing, two things I incidentally revere, how he’d huddle one night in a tent to eat freshly killed and roasted pig with locals and feast in five-star restaurants with other celebrity chefs the next. From food truck to someone’s grandmother’s kitchen, Tony ate his way through places I couldn’t point to on a world map, but felt like I knew at least a bit—maybe even the best, most human bit—by the end of an episode.
And he was hilarious. Crass-American (I learned the term “felching” from No Reservations) but respectful of local customs. Expert and novice. Chef and patron. Star and audience. I don’t know that there’s a more winning combination on TV, in the restaurant business, or, for that matter, in the literary world.
Tony could make you feel what he was feeling, through both screen and page. I’ll never order fish on a Monday again, and I have a 7-inch hollow-edge Global chef’s knife on my Amazon wish list. I felt his exhaustion in my body after the infamous chapter titled “A Day in the Life.” When he made the early and fatal error of asking for a Band-Aid from a veteran cook after burning his hand, or when he misheard “what do you know about meat?” for “what do you know about me?” in a dream-job interview and replied, “Nothing!” I felt his literal and emotional pain, served up with his trademark humor but…OUCH, nonetheless.
Beyond his unique voice, mostly I appreciated the glimpse into a culture I know little about. I waitressed for a summer at a pizza chain and did a short stint in a café kitchen in college, but I was never part of the relentless grind-then-party restaurant scene. Tony managed to write a book that is, yes, “for cooks,” but also for us mere eaters. We can consume another way of living through someone else’s lived, honestly shared experience. Isn’t that the fundamental aim of a memoir?
I forgive him for hating vegetarianism. I’m not sure I can forgive his absence. There just really isn’t anyone else like him. I’m grateful for the book, which I’ll definitely reread someday, and for the bit of himself—the best, most human bit?—he showed us.
But damn, Tony. You’re the one who told us, in no uncertain terms, that you gotta show up to work every day, no matter what.