It Was Tony’s Town

By David Nash

Illustration by Olivia Wise.

The entire culinary world was in shock when Anthony Bourdain, 61, took his life this past June. So, too, were masses of fans across the globe — literally. Bourdain traveled the world for his outrageously successful television programs including No Reservations and Parts Unknown, giving audiences a look at cultures and cuisines they likely never imagined existed.

He was also a prolific and talented writer. His book Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly was a New York Times bestseller, and its follow-up, Medium Raw: A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food and the People Who Cook, was equally popular. Earlier, in the mid-’90s, he even authored two food-centric mystery books, Bone in the Throat and Gone Bamboo. There were, of course, several other books in addition to countless articles for newspapers and magazines – and television shows and documentary films. In fact, he helped develop and produce Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent in 2016, which offered a revealing look into the life and career of the former Bay Area celebrity chef. Tower was just one of many local colleagues – and friends – who spent time with Bourdain.

I spoke with some of San Francisco’s most renowned culinary figures and asked them to share a few personal memories and experiences with the legendary Bourdain.

Alice Waters: Chef and owner, Chez Panisse

We were colleagues. We weren’t sitting down together in New York for dinner or anything, but I knew him well enough to call him on the phone — I had his number. I felt a connection with him around the work he was doing that was so valuable — connecting food and culture. It’s a rare person who has done that successfully and very, very publicly. Anthony was that rare person willing to take a risk and say things that were provocative — like some things he said to me! He was always a little annoyed with me because I’m an environmentalist and deeply [so] about sustainable food. I was always asking him these annoying questions like, ‘That looks great — what you ate in Mexico — but where did it come from?” We participated in this crazy forum [in 2009] in Connecticut — and on the panel was this guy [Duff Goldman] who makes cakes on TV, Anthony and myself. We were in a sort of adversarial place that night on stage, and we were asked what we’d like as our last meal. I mentioned my friend, Cecilia Cheng who, in 1983, took me to China and we ate shark fin soup. She’d always told me that it revives you in the most wonderful way, and it’s so restorative. So, I said I’d like Cecilia to make me shark fin soup – not realizing the slaughter that was going on for the benefit of this rarified delicacy! Needless to say, I never heard the end of it. That’s what I remember most about that event — but also that I was feeling a little intimidated, because I did admire him. He was such a good talker, and he empowered so many young people — his encouragement has been unbelievably important to so many young cooks.

Gary Danko: Chef and owner, Gary Danko

Unknowingly to both of us, we attended the Culinary Institute of America the same year, 1975-1977, although we did not know each other back then. We were the “Power Class” of 1977 with fellow students being Susan Feniger, Sara Moulton, Bradley Ogden and Tim Ryan (now president of the CIA). I first met Anthony Bourdain personally when he came to Gary Danko shortly after we opened in 1999. Kitchen Confidential had been published. The news swirled around the kitchen and everyone was excited. Some cooks even called their spouses and had them bring their copy of [the book] to the restaurant to be signed. I headed out the kitchen door to the bar to meet the new star in the literary world. I remember him being very friendly, warm and inviting with great eye contact. He loved the food, describing it with a few expletives that I would rather not have heard in the dining room. He went on to congratulate me for opening my successful restaurant, and I comped his meal. He then followed me into the kitchen to meet the cooks. It was the late nineties and chefs were starting to sport pierced ears, nose rings, tattoos and bandanas. I, having worked at the Ritz-Carlton for six years, where none of those were accessories were allowed, carried this same dress code and professional aesthetics in my kitchen and dining room. All the chefs were ecstatic and he signed my young chef’s books. They were proud as could be and mauling around the book to see what he had inscribed. I opened my cook Drew’s book and was aghast he had written, “To Drew, Your Fucking Food Rocks! Anthony Bourdain” (with his signature French knife drawing above his signature). I was like wow, not what your average book author inscribed in their book but at least it’s just in a cookbook. It didn’t go unnoticed, when the paperback version of Kitchen Confidential came out the following August I faced my fear again — was my kitchen going to have the reputation of this? In the preface Anthony had written this — “Gary Danko fed me for free. I don’t think he’d read the book, but his cooks, a particularly piratical mob of pierced and scarred hooligans, seemed to like the book, so he extended me great courtesy. Chefs with whom I thought I’d had nothing in common showed me there is indeed a shared mindset, and appreciation of the dark and adrenaline-jacked culture we all share.” I found myself the poster child for bad behavior in the kitchen in August 2000.

Roland Passot: Chef and owner, La Folie and Left Bank

Everyone knows I love to play jokes. I once played a joke on Hubert Keller – that President Clinton was coming to Fleur de Lys for an [impromptu] dinner – it was fantastic. Well, about 15 years ago I was asked to do a television segment, and so early on a Thursday morning, a producer, director, host and camera crew arrived to La Folie. I started telling them what I planned to make, when suddenly two gentlemen showed up and asked to speak to the owner or manager. Well, my staff told them I was very busy cooking, but they insisted on seeing me. So, I met them and one of the gentlemen opened his coat and showed his credentials — he was the health inspector for San Francisco — the real guy! He introduced his colleague as an agent from New York and explained that we had a good rating but there had been a complaint — a rat inside my restaurant! I had the film crew there and I start turning every color — green, yellow, blue — and I said it’s not possible. While I was in the dining room with the head inspector, the crew followed us and he described rat traps and I continued turning every color. Then we went to the kitchen and the other agent was on the ground with a flashlight between his teeth, looking under the counter. Suddenly he said “Ah ha! I think I’ve found something.” And he came up with bits of potato. I was apologizing, saying we clean very thoroughly every night and sometimes this happens, and I am so sorry. Then he ran his finger along a shelf and said, “Maybe there are traces of salmonella here” — and I’m saying no way! Suddenly the show host said to the agent, “Don’t I know you? You were on my show the other night.” It was Anthony Bourdain. That’s how we met — when he played a trick on me! He was a great guy, a lot of fun

Sarah Rich: Chef and co-owner, Rich Table

Anthony and Jeremiah Tower were coming through San Francisco – when they were [promoting] The Last Magnificent – and on their way to Seattle, I think. A friend of ours had done the San Francisco episode of No Reservations with him, so one of Anthony’s producers reached out to him to help put together some food for their flight – and in turn, he reached out to us. And you don’t say no to an opportunity like that unless you’re crazy! They wanted something decadent and luxurious, so we put together caviar, king crab and oysters, and packed it all up into coolers and sent it to their plane – and [we heard] they really enjoyed it. Later on, we were looking for a quote for our Rich Table cookbook – and you want to find somebody that’s immediately recognizable and whose opinion is respected, so we took a chance and reached out to Anthony. He agreed immediately – which is incredible considering, as I can imagine, he was inundated with requests constantly. To be that generous is really remarkable. He actually gave it to us two months before he died. In fact, we struggled whether to use it or not, even though the book had already gone to the publisher. Ultimately, he meant for us to have it, so we went ahead. It reads, “Rich Table is that rare restaurant that manages to be both utterly unpretentious and completely dazzling. Sarah, Evan and their team have fed me so well and beautifully.”

Marguerita Castanera: Director, Cooks with Books program, Book Passage

When he’d come to town on tour he really only had one day in the Bay Area before he was off to visit friends or colleagues. So, we’d start our day at the Ferry Building at 10 a.m., where he’d do a signing for people who would be lined-up around the block. Then at noon we’d scurry off to Il Fornaio on Battery where we’d host a lunch for 300 people. Afterward, he’d get a little break and then do an evening Cooks with Books event at someplace like Left Bank in Larkspur. Tony and the owner, Roland [Passot], were very good friends, so whenever he’d come to Left Bank there’d be a lot of shenanigans. There was one night we hosted an event for Medium Raw – just after the no-smoking ordinance was passed in Northern California, and Tony – a long-time smoker – stood up on the head table and lit up a cigarette in front of all the guests and basically told Marin County and San Francisco to “Fuck off”! We were all in hysterics over it.

Jeremiah Tower: Chef, author and former restaurateur, Stars

Before Tony read California Dish, I knew him — but not as a close friend. Later on, he introduced me to Lydia Tenaglia and the folks at Zero Point Zero — the production company he worked with [and for which he produced The Last Magnificent]. He told Lydia he thought they should make a film about [me and the book]. She read the book and said, “Oh, God, I don’t want to meet this person,” and Tony said, “Yes, you do.” Needless to say, after that I got to know him very well — especially when we were on tour for six months, off and on, for the film. We had some very special moments. I think one of my favorite things is that he was a walking sound bite. On one occasion we were on our way to CBS to do Charlie Rose, and across the street from the studio there were about 20 guys picketing. When we got out of the car they all started yelling “Tony! Tony! Tony!” — really rough, hard-bitten union characters. So, he walked across the street, shook all their hands and said, “You know guys, I’m going to do a show in 15 minutes, do you think you could keep it down for the next 45 minutes?” — and they said no problem and stopped picketing! Now, who else in the world, except for their boss, could get New York picketers to shut up?!

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