He became a hero to me after I was already too old for heroes. And he was among the reasons why I quit my job as a desk-bound newspaperman to work the last three years at a restaurant, on the expo line and behind the bar, trying to chase down a vague vision of my future that I hoped might be a semi-nomadic, decades-long stretch of cooking, reading, writing, taking photos, and wandering the world.
Over eight years ago, when I interviewed Anthony Bourdain during his book tour for Medium Raw, he was generous, friendly, candid, cutting, and erudite in a punk way. Most of all, though, he seemed content.
A day or so later, I met him after a reading in Miami. “It was 10:54 p.m.,” I wrote then, “and Anthony Bourdain sat in the lobby of the Lincoln Theatre still signing copies of Medium Raw. Two hours after wrapping his Q&A session, the line had finally dwindled to a dozen. There was a female security guard who stood, bored and pissed and sneering. But Bourdain was smiling. He mugged for digital pics. He shook hands. He slugged a shot of grappa. And weirdly, he seemed to enjoy scribbling his name 700 times in 120 minutes.”
I introduced myself as the guy who’d just hassled him by phone about his formative literary experiences and quitting smoking. He smirked. He signed my book. And he shook my hand.
Oddly enough, this past Friday, around 7:30 a.m., as my wife, Marta, and I walked into our friend Teresa’s home, there was a DVD of Bourdain’s No Reservations playing on TV. She left for work. My wife drove her. And I spent the next ten minutes watching the end of an episode that I hadn’t started, though I’d already seen it, years earlier.
It was unsettling, then, when another of my good friends, Victor Gonzalez, who also used to work with me as a newspaperman, sent me a text that read: “This Anthony Bourdain thing stings.”
I had no idea what he meant. But the last thing that I imagined was suicide. So when I Googled “Anthony Bourdain” and saw the news, I couldn’t muster much, except, “What the fuck… I’m just shaken and sick.”
Maybe it wasn’t all that shocking to other people. But Bourdain, though obviously a complicated, chronically dissatisfied guy who worked himself too hard, seemed possessed by an enormous appetite for life that I thought could counterbalance his most self-destructive impulses. He’d been a heroin addict. And he’d spoken about the lure of suicide. But I looked forward to his next novel, which he’d write as a semi-retired 75-year-old former TV star in 2032.
The world will be a bleaker, drearier place without Bourdain. For me and the millions of other fans. For his hundreds of chef friends like Eric Ripert and David Chang. For his mother and brother and ex-wife. Especially for his 11-year-old daughter, Ariane.
I wish he could have found another way out. Maybe he could have mostly withdrawn from public life. Maybe he could have transformed himself and his life again, like he did after leaving the day-to-day grind of the professional kitchen. Of course, he spoke of work and his daughter as the only things that kept him alive. Retirement was a nightmare too. “I would have had a different answer a few years ago. I might have deluded myself into thinking that I’d be happy in a hammock or gardening,” he recently conceded, speaking with People. “But no, I’m quite sure I can’t. I’m going to pretty much die in the saddle.”
There’s no way, though, that I, or most people, could possibly understand Bourdain’s affliction. Admittedly, I’ve felt my own kind of depression, but it’s clear that I’ve never been dogged by the kind of unrelenting existential dread and mortal fear that’s eventually so unbearable and bone-grinding and soul-squelching that it leads a person to actually act on the impulse to kill himself.
For days, I couldn’t bring myself to post my own insignificant something to the internet in memoriam of Bourdain, partly because of uneasiness over my years spent writing gratuitous traffic-bait obituaries for the famous dead.
Finally, though, I decided to cook something for him.
Though Bourdain wrote his own recipe for this French classic in his Les Halles Cookbook, I chose a version by one of his heroes, the nouvelle cuisine giant Paul Bocuse.
Leek, two pounds
Potato, one pound
Butter, four ounces
Water, one quart
Crème fraiche, one cup
Thyme, one sprig
Parsley, one sprig
Chive, ten sprigs
Peel the leeks, wash them carefully, only keeping the white parts. Peel the potatoes, wash them, cut them into large cubes. Slice the white parts of the leeks thinly. Melt the butter in a large casserole and add to it the sliced leeks, let them soften under a gentle heat without letting them change colour. Add the potatoes and mix well. Pour in the water, add salt, pepper, parsley, and thyme. Bring to the boil and simmer for about 35 minutes. Drain the leeks and potatoes. Remove the parsley and the thyme. Keep a little of the cooking water.
Put the vegetables in a mixing bowl and reduce them to a purée. Pour the purée back into the casserole with a ladle of cooking water and the crème fraiche. Cook under a medium heat, bring to a boil, stirring all the time. Let the purée cool before putting into a fridge for two hours. Just before serving, check the seasoning. Pour the vichyssoise into bowls and sprinkle with chopped chives.
When French police confirmed that Bourdain had died by hanging, from the belt of his hotel bathrobe, I was so haunted by the thought of a man who’d lived with such élan choosing such a lonely, gruesome end that I could only chase away the dreadfulness of his final scene by vicariously losing myself, again, in another of his adventures, what might be called his first scene, the childhood lark that sparked his curiosity about food and the world.
“My first indication that food was something other than a substance one stuffed in one's face when hungry — like filling up at a gas station — came after fourth-grade elementary school,” he wrote in Kitchen Confidential. “It was on a family vacation to Europe, on the Queen Mary, in the cabin-class dining room. There's a picture somewhere: my mother in her Jackie O sunglasses, my younger brother and I in our painfully cute cruisewear, boarding the big Cunard ocean liner, all of us excited about our first transatlantic voyage, our first trip to my father's ancestral homeland, France. It was the soup. It was cold.
“This was something of a discovery for a curious fourth-grader whose entire experience of soup to this point had consisted of Campbell's cream of tomato and chicken noodle. I'd eaten in restaurants before, sure, but this was the first food I really noticed. It was the first food I enjoyed and, more important, remembered enjoying. I asked our patient British waiter what this delightfully cool, tasty liquid was.
“'Vichyssoise,' came the reply, a word that to this day — even though it's now a tired old warhorse of a menu selection and one I've prepared thousands of times — still has a magical ring to it. I remember everything about the experience: the way our waiter ladled it from a silver tureen into my bowl, the crunch of tiny chopped chives he spooned on as garnish, the rich, creamy taste of leek and potato, the pleasurable shock, the surprise that it was cold.”
That’s why, yesterday, I made vichyssoise for Bourdain. It was my first time cooking it. It was my first time even eating it. And it was just as strange and tasty as he’d said. Maybe even more tasty, tragically, because he was dead and this was the last new adventure that I’d have with him.