Remembering Tony Bourdain in Iowa City

It’s way too early to process my feelings on the loss of my friend and colleague Tony Bourdain.  Yet I would like to share a story, with apologies to those who know me well and have heard it a hundred times.

Tony came to Iowa City in February of 2002, on book tour for A Cook’s Tour, the literary companion to his new Food Network series and follow-up to his break-out bestseller Kitchen Confidential.  He was to hold a reading for the legendary “Live from Prairie Lights” series, which back then was still broadcast on WSUI.  The organizers asked me if I could play host, pick him up at the airport, show him around, etc., and of course I was honored.

His star was just starting to clear the horizon. A couple years earlier, he’d gained wide attention with an essay in The New Yorker called Don’t Eat Before Reading This, And had followed that up with a couple of pro kitchen-based crime novels, Bone in the Throat and  Gone Bamboo – pieces of which informed Confidential.  On the heels of the surprise success of Confidential, A Cook’s Tour would be his first sure-fire hit – while I had been struggling to get someone to pay me to write about food – and I was eager to pick his brain.

Tony was just starting to get recognized in public, too.  As I waited for him outside security I heard a fellow passenger chase him down and say, a little too loudly, “Hey aren’t you Tony Bourdain?”

His gruff response, “’Fraid so.”  Still he smiled and shook the man’s hand.

First thing Tony said to me was to ask if I had a light – smoking was “the only vice I have left,” he said, an oblique reference to the much harder chemicals of years past.  We smoked on the way to the car.  It was soon after 9/11, and he told me that security at the Milwaukee Airport wanted to confiscate the Zippo he had bought from a street kid during a recent trip to Viet Nam (for his aforementioned TV series).  Bourdain convinced them to only take “the works” on the inside and let him keep the Zippo case, emblazoned with logo of the 101st Airborne on one side, and “Death from Above” on the other.

Our first stop was to the Tobacco Bowl in downtown Iowa City to replace the works.

We spent the afternoon at the bar of my second restaurant, the late, lamented Adagio, talking about writing and food and writing about food, and about the etymology of “companion” (from the Latin con panis, literally, “with bread”).  He was not the sharp-tongued bad boy of the persona in his somewhat apocryphal bestseller, yet he still managed to maintain that swashbuckling attitude of the pirate cook.  When it came time to smoke again, he insisted on going to the dank back steps with my line cooks rather than stepping out to the breezy front patio where the guests smoked.

Dinner that night was at Devotay, and he raved about the paella, saying it was better than those he’d had in Madrid and Valencia.  He was very probably lying, but it was still awfully cool of him to say so.  And again, he insisted on smoking with the cooks.

We walked the few blocks over to Prairie Lights for his reading, where we were greeted by folks from the Fire Marshall’s office, informing us that we could not come in because the store was over capacity.  Upon learning that Tony was the reason they were all there, he allowed us both to pass, apparently believing me to be Bourdain’s one-man entourage.

The reading went as you’d expect – Tony starting by apologizing to area cooks for doing the reading on a Friday night, then noting a few well-worn chef’s coats in the crowd, he openly assumed they were the B-Team, as the “real cooks” would surely be on the line at 7pm on a Friday night. The whole reading is still archived here.

Afterward, he asked where the cooks’ bar was – the one where we local line grunts could go, still grubby from the night’s toils, tip back a few and bitch about our respective service staffs (who were usually elsewhere bitching about us).  I took him to the Dublin Underground.

His fame was already more than enough that word quickly spread that he was there, and he sat in the back near the pool table as line cooks from all over town ended their shifts and hurried down to kiss his ring and hear his stories.  But Tony preferred to talk about anyone but himself and insisted instead on hearing stories from our local cooks.  He listened enraptured, occasionally throwing in some sage advice on how to improve a Bordelaise, or why frites were better fried in duck fat, or why people who order well-done steak should be executed.

The following morning, we had breakfast at the Hamburg Inn #2, just up the street from my place.  I know he made a clever comment about the Reagan booth, I just don’t know remember what it was.  We brought coffee for the ride to the airport, and all he could talk about on the drive up was how kind and gracious he found the people of Iowa City.  In the days and weeks that followed all anyone else would talk to me about was how kind and gracious he had been.  People are not always who you think they are, especially if you only know them from TV.

Over the years he and I stayed in touch and would see each other occasionally at conferences and the like.  He was always the same - cheerful and self-deprecating.  When I told him he had the greatest job in the world and that I wanted it, he’d say for fifty bucks and ride to the airport I could have it right now.  Later I heard that same line in a rerun of The West Wing.  I never knew who stole it from whom.

If there were signs of the pain he harbored that led to his ending his own life in his beloved France, I never saw them.  He loved food and the people who made it, and would go anywhere and taste anything in a quest for the most inventive, the most interesting, the most exciting cuisine and cooks in this life.  Tony Bourdain understood that truly knowing a person, or a people, has nothing to do with walking in their shoes. It has to do with sitting at their table.  If we are what we eat – and we are – then to share food is to share one’s true self, and gathering around a table is the only way to make peace.

Now his tour is ended, and I don’t understand why.  But in the kitchen, there is only one correct answer: Oui, Chef!

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