From the Fall of 2006
It’s 7:00 a.m. on a Friday morning and I’m lying in bed watching the ceiling fan as it slowly induces in me some well-deserved motion sickness. At least I am in a very nice bed and the bathroom is only a short crawl away. I’m 44 years old and I haven’t felt this bad since my days as an English lit student at Southeastern Louisiana University. As I sit up in bed only to feel the bile begin to rise from my stomach I think to myself how lucky I am to feel this bad. For a guy like me what could be better than to spend the evening drinking and chatting and drinking with Tony Bourdain?
Several months ago my wife and I had been invited to give a cooking demonstration at Charlotte Shout, a three-week long food, wine and culture festival and fundraiser in Charlotte, NC that is now in its fifth year. Shout! features appearances by several big names like Ming Tsai, Sara Moulton, Wolfgang Puck and Marcus Samuelsson but the fact that they have convinced Tony Bourdain to come really puts this event in the big leagues. We were asked to give our demonstration a on Saturday and were then invited to the Duke Mansion-hosted VIP party that was strictly for the participants. The party was on a Thursday night so I figured that I could drive up Thursday afternoon and bring my buddy & food enthusiast Kerry Shafran, stay at his place that night, return to Greenville and work on Friday then back to Charlotte for our event on Saturday morning. Kerry, a Charlotte physician and Duke graduate, is excited about seeing Mr. Duke’s mansion, something he has never done before. And if Tony Bourdain is also there and we get to meet him, well so much the better.
We spend an hour at Kerry’s house snacking on a baguette, some Camembert and a few slices of Tasso ham washed down with a crisp Albarino then we head out to Mr. Duke’s for a 7:30 arrival. I tell Kerry that we had best get in line to meet Tony as soon as we arrive because he’ll probably sign books for 30 minutes, say a few words and then be off and of course everyone at this event will be in line to meet him. I’ve brought along my copy of the Les Halles cookbook and a digital camera. We turn into a long brick driveway that leads to an enormous Greek revival home, immaculately landscaped and garnished with a huge yet softly lit water fountain. Lining this fountain are at least 20 valets all patiently waiting their turn to park the next car. As I exit I ask the valet if Tony Bourdain is here and he responds: “is he a valet?”
In we go and we are greeted by several lovely hostesses that offer us our name tags and directions to the many bars and food stations inside and outside. “Is Tony Bourdain here?” I ask.
“Is he a chef?” she questions.
“Well, yes” I answer.
“There are a lot of chefs here tonight,” she offers. Kerry suggests that we grab a drink and mingle and if Tony is here surely we’ll see him. Finding a drink is easy. In every direction we see well-stocked bars that are pouring everything from Grey Goose Vodka (Kerry’s favorite) to Veuve Clicquot (my choice). Johnson & Wales has catered this affair and there are plenty of gorgeous food stations and bow-tied servers passing hors d’oeuvre trays. I also scan the crowd of maybe 175 and figure that at least a fourth of these are other chefs. The day old stubble, scarred fingers and ill-fitting clothes (when was the last time we bought dress clothes?) cause most of us to stand out. After we get our drinks I approach a food station and ask the culinary student if Tony Bourdain is here.
“He sure is!” she gushes. “He hasn’t come over here yet but you can’t miss him because he’s like seven feet tall and when he does pass by I’m going to get him to sign my copy of Kitchen Confidential, see?” She reaches under the table and produces her book but then quickly stashes it back by her feet.
“Fried Chicken?” she asks.
Strangely enough I’m a little nervous and don’t feel like eating so I pass on the chicken. I mention this intel to Kerry then we wander around and enjoy the sights. In a few minutes we spot Tony Bourdain. He’s at a food station and he has his back to us but his salt & pepper hair and lanky frame are a dead giveaway. Furthermore there’s not a soul around him. We decide to wait and have another drink and allow Tony a few minutes with his food before approaching. 15 minutes later Tony Bourdain is back on his feet and moving towards us so I walk up and introduce myself and mention that he may know me from E-gullet where I post under the name the Cynical Chef.
“No but I’m always happy to meet a fellow e-gulleteer.” The ice is broken and Kerry and I have Tony’s attention for 15 or 20 minutes and the conversation centers on a few episodes of No Reservations that he has recently shot, one inRussiaand one in the Kalahari. Tony is happy to talk about his adventures. He comes off as the luckiest guy in the world yet he is neither smug nor condescending. While filming in Russia he was given a ride with a military aerobatic team in a Mig-29 and me being an aviation enthusiast I had to blurt out: “You rotten, lucky bastard!” At this he enthusiastically gives me all the details of his flight so that I can share in his good fortune.
“Did you pass out? “ I ask.
“No but at one point I wanted to, especially when the blood was filling my eyes and my vision was starting to tunnel.”
A server appears with a Grey Goose & cranberry for Tony and asks if she can bring us anything. “Veuve Clicquot please” I say but Kerry politely declines. Tony lights another cigarette and a few others join us and introduce themselves and are soon asking for him to autograph their books. We ask Tony if we can get a photo and he says sure, of course. Tony & I pose first and then he puts his arm around my neck and says “This one’s for the Fat Guy! (E Gullet founder Steve Shaw, AKA the Fat Guy) and flips the middle finger at the camera. “Come on John! For the Fat Guy!” he hollers. I respond somewhat half-hearted. I’ve never met Steve Shaw so I am uncomfortable telling him he’s #1 but I figure that this isn’t the first time Tony has convinced some unsuspecting chef to flip off Steve so I comply. With my book signed and a few photos I am happy to back up and let a few more folks move in and say hello. Kerry and I head over to the bar and I get another glass of Champagne to celebrate. Kerry passes on another martini but we do get some food and have a seat. Soon we are up and moving and we meet a few other chefs and some of the other VIP’s. The food is very good and the champagne is cold and we’re having a great time. We end up at a table with a few Charlotte chefs and I excuse myself to grab another glass of Champagne. When I return a few minutes later Kerry informs me that Tony was looking for me because he wanted to introduce me to someone.
“No bull? Tony Bourdain was looking for me?”
“You like the sound of that, don’t you John?” Kerry smirks.
I look around and see Tony in the corner and he catches my eye and waves me over.
“John I want you to meet Adam real-last-name-unknown and this is the Grill Bitch”
Adam was at one time the best bread baker in New York and worked for Tony when he was writing his first book, Kitchen Confidential and is one of the more colorful characters that pass through the kitchen of Les Halles. The Grill Bitch is Beth Aretsky, at one time a grill cook for Tony but now his personal assistant. Beth also figures into Kitchen Confidential. They are both very friendly and seem to be enjoying themselves greatly. Adam asks me where I cook which gives me reason to talk up 33 Liberty. The crowd is thinning now but the ones that are left are the ones like me that are eager to be in this company. Soon I have to take a seat and Kerry and another chef join me. Kerry mentions how casual and friendly Tony is and Kerry is certain that his wife is not going to believe this and she’ll be furious she wasn’t invited. I turn around and see Tony standing behind us, talking to Beth and he is gently swaying, putting pressure on one foot and then the other as if he is tired of standing. I walk up and invite them to join us at our table and he says that would be great. Tony & Beth sit down with us and another Grey Goose & cranberry appears for Tony and a friendly voice says “I believe that you were drinking Veuve Clicquot” and just like that there’s another flute of champagne. Tony picks up my Les Halles cookbook and asks me why the hell is the cover of this book so clean?
“I specifically asked the publisher to cover this book in something resembling butcher paper because I assumed it would get covered in beef blood and smeared with butter and olive oil. Now why the hell is your book spotless, Malik?”
“Because there’s not one decent grits recipe in this whole damn book Tony!”
He laughs and then I explain that I’m primarily a Southern guy that occasionally dabbles in pates but I have read the entire book and enjoyed it immensely. As proof I quote his lobster recipe that suggests having a stiff drink before dispatching the lobster. He grins and with that he and Beth dip their fingers in a plate of appetizers and smear their now greasy fingers all over the cover of the book. I join in by spilling a glass of pinot noir (where did that come from?) on the cover.
I remind him of an email I had sent him years ago. I was about to go to New York for an appearance on Sara Moulton’s Primetime show and I sent Tony an email at Les Halles asking him if he would be in the kitchen when I was in town. He replied yes and that I should have dinner, then he offered a bit of unsolicited advice concerning Sara Moulton’s show. “Just talk to Sara. Don’t think that the camera will be focused on you, looking up your nose because it won’t. Be yourself and have a good time”. My response at the time was that I had seen him on Sara Moulton last week and guess what, the camera was looking up his nose.” Tony laughs out loud, points his finger at me and says I remember that email!”
A few other chefs join us and our conversation topics run from music to barbecue to Ariane Daguin’s (owner of D’artagnan) troubles inNew Jerseythen to the greatest chef in the world, Ferran Adria of El Bulli in Spain. One of the other chefs asks Tony how great Ferran is and he offers this comparison. “Imagine if you are a jazz and blues fan and your standard is BB King. BB King is a great R & B player and musician and his music has plenty of soul. Then one day you hear Charlie Parker and Charlie is not even from the same planet as BB King and you are so shocked and amazed at Charlie Parker’s music that your entire world, your entire understanding of what is great music has been twisted and distorted. That’s how amazing Ferran Adria is. Ferran Adria is Charlie Parker. I have dined at El Bulli maybe a half dozen times and Ferran has taken everything I thought I knew about food and turned it on its head.” Us mere mortals, the ones that will only read about Ferran Adria’s food, can only nod our heads in agreement and take Tony’s word. Someone else asks “what’s the worst thing you’ve ever eaten?” Without hesitating he answers “Pig’s rectum, from a wild pig that had been killed then dragged across the dessert for three days by Kalahari bushmen, roasted whole then butchered by the tribe elders and I was offered the best cut, served only to the guest of honor. It was truly horrible but if I had refused it would have been incredibly rude so I ate it. In your worst dreams you can’t imagine how horrible this was.”
“Was it cleaned?” someone asks.
There is momentary silence as we all cringe. I had no idea how far Tony would go to avoid being seen as rude. I would have been rude. It went like that for the better part of an hour and a half, maybe longer. Tony was perfectly happy to sit there, drink in hand and cigarette nearby and recount his tales of culinary daring to his small audience. He spun tales of Spain and Viet Nam, New York and Russia, Sweden and France. Then at some point he says that he’s beat and he’s going out tomorrow to find some whole hog barbecue shack that ideally will have blood and pig’s hair splattered on the walls. Kerry offers advice on where to find such a place then we get up and shake hands, I thank him for his hospitality and he tells me that he damn well better see that picture on e-gullet or my manhood will be in question. As I stand up I have to steady myself on the table but I promise that the photo will get posted. As Tony Bourdain walks off Kerry checks his watch and tells me it is after midnight and perhaps we should head home. My glass of red wine is empty (I thought I was drinking champagne?) and I suddenly feel very tired so off we go.
The next morning it takes me three attempts spread over two hours to get out of bed, get dressed and head back home. As I am struggling for composure and trying to keep my Goody’s down I’m cursing Tony but I also know that I would not have taken this bullet for any other food celebrity, not Emeril nor Daniel, Ming nor Thomas. And if I do get the chance to share another drink with Tony….pass the sparkling water please. Damn, what a night!