I didn’t write much about Anthony Bourdain when he died, partly because so much had been said about him, partly because I was in such shock and disbelief, and partly because it just didn’t seem like the right time. I hadn’t processed it yet. I still remember where I was when I heard the news, on a train, on my way into Manhattan that morning of June 8, 2018.
I had long known Tony through his show and books, but in 2011 he suddenly made it known he knew me, through my own writing and told the New York Times about it, I was floored. As I sat reading the paper that day, I came across this graf, without any prior knowledge of what I was about to read:
We soon connected after that. I had dinner with him and another mutual friend, David Carr at Fedora in the West Village, which sadly closed in 2020. Can you imagine the pressure of picking a place to eat with Tony Bourdain? He offered that “any place with a reasonable noise level good for me” so I wisely reached out to a friend who knows good spots to dine, Foster Kamer, who kindly made the suggestion. Tony seemed agreeable to the choice and it was one of those nights you never forget. If you were picking a pair of dinner companions for an all-timer, you’d be hard-pressed to find two better. To this day, I can’t imagine my luck to have shared a table with those two.
I also got to know Helen Cho through Tony, she worked with him through Zero Point Zero, the production company behind his television show. Helen is one of the most talented people I’ve ever met and was his producer at the time, she’s gone on to direct and become a fantastic showrunner for Lisa Ling and others. Helen invited me to moderate her panel with Tony and their longtime collaborators Zach Zamboni and Tom Vitale at SXSW in 2012.
Tony graciously allowed me to tag along when he filmed the Austin episode of No Reservations. The moment I met him early in the morning at Franklin BBQ, he was off and running talking about the News of The World phone hacking scandal. Something happened that day or around that day that sparked his interest but he was constantly interested in the news. Tony had the curiosity of a journalist, but took a much more interesting approach to journalism, by simply showing us the world through the eyes of everyday people all over. By the way, Tony waited in that long Franklin line like everyone else, which is not at all a surprise, that’s just who he was. I learned that there’s usually a good deal of food left over after shooting a scene and was invited to dive into the insanely good BBQ there along with the rest of the crew.
I think that’s one of the things that made Tony so special was his way to make you really care and understand places on a deeper level. Beyond the headlines and stories that you read in the national and international papers, he gave you a look into the lives of those going through it. Early on it was more a travel show but after the famous Beiruit episode, he really leaned into the full gamet of culture, politics, historical background to give you a rich and layered understanding of a place.
We traded texts and DMs over Twitter over the years. He told me where his secret cacio e pepe spot was in Rome. He complained about politics. He was so interested in current events and would often want to discuss his very strong opinions on any number of powerful people, either in government or business. He would have been engrossed by what’s been happening in Russia the last several days. He raved about great journalism, flagging what he’d come across to me. A piece by Anne Woolner and Felix Gillette on Paula Deen. He was angered at how long it took for Harvey Weinstein to receive his comeuppance. In the months before he died, he was very interested in the #MeToo movement.
Just before we lost Tony, I invited him to come check out the Trump Twitter Library that I helped produce at The Daily Show. The first time I ever stepped inside the doors of The Daily Show was as a guest of Tony’s, where he introduced me to Jon Stewart. It was a dream come true for me to get to meet Jon, and several years later I actually got the opportunity to work at the Daily Show and remained there from the start of Trevor Noah’s run as host and left just before Trevor stepped away.
The response to my invitation to come check out the Trump Library from Tony was the following:
He was gone three days later.
He leaves a legacy of being unapologetically your authentic self, to respect the local culture of the places we visit, to avoid being a tourist and try to experience places as one would if they were a longtime resident. It wasn’t singularly about the food for Tony. The food was a vehicle for enjoying the company of other people and trying to connect with one another. When I watched him on television and read his books, he was more interested in understanding, without judgement, the history of places he visited, and was so curious about the people who made it what it was.
I didn’t get to spend nearly as much time as I would have liked with him, but feel lucky to have had any opportunity to do so. He would have turned 67 today. His friends Eric Ripert and José Andrés started the idea of #BourdainDay in remembrance of his birthday. I think about him often but moreso on this day since he left.
My heart goes out to his daughter and family, to those who admired and were inspired by him from afar, and to those like me lucky enough to spend some time with him.