There’s a big dull ache in my middle right now.
Celebrity deaths don’t often have much impact. I might have known them by the parts that they played or the books they wrote or even the clothes they designed — but I didn’t know them.
The last one to really hit hard was Phil Hartman. I didn’t know him, of course, but back in my radio days, “the best voice-man in the business,” as I called him, was the closest thing I had to a role model. Hearing he’d been murdered for doing the right thing — shot to death in his sleep by the troubled wife he’d stuck by — was heavy news. It seems most famous men in Hollywood dump their wives for a newer model at the first sign of trouble. Or even sooner. Hartman stuck by his wife through her drug troubles, and paid the ultimate price for it.
Today’s news hits harder.
Bourdain spent much of the last 16 or 17 years in my living room, where I’ve watched him host his deeply personal food and travel shows. My introduction to him came early in his TV career, on his first “A Cook’s Tour” show. I’ll never forget this. I was down in my office, writing something for the old VodkaPundit.com blog, and my wife was upstairs with the TiVo. She shouted down to me, “Stephen, you’ve GOT to come see this!” When she called me Stephen, I knew it was serious.
I ran up to the den, and Melissa was watching some gangly looking American on tour through St. Petersburg and Russia’s frozen reaches near the Barents Sea. There, he was introduced to the culinary pleasures of reindeer and said, “I’ve got to put this on the menu [at Les Halles] around Christmas, just to freak out the kids.”
It was the perfectly wrong thing to say, delivered with the insouciance of someone who might have actually meant it — which made the line funnier still.
Bourdain’s Les Halles cookbook is my most-used, with the book falling open to three much-cooked classics: Pommes frites, steak au poivre, and the one Melissa always asks for, steak tartare. His novel, Bone in the Throat, was raucous good fun, as was the memoir which made him famous, Kitchen Confidential. Melissa and I followed him from the Food Network to the Travel Channel (where he did arguably his best TV work) to his current — well, current as of yesterday — home at CNN.
Bourdain could be crabby, pushy, and a downer, and I certainly didn’t agree with his politics — although oftentimes he brought a perspective I was unfamiliar with, widening my horizons. And you certainly had to admire the man’s fearlessness. One of his best episodes took place in Beirut in 2006, where he and his crew became trapped in that year’s Israel-Lebanon conflict. He set the perfect tone, and kept his crew together until evacuated by U.S. Marines.
When he found his final TV home on CNN, his show became less about food and discovery, and more about being woke. Melissa and I fast-forwarded through most of it, with Melissa often pleading at the TV, “Just get to the food, Tony.”
But we kept watching, because Bourdain at his best was funny, vulnerable, adventurous, endearing, and perhaps the most honorable table guest of all time. He was offered raw seal eyeball by an Inuit family in Canada, and ate it without hesitation. Even more memorably, when presented with warthog anus cooked in hot sand by tribal locals in Namibia, he ate that, too. Bourdain’s attitude was that when poor people give you the best they have, you eat it with a smile.
Bourdain leaves behind a beautiful and talented girlfriend, actress/director Asia Argento, a best friend in Michelin three-star chef Eric Ripert, and worst of all a young daughter. And of course, more than a few confused fans.
Bourdain brought us along as he traveled the world, apparently searching for peace he never found. I hope he’s found it now.
I’ll find my own tonight, in a chilled pile of steak tartare, chopped by hand just the way Tony taught me.