Anthony Bourdain was the bad boy of chefs, the provocative tell-all author of Kitchen Confidential, and a groundbreaking TV travel show host who celebrated the world’s cultures through food at all levels, from street vendors to gastronomic stars, and in complex, honest ways that had never been presented to the viewing public before.
As a result, before his death by suicide Friday in France, he had became one of the most influential American cultural icons of the last two decades, a man who perhaps more than any other figure helped transform the previously uncelebrated gritty world of the line cook into a seemingly glamorous career direction for a generation of young cooks.
The chefs of Philadelphia are no exception. Bourdain’s visits to the city, to promote a book during a lunch at Brasserie Perrier in 2001, to perform at the Merriam Theater with fellow chef Eric Ripert for his “Good vs. Evil Tour” in 2011, and for a rollicking drunken romp across the city in 2012 for his Travel Channel show The Layover, are still the stuff of local legend. If Anthony Bourdain ate there – and liked it – it was the ultimate validation. His enthusiastic encounter with a bottle of Pappy Van Winkle at Stateside, I contend, single-handedly pushed that already-coveted bourbon into nearly unreachable cult whiskey status.
I spoke with some of those who accompanied him during that visit and others, as well as chefs who didn’t know Bourdain at all, but saw him as a tremendous influence. Here are edited excerpts of their thoughts.
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Michael Solomonov, chef and co-owner of Zahav, who was featured in Bourdain’s visit to Philly in ‘”The Layover:” We’re all shocked. … No one saw it coming. This is insane. I was working at Avenue B and had just moved to Philadelphia when Kitchen Confidential came out, and that’s where I learned about the culture and work ethic and the sort of loyalty to the craft that a cook needs to have in this business. There were no memoirs about this at that time with an author who could so strongly connect themes that would not only relate to line cooks, but also the general public. … He’d fire a duck breast on the line, then run off to smoke a cigarette. He talked about the importance of having a diverse staff, about immigration and how it related to the real world. And there was an honesty and lack of Hollywood that he brought to it all that was one of the most important expressions about restaurants at that time by far. It changed the way way people viewed restaurants.
When he came for The Layover, we had pho in the morning at Pho 75 and spent all day together, talking a lot about politics and the Middle East, my brother David [an Israeli soldier killed by a Lebanese sniper], and his own experiences in Lebanon, and he was super-intellectual, super smart and so well-spoken. Then, that night, he and Marc Vetri and I went to the Pen and Pencil Club for late-night drinks. He lost a rock-paper-scissors bet and had to drink the hot-dog water. He was a good sport.”
Scott Schroeder, chef and co-owner of Hungry Pigeon: I didn’t know him, but I teared-up this morning. I don’t know if I can even talk about it. There’s a memory of reading Kitchen Confidential when I was 20 years old and realizing that it defined how restaurants really were, how cooks were. How it was OK that you were going to struggle in between jobs. And honestly, it probably made me feel more confident to be myself. He was one of us. He was one of us for real, and then he became a celebrity. We all made fun of Guy Fieri, and he did, too.
Nicholas Elmi, chef and co-owner of Laurel, ITV, and Royal Boucherie: He came to Brasserie Perrier once when I was younger – I was actually off that day, but everybody was pretty hype about it. His book came out when I was 19 and someone gave it to me for Christmas. I was in school for accounting and economics at the time, but that definitely pushed me into the culinary direction. Cooks of my generation are unbelievably influenced by what he was doing – especially back in the early 2000s. It’s become pretty much passé now to call people rock-star chefs, but he was one of those who started it all and really shed light onto what the industry was about. He still did a great job of highlighting the good of the industry as well – not just the partying, but what was great about being in the restaurant world and connecting people through food.
Chris Scarduzio, chef-owner of Teca Newtown Square, who was chef-partner at Brasserie Perrier when Bourdain dined there in 2001: I was so saddened to hear this — he was a good friend of mine. Whenever he came to Philly or Atlantic City, we always had a good time. He adored French food tremendously, and he was a staunch ally to the classics. He wasn’t too much into the sous-vide and tweezer chefs – not that he didn’t respect them. But he liked big, bold flavors, and when I cooked with him, I didn’t overdo the plates at all. … At the time, when his New Yorker article first came out, there were actually a lot of mixed feelings in the restaurant community about many of the things he criticized, like telling people not to eat fish on Mondays. I disagreed with some of it, too. But he brought some light to the darkness that happens in some bad kitchens. Not all chefs are like that … not all pros run their kitchens that way. But there was definitely truth in it. And that was Anthony. He was like the cowboy, the true rock-and-roll king of the culinary industry.
Tod Wentz, chef and co-owner of Townsend, A Mano and Oloroso: As a young cook, I remember reading Kitchen Confidential and feeling that he was one of us — and it was really moving. For him to go from being a line cook to traveling the world and showing us all what was possible and what was out there was really the most important contribution he had for us. Having that honest viewpoint of life in general and knowing that it came from how we saw the world — the people who’ve done this for our whole lives — was always honest and revealing.
Han Chiang, owner of the Han Dynasty chain, including a branch in Manhattan that Bourdain frequented, who was also featured on the Philly “Layover” episode: Oh no! I just woke up and saw what happened. … He was in our restaurant on the Upper West Side just last Thursday, and I really wish I was there. He had his regular: two orders of ma pao tofu and a six-pack of Tsingtao. Overall he was a super-cool guy, and he was one of my idols because his shows were not just about the food but about the culture, and his stories always had a point at the end.
I wasn’t even supposed to meet him when he came to film The Layover — I had booked a plane ticket back to Taiwan. But then a week before, the producers said he wanted to meet me from hearing how crazy I am. So I canceled the flight and we set up a scene at Dirty Frank’s. I got there early and got drunk before he even came in. But then when he got there, we just kept going with the Jameson shots and IPAs non-stop. There were a bunch of pretty girls there that night and I was like, ‘Damn, I can go talk to a bunch of pretty girls now because Anthony Bourdain is here!’ But they started lining up to get him to sign his book and they were like, ‘Who the f– is this guy?!’
Jonathan Deutsch, professor in the Center for Food and Hospitality at Drexel University, on Bourdain’s impact with culinary students: When I got into this field in the early to mid-’90s, it was sort of the beginning of the food-media phenomenon, and we were sort of on the cusp of culinary school being seen as both a glorified trade school and as an academic pursuit. Chefs were just starting to being thought of skilled craftsmen, women and tradespeople, but also thought leaders, influencers, and media icons. Anthony, in my opinion, navigated us through that change and let students know that it’s OK to both have strong culinary skills and also think critically and intellectually about what you’re doing. Explore the flavors of the world on the one hand as a food journalist or culinary ethnographer, but don’t just leave it there.
He was a sort of a chef’s chef, and highly relatable to [diverse audiences] as this inquisitive, omnivorous, passionate person who loved everything about this industry, from its horrible gritty underbelly of the Kitchen Confidential era to people making really beautiful food at all levels ranging from street food through fine dining. He had a real curiosity and respect for everyone in this field, all the while shaking up a lot of the puffery and self-congratulatory nature of food scenes. There are students who read his book and said, this is not for me, I’m going to business school. But then many others were hooked and said: “I want in!”
To have [Bourdain’s suicide] the same week as Kate Spade’s death, it makes me think. Here are people who should want for nothing in life. They’re successful by any unit of measure, but yet they are still are unable to shake whatever it is that makes someone do this. And I think [mental health] is actually the next frontier for our field. We’ve gone through a lot of awareness and building support for chefs with substance abuse problems. But there’s been much less done around the issues of depression, isolation, and anxiety. And this can be a tough, stressful and isolating business.