It was September 22, 2010 and I was 16. I was at Massey Hall in downtown Toronto with my mom and we were watching Anthony Bourdain give a talk. He ambled around the stage, holding thousands of pairs of eyes and ears at attention. In the question period at the end, someone in the audience asked him to ask the room “who here works, or has worked, in a restaurant kitchen?”. Some 90% of the 2700 people there raised their hands, myself included. Tony burst out laughing, joyous. We felt like his people.
I remember driving up to the theatre before the show, trying to find parking, when we saw Tony crossing Shuter street after getting out of a car. He seemed larger than life even at a distance. My mom asked if I wanted to get out of the car and go up to him, but I decided against it, having instantly turned into teenage fan panic personified.
I first read Kitchen Confidential at 15 while working in my first restaurant, at the advice of a coworker who had taken me under his wing. I felt so seen and understood, even though I had virtually no rebellious streak and was a teenage girl working in a kitchen full of much older men that had infinitely more in common with Tony than I did. I did like Iggy Pop, though.
Working in kitchens gave me some (much-needed) edge, and I just loved it. I loved the pace, the snacking, the family meals, the adrenaline, the satisfaction of working with my hands, of creating something that someone would enjoy. I loved being an integral part of a very close-knit team, and Tony wrote about all of that and more in his books.
I was in and out of restaurant kitchens for the next seven years, but it ultimately didn’t stick. Just like Tony admits in the post-stardom re-publication of Kitchen Confidential, my hands are now embarrassingly soft. They’re mostly free of the cuts and burns that I used to wear like battle scars in my kitchen days.
I left the business because I got sick of the boorishness. I stopped being able to stomach misogynistic bullshit and monologuing men, which are, as we all know, a big part of the industry. I got sick of the punishing hours. I started having anxiety dreams about empty walk-ins, ingredients running out, lines down the block, and bills unpaid.
Basically, it stopped fitting me. Not to say that I outgrew it, I miss it all the time. It just stopped fitting. My dream of being a chef evaporated when I turned 22 and I was so disoriented. It felt like everything had changed and I hadn’t even noticed it happening.
One that never changed, though, was my love for Tony and his writing. I re-read Kitchen Confidential probably 10 times, maybe more. I loaned it to many of my friends- in fact, I don’t even know where my copy is, but I know it’s somewhere that someone will find it again one day and re-read it themselves.
Tony’s professional evolution from cook to writer to TV personality and beyond gave me license to feel ok about “abandoning” the dreams that blue-haired 15-year-old me had cooked up while pulling the beards out of 100 pounds of mussels. It helped me understand that food could always be a big part of my life and identity, even if I didn’t work in a kitchen anymore.
When I was homesick for Montreal while I lived in Barcelona, I watched the No Reservations episode he did in Quebec. Same goes for the The Layover episode about Toronto. Same when he went to Mexico a few times. It’s already been said by everyone who loved him, but I can’t emphasize this enough: he was respectful, appreciative, and just great to all of our homes. He just got it.
As Helen Rosner wrote so beautifully, his personal, political evolution was even more impressive than his career trajectory. He went from being the man who spawned chef-bro culture to one who unwaveringly amplified the voices of the women who call it out, including the inimitable Jen Agg. This past year, he was an early and vocal supporter of the #metoo movement, and from day one of his fame, he’d been a fervent supporter of those who actually keep restaurants running in the U.S.- Latinos- and advocated for their rights and their recognition. He only got louder about it as things worsened. Put simply, he used his platform as every other powerful white man should aspire to.
I think of Tony whenever I feel like I’m traveling correctly- persevering to find a tiny, homey, familial place to eat and meeting the people who make the food. I think of him every time I peek into a filthy kitchen at a restaurant and miss being on that side of the equation. I think of him when I write about places and meals and people that I can’t ever forget, even if it’s just on a note in my phone.
Tony, you showed us the world and so much of yourself. Thank you for everything.