Remembering Bourdain

Content Warning: this post includes references to suicide.

Anthony Bourdain took his own life a little over three years ago, prompting me to write a teary reflection of this man who I had never met. In this post I reflected on what Bourdain meant to me, a single face in the crowd of fans. I pointed to his apparent success in the middle age of life and beyond and to the spirit of warmth and humanity that seemed to emanate from this acerbic man even when purveyors of hate seemed to be winning.

Anthony Bourdain had the capacity for all of these things, to be sure, but I was eulogizing Tony the TV character.

Retrospectives about Anthony Bourdain’s life have started to emerge this year. Morgan Neville’s documentary Roadrunner dropped first in July, followed by Laurie Woolever’s Bourdain: The Definitive Oral Biography in September, and Tom Vitale’s memoir In the Weeds in early October.

While I have not read Woolever’s volume, the other two pieces, both of which I consumed last weekend, paint a more complicated picture.

Tom Vitale started in the editing room on A Cook’s Tour, Bourdain’s first TV show, before working his way on to the road crew and ultimately directing more than a hundred episodes of Parts Unknown, including some of the most challenging ones in Libya and the Congo. His memoir takes readers on the road and behind the camera of the shows while also grappling with his feelings about Bourdain’s death, something that happened while one of the other two crews was overseeing the shoot.

Tony was a big believer in failing gloriously in an attempt to do something interesting, rather than succeeding at being mediocre.

Tom’s story is not the glorious eternal vacation that made it to television. For one thing, every hour of television required dozens of hours of painstaking filming, most of it with Tony Bourdain nowhere in sight, to say nothing of arguing with accountants, fixers, and editors. And looming over the entire enterprise, driving it to ever greater heights was an agoraphobic, camera-shy, obsessive star. More than once Tom resolves that he simply cannot take the strain of working for him.

I don’t think I realized just how spoiled I was to work on a show where quality not only came first, but it was also pretty much the only concern.

Behind the scenes, Tom describes, Tony was a different person than the witty and eloquent person who made it on screen. He was still charismatic, but he was also mercurial and manipulative. He was showed a different side of his personality to each person, as though he instinctively knew what it would take to get the best work out of everyone. The face he showed Tom was, it seems, crueler than the one he showed others. Their relationship was combative. Tom prodded Tony to speak. Once, in Borneo, Tony attacked him. He wonders at several points whether Bourdain actually liked him.

(He ultimately concludes that, yes, he did.)

Inevitably, the story comes around to Bourdain’s suicide. The last episode they filmed together, in Bali, concluded with a funeral and Tom reflects on how both of their emotional states had frayed precipitously over the past few seasons, leading him to ask whether there was more that he could have done.

“These are some of the things I look back on that are signs that I should have seen… I think that so many things in his life were like a drug. You were like a drug to him. If somebody overdoses on a drug, do you blame the drug or do you blame the junkie?”

In a memorable scene, he also addresses the rumors about Asia Argento…by going to Italy, getting drunk with her, and asking her directly whether she caused Tony’s death. Ultimately, though, he lands on a simpler solution. Tony was an addict for whom down-time amounted to giving in to his thoughts, to his demons.

I’d learned that the truth was he couldn’t rest. Tony always needed a distraction, a project, a problem to solve. And, for better or worse, the show provided that in spades.

In the Weeds gave me a new appreciation of Anthony Bourdain. Tom’s boss — and coworker and friend — was more human than the man who appeared on television and I found the fits of anger, the fits of insecurity, and the evident exhaustion from not being able to stop all-too relatable. Likewise in how Tony, a famously verbose person, was better able to apologize with actions than with words. This is not a flattering picture, but it is a fitting one.

At the same time, what makes this memoir so good is how this different portrait of Tony Bourdain is balanced against stories from the road that allow me to look at these shows I love so much with new eyes. I have been watching the Jamaica episode that features prominently in the memoir to test this while writing this post and it is remarkable how different it is, from small tics in conversation to how often Tony is noticeably alone in front of the camera.

By contrast, Roadrunner offers a synthetic, impressionistic interpretation of Anthony Bourdain that splices together extant video with reminiscences of the people who knew and worked with him, including Tom Vitale.

(The film also includes a brief deep-fake that I probably wouldn’t have caught had I not known about the controversy in advance, but doing something so potentially scandalous for so little return seems unwise.)

The film proceeds in rough chronological order from his bursting onto the scene with Kitchen Confidential to international stardom, and then death. This structure allows for one of the best things about the show, which was to watch Tony’s evolution from a patently inept star in the earliest film from A Cook’s Tour to the confident host of the polished show Parts Unknown. However, there is another way one might describe the structure of Roadrunner: before television, the evolving television star, and after Asia.

If one of the most moving parts of the film was the outpouring of grief from the people who loved him, I found the topic of Asia Argento, who did not appear in the film, to be a sticking point.

Roadrunner reaches many of the same conclusions as In the Weeds, highlighting how Tony was an addict who threw himself into whatever his passion was and noting that Asia (as well as her fight against Harvey Weinstein) was the latest addiction. However, the film also gives voice to a number of crew members who worked on the Hong Kong episode of Parts Unknown and exhibit a hostility toward her that Ton Vitale simply didn’t have. The result is that the film seems to blame her without explicitly doing so.

It is hard to say what I would have thought about Roadrunner had I not first read Tom Vitale’s In the Weeds. The film has its powerful moments, but it was also limited by so relentlessly placing Tony front and center while both acknowledging and brushing aside that this was not where he wanted to be. As a result, I found the memoir both less flattering and more satisfying as a tribute to both Anthony Bourdain and the vision of the world he helped create.

Kitchen Confidential

A friend of mine has a story about a particular show he saw at a bar in Austin. At one point during the performance, the singer explained to the audience that the world was divided into day people and night people. The crowd cheered the night people, obviously (and probably intentionally) believing that singer was praising them, the people who went out and enjoyed the night while the “day people” slept.

In fact, the night people were the performers, bartenders, and kitchen staff who made the going out possible.

Rereading Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential in anticipation that I will soon get to see the new documentary Roadrunner reminded me of this anecdote.

The closest I came to being one of the night people was the period immediately after college when I spent a year managing a quick-service restaurant that closed at 9 PM. I parlayed that employment into a part-time position as an “assistant manager” at another franchise of the same restaurant for the first two years of graduate school, a time when I usually went from the closing shift to either Starbucks to do my homework, the Applebees bar down the street from where I lived to drink beer and watch sports, or, sometimes, the Applebees bar to drink beer and do my homework.

That is to say, I was never really one of the night people.

At best, I was night-people-adjacent. I got to know some of the repetition that comes with the weekly orders, the tedium of making the exactly same food in the exact same way day after day, and got pretty good at breaking down a kitchen at the end of the day, but my trajectory in life even in that first year was going in another direction.

My only glimpses of the other side of that life came on trips back to Boston when a friend in the industry invited me into the off-duty experience.

Kitchen Confidential is, basically, the distillation of Tony Bourdain’s public persona. This is the cocky, swaggering, observant, and surprisingly sentimental chef who went on to develop No Reservations and Parts Unknown. I have no memory of my first introduction to this person, let alone whether I knew him through the TV show or through the book first, but I had been a fan for about a decade at the time of his passing in 2018. Tony changed over the years, but he is recognizably there in this memoir first published in 2000.

At the time of the first publication Tony Bourdain was the executive chef at Brasserie Les Halles, a French steakhouse in New York City who had published several culinary mystery novels that had more or less flopped. He kept writing, though, and this memoir developed out of an article titled “Don’t Eat Before Reading This” that he placed in the New Yorker.

The book, like the memoir that came out of it, promised to take readers into the greasy and messy kitchens of the restaurants where the American diner was eating.

But, in many ways, Kitchen Confidential is a conventional memoir, just ostensibly organized like a multi-course meal. Bourdain takes the reader back to his childhood when a trip to France ignited a life-long obsession with food and to his teenaged years when his rebellious streak led him to summers on Cape Cod where he launched himself into the chaos of the kitchen. He details how he dropped out of college and attended the Culinary Institute of America at a time when the standards weren’t exactly high and then to the run of jobs at which he progressed further into serious heroin addiction.

Despite writing a memoir from the perch at Les Halles, Bourdain positions himself as an outsider taking shots at the establishment and confidently declaring that the great Eric Ripert would never deign meet him (they became close friends and Bourdain besieging Ripert’s delicate palette with Sichuan chilis is one of the best episodes of Parts Unknown). The contradiction comes because Les Halles was not at the pinnacle of the food scene and Bourdain’s story was one of frequent, repeated failure. Celebrated chefs might put in their dues, but they weren’t supposed to be leaving a train of sunk restaurants in their wake or spend time making brunch years into their career.

And yet, this trail of wreckage and failure allows Bourdain to give a face to the lurid stories from the back of the house, to lend weight to the hard-won lessons, and to point out some ugly truths about the restaurant industry. You might not like what you see, but they aren’t going to get you sick. Probably. It just also isn’t going to be quite as fresh as it could be.

The food scene has changed significantly since Kitchen Confidential came out in 2000. Antony Bourdain had a hand in those changes, too, given that his shows introduced audiences—and possibly even Tony—to a wide range of cuisines. The No Reservations episode on Istanbul from 2010, for instance, has him say that he doesn’t know anything about Turkish food several times and he at one point refers to the local flatbread as “like a tortilla.” There has also been a proliferation of celebrity chefs and shows like Top Chef have steered away from a universal (mostly French) vision of culinary excellence.

A lot of what Bourdain talks about is still relevant, of course—the hours, lessons about running a kitchen, tricks of the trade, that (illegal) immigrants make up the backbone of the restaurant industry—but Kitchen Confidential is also a snapshot of that industry in the 1980s and 1990s through one very particular experience. Bourdain’s kitchens were a riot of chaos and disorder and testosterone that created an atmosphere that was not uncommon, but neither was it exactly the rule.

By the last years of his life, Bourdain was reflective on how his memoir given license to men who sexually harassed women in the kitchen. Reading Kitchen Confidential now, it is easy to see why he was concerned. He sexualizes food by his own admission and the book seems to condone all sorts of bad behavior. He mentions a couple of times women who can stand up to the men in the kitchen, for instance, and certainly he doesn’t seem to hold anyone to account. At least, this is true if Kitchen Confidential is read as a simple celebration of being a chef and not first and foremost a memoir of a junkie who obsessed over food and experiences with the same abandon as he did drugs. The latter caused him to hit rock bottom, but the former remained with him for the rest of his life.

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Between recent hours spent on the road and furiously trying to get my classes ready for the fall semester, I have managed to plow through a bunch of books I have not written about, including Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends, Lisa See’s The Island of Sea Women, Kelly Baker’s great memoir Grace Period, and Helene Wecker’s The Golem and the Jinni. I intend to write about some of these books at least, and have some thoughts about Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, but I’m already starting to feel sped up so it may or may not happen.

I am now reading two books, James Lang’s Distracted, which examines attention in the classroom, and Zen Cho’s Sorceror to the Crown, which I will likely write about in conjunction with H.G. Parry’s A Declaration of the Rights of Magicians because they have radically divergent approaches to inserting magic into a historical story and I like Cho’s approach significantly better.

The Lost

A Palestinian boy sits at the rubble of his family home destroyed after an Israeli strike in Gaza City, 13 May 2021.
EPA-EFE/MOHAMMED SABER (Photo on Al Jazeera).

But there are certain aspects of this letter, concrete things, things the letter actually says and which, therefore, I do not have to surmise, that force me to think about family quarrels, about proximity and distance and “closeness” that are not temporal or spatial but emotional.

Daniel Mendelsohn grew up in a Jewish family surrounded by stories. His Judaism was, by his own admission, both inalienable and indifferent such that his love of stories led him to the plays and poems of the ancient Greeks rather than to the Torah of his heritage. Nevertheless, he remained captivated by a particular absence in the stories of his family. That is, the stories of his six family members, his grandfather’s brother, sister-in-law, and their four daughters, who had remained in the small Galician town of Bolechow until the arrival of the Germans. Their names — Shmiel (Sam) Jäger, Ester née Schneelicht, Lorca, Frydka, Ruchele, Bronia — were only ever whispered.

Mendelsohn resolves to recover their stories, setting in motion an epic journey that takes him to Bolechow (now Bolekhiv), Australia, Israel, Sweden and Denmark armed only with a few names and photographs to interview anyone who might have known his relatives or know what happened to them.

What he discovers is more complex than he could have imagined. Some of his interview subjects don’t remember much — they were too young, or were then too old — while others don’t want to talk for one reason or another. But none of them were actually there, so everything they told him was little more than hearsay. They agreed on the broad strokes: Shmiel was a good man, a little deaf, and a butcher with two trucks, a pretty wife, and vibrant daughters. But some remembered two daughters. Others three. (There were four.) Some heard that Frydka was pregnant when she was caught. Some heard that Ciszko Szymanski, the Polish boy who loved Frydka and insisted that they kill him, too, when the Germans found her hidden in the house of an art teacher, was the father.

What is memory? What is memory? Memory is what you remember. No, you change the story, you “remember.” A story is not a fact. Where are the facts? There is the memory, there is the truth—you don’t know, never.

The Lost is a memoir about the search for life amidst death.

Of the roughly three thousand Jews living in Bolechow in 1939, only a few dozen survived the German occupation. The rest were killed: at the hands of a Ukrainian mob, in the German Aktionen that combined humiliation and death, in the gas chambers of a death camp, and in the casual and systematic violence that characterized the Holocaust. Between the occupation and the final Aktion, the Jews of Bolechow did what they could to survive. A few ran or hid, some collaborated as the Jewish police, most worked in labor camps.

Death is inevitable in this investigation, but it is also striking for its account of life. The Lost is filled with memorable small details, such as how Cisko Szymanski’s father, a butcher, had a special room where the Jews of Bolechow could taste forbidden meats in secret, or how Itzak Jäger (another of Shmiel’s brothers), also a butcher, had to leave town under a cloud of scandal. We learn that Frydka and her friends used to attend movies at the Catholic center in town and that Shmiel would bring strawberries back from Lviv.

In prose that echoes the rhythms of Homeric poetry, Mendelsohn weaves the story of his years-long investigation with biblical exegesis about the book of Genesis, the stories of his interview subjects, and incisive observations about monuments and memory.

…graves, gravesites, memorials, and monuments are of no use to the dead but mean a great deal to the living.

And yet, I was repeatedly drawn back to the present moment while reading The Lost. In the time that it took me to read this memoir that reconstructs in excruciating detail the extermination of a Jewish community in eastern Europe, Israel cracked down on protesters and then dramatically escalated an ongoing crisis. The grim irony of reading about descriptions of pitchfork-wielding Ukrainians attacking Jews while watching mobs of Israelis attacking anyone they suspected of being Palestinian was not lost on me. Likewise for the Israeli airstrikes destroying media outlets while following Mendelsohn’s challenges in uncovering anything like direct evidence of the crimes against humanity at Bolechow.

The Lost is not a book about Zionism. It comes up from time to time, as does Israel, but it is not the central focus. Instead, the people in this book dream about Bolechow where Jews and Poles and Ukrainians lived in peace side by side until they didn’t.

It is that sort of detail that stood out to me this week.

Anti-semitism remains a serious problem in many corners, but that is not the same thing as opposing Israeli actions — like the eviction of Palestinian families from East Jerusalem at one of the holiest times of year and during pandemic, no less — that seem taken from the Nazi Lebensraum playbook. A number of years ago at a talk, a scholar of the Holocaust and its legacy asked rhetorically of the West Bank settlements: “where do you think they learned it?”

But even before the German racial programs spilled beyond the borders of Germany, critics of Zionism foresaw the problems. In 1938, Henryck Erlich, a leader of the Polish Bund, the General Jewish Workers Union, declared (in Yiddish):

When Zionists speak to the non-Jewish world, they are outstanding democrats, and they present the conditions in today’s and future Palestine as exemplary of liberty and progress. But if a Jewish state is to be founded in Palestine, its spiritual climate will be: an eternal fear of the external enemy (Arabs), unending fighting for every little piece of land, for every scrap of work, against the internal enemy (Arabs), and a tireless struggle for the eradication of the language and culture of the non-Hebraized Jews of Palestine. Is this the kind of climate, in which freedom, democracy, and progress can flourish? Is this not the climate, in which reactionism and chauvinism typically germinate?

Translation found here.

All people have a right to safety and security. What is happening right now in Gaza and East Jerusalem isn’t about Israeli safety or security. It is about politics. I don’t have any love for Hamas, but blaming both sides is a false equivalence. The ghettoization of Gaza is an ongoing policy and Benjamin Netanyahu’s actions have only further stoked ethnic hatred. Israelis have and will die in rocket attacks, but they have the Iron Dome system and bunkers. The Palestinians don’t. To focus on Hamas is to forget that they aren’t primarily the ones losing water, losing medical infrastructure, and dying because of these airstrikes. Palestinian children are.

If The Lost is about recovering life in a Bolechow from a time before the mobs, before the Aktionen, from a time when Shmiel Jäger wanted to live in a town where he was a big deal rather than coming to America and could go by Samuel, and from a time when Polish citizens of Bolechow sacrificed their lives to protect their neighbors, then, this week, that Bolechow seemed further away than ever.

An Israeli airstrike hits a building with apartments, offices, and international media agencies. Mahmud Hams.

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I plowed through Ben Cohen’s The Hot Hand earlier today and am on the fence as to whether to write about it. On the one hand, Cohen had a number of interesting case studies in his discussion of the science of streaks. On the other, I found it much less coherent as a book than, for instance, David Epstein’s Range. It wasn’t even so much that Cohen was wrong about anything he wrote so much as that he had several different things he was working with — the math behind streaks, the psychology of how we perceive randomness, various uses of big data, and the titular “hot hand” — but a lot of the connections struck me as a stretch, such as characterizing groupings of people’s production, which tended to come in spurts, as a the product of being “hot” in the same way as a basketball player. In short, hot streaks do exist, but they’re usually misunderstood and much easier to identify after the fact than in the moment.

I haven’t decided what to read next, but am leaning toward Imbolo Mbue’s How Beautiful We Were and the fifth volume of Neil Gaimon’s The Sandman in some order.