If you have ever worked in a restaurant kitchen, as I did for several years, then you know that horrible things happen there, things that, with luck, no customer will ever know about: Food falls to the floor, to be subject to the five-second rule (if you can get it off the ground in five seconds or less, it’s fine), wormy cornmeal turns into expensive polenta, shrimp that is just this side of smelling like durian fruit gets thrown into the sauté pan and covered with butter and garlic.
“I’m not even going to talk about blood,” added Anthony Bourdain to the long catalog of back-of-the-house sins. “Let’s just say we cut ourselves a lot in the kitchen and leave it at that.”
Bourdain graduated from high school a year early, in 1973, and went to work doing what he imagined was a fun way to make a living, manning the line. In much of America, though we are rapidly regressing, we have managed to erase most of the more Dickensian elements of work life, but a restaurant kitchen remains a hellish place—literally. It’s hot, with ovens and stoves and grills going full blast. It’s ill ventilated, as if by design. It’s full of odd smells, some of them not so good, especially if the line cooks were out partying the night before. It’s a polyglottal cacophony, with Spanish the dominant language in almost every kitchen in the land, all yelled orders and arguments and bawdy jokes over clanging pans, breaking glasses, and slammed-around plates. Add to that the mood of the always mercurial chef and his—usually his—lieutenants, often conditioned by various stimulants needed to see a person through a twelve- to fourteen-hour shift.
Bourdain, having risen to the top of the kitchen staff in a very chic, very expensive Manhattan house, dragged himself home night after night after a long shift and many drinks and, before going to bed, recorded his impressions of the inferno. He sent a manuscript up the road to the New Yorker, a piece that warned that maybe you don’t want to eat swordfish, what with all its giant parasitic worms, that it’s not a bad idea to check the bathroom for cleanliness before ordering a meal, that brunch is the province of an unsupervised B team of novice cooks and dishwashers looking for advancement.
To Bourdain’s surprise, the New Yorker snapped it up, and it came out a few weeks later. When my copy arrived, I devoured it and said to my wife, who is a professional chef, “You have to read this.” She did, and she agreed with me that Bourdain had got every detail exactly right, from the potentially gastrically discomforting amoebas that frequent uncooked vegetables (“So think about that next time you want to exchange deep tongue kisses with a vegetarian”) to the time-honored tradition of closing a shift with way too many drinks—but also the addictive allure of working behind those swinging doors to create wonderful dishes that few people on the other side were truly deserving of eating.
The piece and subsequent New Yorker essays caught the attention of a book editor, and Bourdain signed to Bloomsbury for a memoir-cum-confessional called, appropriately enough, Kitchen Confidential. It appeared at just about the time that the foodie thing was taking off, and Bourdain’s new career as a writer and, soon, television commentator and host was born.
His food shows soon morphed into food-with-travel, and in time Bourdain was traveling all over the world, to places like Vietnam, where he ate noodles and drank beer with a visiting Barack Obama; Uruguay, where he tracked down one branch of his immigrant family while eating delicious street food; and Beirut, Lebanon, where he got down some stuffed grape leaves before stumbling into a blooming war that required the evacuation of him and his crew. He recorded all these adventures and misadventures in several books, including No Reservations: Around the World on an Empty Stomach, and he continued to travel to every continent, a fine exploder of stereotypes, excellent ambassador from the real America, and fearless eater. It was in France, working on an episode of his CNN show Parts Unknown, that he died sometime in the night of June 7–8, apparently a suicide.
Anthony Bourdain’s death reminds us that life is short, that anxiety and pain are our constant companions, that we can never really know what’s happening behind the doors of someone else’s home, never mind someone else’s kitchen. It also reminds us that food is a kind of salvation and sacrament, that sharing a meal well conceived and well cooked with someone we love is about as good as life gets, that, as Warren Zevon says, it behooves us to enjoy every sandwich. May your celestial meals be as good as the ones you chased down on earth, Tony.
Gregory McNamee is a contributing editor.