“Human behaviour remains a mystery to me.”
-Anthony Bourdain (from Kitchen Confidential: Insider’s Edition, page 362)
A few years back I was tagged to sell books at Place des Arts for a show featuring an enigmatic author, chef and TV presenter billed as “Guts & Glory: An Evening with Anthony Bourdain.” So I packed up as many of his volumes as we could carry and along with my assistants Nino and Vijay went off to PDA to sell them on a Sunday evening.
I knew in advance that Bourdain was not going to sit and sign for the public, but I had made arrangements to have him pre-autograph some copies before the show. We set up our vendor table just outside the theatre’s doors and it wasn’t long before people started to buy. After a few minutes someone from PDA security came to take me to Bourdain and I loaded up several boxes of his titles and wheeled them off to the cavernous backstage of Théâtre Maisonneuve.
Waiting for me was Bourdain’s nervously pacing assistant. Many big names in literature often employ such a person on tour to make sure they make their flights and shows on time. Seeing him in this condition was not a good sign.
“We got in late last night,” he blurted out as we shook hands.
I didn’t know how to react.
“Mr. Bourdain is very tired, you must understand,” the assistant continued.
“So he’s not signing?” I asked.
“No, he will sign. You can set up right here,” he said pointing at a large wooden table on the stage with a metal folding chair, continuing with “I’ll go get him,” as he scooted off and disappeared down an unlit passageway.
I began to unload and set up my wares in neat piles and carefully placed a row of pens and markers of various sizes and colours for him to use. Just as I finished I turned around and was startled to find Bourdain less that ten feet away from me, slowly and stealthily sauntering towards the table.
I introduced myself. He said nothing as he took my hand and shook it. He soon sat down and took a black pen out of his pocket and began to silently sign. In some of the books he included a drawing a crude kitchen knife (similar to the one on the cover of the latest reprint of Kitchen Confidential) as well as his John Hancock. I helped him by opening the books to the autograph page and tried to make small talk.
“Y’know the episode of Parts Unknown about Montreal airs tonight on CNN? I guess the people here are going to miss it.”
Without halting his frantic signing pace or turning to look at me he said in a deep monotone: “We got in really late last night.”
I took that as my cue to shut up.
It didn’t take him long to complete the signing and as he rose I asked: “Can I please have a photo with you, Mr. Bourdain?”
“Sure,” he said smiling politely as I took the selfie.
photo: Andreas Kessaris
Without another word he vanished into the nearby dark hallway. As I was packing up my boxes his anxious assistant approached me again and asked how it went.
“Fine,” I said, “he signed all the books…we’re good. Thank you for this.”
As I was rolling my stock away he said, “we got in really late last night, you understand?”
I turned and said, “I understand,” as I went on my way.
I spoke with people after the show that night and they all said he was great and they had a good time. Given the circumstances of Mr. Bourdain’s demise, I realize now that perhaps he was going through a fit of painful depression and today look at this entire incident in a new light and with an enhanced respect for him; with all he was going through he remained a trooper and fulfilled his obligations.
Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly, the book that brought Anthony Bourdain to public attention, has seen multiple reissues over the years the latest of which, the “Insider’s Edition,” boasts “handwritten footnotes and afterthoughts.”
On its own Kitchen Confidential is a smooth and interesting page-turner; Bourdain narrates his own story with the sly coolness of a Raymond Chandler character and brings to life the gritty, hidden world of the food service industry. Reading the easy-flowing lines I could almost hear his distinctive voice in my head, as though I were watching another edition of Parts Unknown, which for a long time was only reason to watch CNN. (Now, of course, there is no reason to watch CNN.)
The added commentary and asides were not a distraction, quite the contrary, like a fresh sprig of parsley or the perfect vintage wine, they only served to enhance the experience. Some funny, others intriguing, none dull; I especially liked when he listed the current whereabouts of a number of the people in his book and who still owes him money. At times they felt a little spooky, like on page 73 where he wrote “sadly – on my headstone” and on page 349 when he scrolled “NO REGRETS.” It was not unlike watching the first edition of Parts Unknown to air after his death, which takes place in Louisiana during Mardi Gras, when the atheist Bourdain pulls his pickup truck up to a woman on the street who is placing crosses of ash on the foreheads for lent as part of the Catholic ritual. In an eerie moment worthy of a Twilight Zone episode, Bourdain allows her to do so to him as she absolves him of his sins, almost as if he were receiving the last rites.
Now I absolutely love books about unseen, obscured worlds that the general public doesn’t get to experience. For me Kitchen Confidential does not unveil all that many surprises, but then again almost every member of my mother’s side of the family is or has at one time worked in the that realm and I grew up hanging around eateries and smoking cigarettes with staffers outside the delivery door. I was already all too aware of the parallels between restaurants and theatres (the kitchen being the backstage and the presentation by the meal is the show, as my Uncle Eugene also knew and explained to me almost thirty years ago as he was trying to lure me into that life and get me to work for him), and that it’s not just a job but a lifestyle that grips you tight like a boa constrictor and never lets you go. To this day that same aforementioned uncle still works every day at his South Shore establishment despite his advanced years and trying unsuccessfully to retire several times.
I still enjoyed Kitchen Confidential: Insider’s Edition as a literary experience. For another brilliant book along the same lines I recommend (and so does Anthony Bourdain on page 340) Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell.
Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention: