Confronting fear two years after the culinary legend’s death.
In the age of the coronavirus, there’s a lot of hours to fill in a day. I’m sick of Netflix, I’m definitely sick of the news and my Quibi free trial ended faster than you can say, “viral TikTok.” I’m in need of a new way to beat the quarantine blues. I already see what everyone else is doing: stealing craft supplies from their kids, tuning in to cringey celebrity sing-a-longs, baking bread from scratch like they just landed at Plymouth Rock and (Lord help us all) crocheting. In a last ditch effort to keep the scary thoughts at bay, I remember books. I haven’t read a real one in quite some time. Because of this, my pick can’t just be anything. I need something I can sink my teeth into, something with some meat on its bones. Something made of paper.
I don’t know what triggers the patron saint of food and travel to enter my brain, but he does. Anthony Michael Bourdain. The man whose name I actively avoid online. The man whose voice I try to evade on TV. The man who I have purposefully pushed out of my mind for the last two years punches through. I haven’t consumed any media to do with Anthony Bourdain since his suicide in 2018. (What am I supposed to do? Laugh like a maniac watching No Reservations reruns? Learn something revolutionary about food, culture or myself from Parts Unknown?) Too painful. I must be crazy to believe that I’m ready to read one of Bourdain’s books. I try to convince myself that now might be the right time — that maybe it won’t crush me like a bug. I recall he’s had a few best-sellers and type his name plus “books” into Google.
Kitchen Confidential pops up right away. He pens it after his now famous article, “Don’t Eat Before Reading This” is published by The New Yorker in 1999. The piece shocked audiences by going, “behind the swinging doors” into the unappetizing underbelly of restaurant kitchens everywhere. (It also beautifully captures the complex camaraderie between coworkers in the hospitality industry but oh no, there’s a whole stick of butter in your entrée!) I click the link that leads me to Amazon. I’m instantly inundated with options: Rare first editions, a deluxe version with Q&A and pictures, costly copies signed by the man himself and an “insider’s edition” with handwritten annotations. At this point I’m, proverbially speaking, lost in the sauce. I think of what Bourdain might want me to do in this situation. (“W.W.B.D.?”) And so it begins. A chain reaction of decisions based solely off of the spirit of a man I never met.
I go out on a limb and guess that he’d want me to get Kitchen Confidential in its purest form. The original printing should be able to stand on its own two legs— no bells, no whistles, no extra bullshit. Conditions available are New, Like New (whatever the hell that means), Very Good, Good and Acceptable. I add “Very Good” for $11.95 to my cart. I glance at the seller ID before I shell out my precious quarantine cash. It’s just another faceless, internet retailer from somewhere in Colorado. “What Would Bourdain Do?” I think to myself again. Buy from a big box vendor? Amazon? An indie bookstore? Something doesn’t sit right with my soul so I keep digging. Target and eBay show up next in my searches. I cold-shoulder Target fast because it’s entirely too corporate (Tony B would never). I have hope for eBay since there’s a decent chance I can purchase from someone’s personal collection.
I whip around the site but nothing jumps out at me until it does. One listing, all the way at the bottom, in red letters reads, “Benefits Charity.” My face lights up when I see the description tab. Proceeds of the purchase go to St. Vincent de Paul, a Catholic non-profit that helps aid homeless persons with housing. More specifically, my money goes to the Lane County chapter in Eugene, Oregon. The book is priced at $1.99, two dollars less than the $3.99 shipping & handling fee. (It ain’t much, but it’s somethin’). The best part? I notice that there are four copies available, all four in “Acceptable” condition. “What Would Bourdain Do?” I put in a special request. I ask the charity to send me the most fucked up copy of Kitchen Confidential they have. (I’m talkin’ ripped pages, broken spine, major water damage — the Holy Trinity of beat up books). Not one for vanity, I figure Bourdain would find this funny, wanting the one that no one wants.
Most deliveries at the moment are getting (rightfully) delayed due to the pandemic (that bitch). I have no idea when the book will arrive. Three days into the mission I receive word. “Hi Stacey, your order is being shipped!” A wave of nervous energy hits me — it’s on its way and there’s no takesies backsies. I go to bed that night like nothing’s wrong. I go to bed like normal. I go to bed. As soon as my head hits the pillow, I start to cry. I’m mad. Mad at Bourdain for being dead. Mad at everyone else I ever loved for not still being here; grandparents, a former boss, my high school art teacher, a girl I waited tables with in college. Mad that my dad has recently become mentally and physically disabled by a car crash. He always did remind me a bit of Bourdain— they both work with their hands for a living, have flawless comedic timing and can intellectually eviscerate you. Well, they used to. I silently interrogate the universe on why any of us have to leave it. When I get no answer, I reach for the tissue box next to my bed.
I wake up the next morning with an even more distressing thought: should I be writing about this? Despite holding a degree in English, I truly hate to write. (This may have something to do with a senior year Hemingway thesis that gutted me like a fish). After graduation I swore off the stuff forever. Do I leave my warm, cozy hidey-hole for Anthony Bourdain? Or do I stay safely retired from the cold of words? “What Would Bourdain Do?” This time I don’t have to hypothesize. Anthony Bourdain wouldn’t give a flying fuck. He’d tell me to write it — or don’t. Just quit being a candy-ass about it. I reflect back on his New Yorker piece. (Do I have the cojones?) I research how to submit writing to the distinguished publication. They don’t accept personal essays from outside contributors. The fun’s over. But it all seems too easy. Bourdain wrote his piece twenty-one years ago this year. He wrote it because he, simply, had something to say. I decide to lean into the fear in his honor.
My love letter (not, I repeat not, a personal essay) is complete after eight straight days at my laptop. I’m in genuine shock when I finish; I don’t know how to feel. Surprise at how natural it felt to write again appears. (How bad my ass hurts in this chair does too). I’m still waiting on Kitchen Confidential but it lands on my doorstep three days later. I tear open the packaging at the front door. The book doesn’t look nearly as bad as I want it to, but there’s enough wrong with it to make me happy. I notice the ‘Les Halles’ etching on the cover for the first time. A man who loved humans but hated humanity stands behind the glass of a restaurant he once helmed. I flip open to the first page. I’m ready to read. Ready to reconstitute a new normal. I walk over to where my dad sits in the living room. (The living room…an excellent name for it, I conclude). I show him the present that’s just arrived. He turns the book over two or three times, inspecting it without a sound. He props his feet up and begins to read. After a few minutes, I head for the TV and grab the remote. I can hold out a little longer — the man deserves first dibs on Bourdain.
Proceeds from views of this article will be donated to the National Restaurant Association’s “Restaurant Employee Relief Fund” which helps hospitality workers currently struggling due to the coronavirus.