Kitchen Confidential was published less than a year before I entered culinary school. I was at the front end of a big rush into the culinary world that swept restaurant industry lifers, high school graduates, and adults looking for a new life into professional cooking programs, not all of them rigorous or focused on the healthy growth of the profession or the individual students paying sometimes Ivy League-levels of tuition for a culinary education. I read Tony Bourdain’s memoir, sometime shortly after I’d started, with a jejune mixture of amusement & anticipation of the promise it held for me: the promise of a place in a pirate crew held together by terrible wages, late-night Dionysian debauchery, and restless exploration of new frontiers of sensation, food & otherwise. I found some of those things in my time in professional kitchens, but never in the quantity my appetites craved. Ultimately, I mostly found hard work, along with some deeper lessons that had to be slowly simmered before I could truly appreciate them.
Although the angry, sensitive young man I was then has receded into a shadow of past lives, the things I learned from Tony, that I most internalized, remain. He helped me think about food as a way I could show love to others, a manner of expression I was familiar with feeling from my grandmothers, but had never seen expressed by a man before. In my eyes, men were marginal cooks — either inept, or unwilling, or limited to suitably “manly” methods like grilling. Tony opened every method, every domain of cooking, to a young man who hadn’t found a respectable place to channel sensitivity & an appreciation for artistry. Tony’s view of the world wasn’t broken — he publicly appreciated women in professional kitchens far more vocally, and far earlier, than many of his macho executive chef counterparts, though in his own (at that time) hyper-masculine-on-the-surface style. It was my world that was broken, a world where the man I thought I might be didn’t fit with the limitations — social, cultural, and economic — of my origin. I wasn’t ready for every lesson Tony hinted at in those pages, but appreciated how he wove them into his subsequent career, and I always remained open to hearing what he had to say because what he’d already said resonated. I continued to learn from him, even as the personal image he had projected at first became one he himself criticized.
I didn’t stay in kitchens. The place Tony touted as the last refuge of the misfit ultimately wasn’t the best place for me to figure out who I was or what I wanted to become. Between the 40 hours a week in my school’s kitchens and the 40–55 hours a week I was simultaneously spending working in professional kitchens, I learned fairly quickly that my spirit didn’t have what it took to live Tony’s life. So, I became one of Uncle Sam’s Misguided Children instead. It seemed the next logical step, particularly for someone who wasn’t convinced he belonged anywhere in this world, and who had already dug himself a pretty deep hole figuring that much out. This seems cheap to say now, in light of Tony’s end, but my contemporaneous protestations about foreign policy & civic duty aside, at the time I wanted to put it all behind me. Oddly enough, I attempted to do that by joining another discipline where I was the resident misfit.
A few years after I left the Marines, Tony came through the city where I was living. I’d continued following his career, continued absorbing what he had to say about the world he encountered through food. That night, I asked him, in front of an auditorium of people, whether he’d ever considered turning his focus toward military food, with the idea that people in uniform deserved better than MREs and T-rats. My question was ham-fisted and ill-formed, the product of nerves (speaking to an idol, and in front of such a large crowd), enthusiasm, and sincere interest in his answer. Tony’s answer was funny & gracious. In my memory, it contained a bit of a joke (something to the effect of “Why would I ever put that garbage in my mouth? That’s a better question for Andrew Zimmern; he’ll eat anything.”). I don’t know if he’d ever had it suggested to him before, and I’d like to think he heard the real question I was asking. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter; he was as kind to me as I was nervous about speaking to him.
I learned much from Tony Bourdain. I learned I could say things about what is in my heart with food that I couldn’t — sometimes still can’t — say with my mouth. I learned to be a good guest, to be as curious about the people making my food as I am about the food itself. I learned to love the “nasty bits,” which, in their preparation, contain some of the purest love & good wishes anyone could offer another person. I learned that chefs have plenty to say about the state of our world, exploitation of people and the planet, and about where we fall short in living out the love contained in the simplest of dishes.
I learned I can love others the same way my grandmothers loved me. I learned even misfits can find their place, and that masculinity can be what I already am, not some archetype created & expected of me by others.
Thanks, Tony. I will miss your restless curiousity & infectious enthusiasm, your conscience & conscientiousness, your singular voice, your visceral gratitude.