Morgan gets full credit for putting me in the right place at the right time to meet Ottavia. We were in a cavernous ballroom of the Ronald Reagan Building. The Food Fight stage was on a high platform with two small tiers of seats before it, off to either side. Morgan staked out the second row, house right. I think Ottavia and I spotted each other simultaneously.
Before I knew it, she and Tony had joined us. Ottavia greeted me with a big smile and a hug. Tony kissed my cheek. I apologized for basing my first impression on the Miami Ink clip. She laughed, agreeing that she looked like a “grinning idiot” (my description) because of how they cut the episode. She was dressed to relax in Miami, not be on TV, and understood how people got the wrong idea from her bare midriff.
She told us reading Cats Working is part of her Internet routine, and greeted Morgan and Cindy like old friends.
Tony brought up Winnipeg Bob’s recent visit to Les Halles, and told us waiter Tim, depending on his mood, will tell customers outrageous “revelations” about Tony, like he’s undergoing a sex change.
Before Tony left us to host the Fight, we got this group shot:
Ottavia graciously posed with me to prove there are no hard feelings with Cats Working:
We were pleasantly surprised when Ottavia asked us to save her a seat because she was “alone.” She and I chatted for the next several hours.
Now, I must sincerely thank Ottavia for her company. I’ve said before I’m not a foodie. If she hadn’t kept me distracted, I’d have found some gourmet delicacies on toothpicks and poked my eyes out.
Watching people cook on stage is the PITS. Camera people constantly stood in front of the chefs to project their actions onto a big screen behind them. The judges, who included some of my faves, chef Eric Ripert and past Top Chef contestant Carla Hall, were seated far upstage, hidden from our view.
Three hours of watching smoke rise live from pans, with the actual food on TV, is not my idea of entertainment.
Now back to Ottavia…
She grew up in a small rural community of about 2,000 in, I believe, Italy’s Lombardy region. She loves animals and had chickens, rabbits, and “usually about 10 cats and always a lot of kittens,” and explained that spaying and neutering weren’t priorities then.
After high school, she began to study medicine and would have pursued it after moving to the States, but we require an undergraduate degree first. Her credits didn’t transfer, so she took a new direction in the restaurant business.
She met Eric Ripert working for him at Le Bernadin.
When she learned her favorite cat in Italy had died, Ottavia happened by one of those adoption events held by the North Shore Animal League. She saw a black kitten cowering “back in the corner of the cage” and decided they needed each other. She named him Lupetto.
Ottavia said she would love to have more cats one day when they move to a larger place, but she doesn’t know when that will be.
At age 28, Ottavia was working 14-hour days at the Geisha Restaurant in New York City and felt she didn’t have time for a relationship, but she didn’t want to be alone either.
She’d read Kitchen Confidential, saying, “Everybody did, it was like the Bible for us.” And she caught Tony once on No Reservations, “in Morocco or somewhere like that,” while she and a girlfriend were looking for another Travel Channel host they liked (sorry, I didn’t catch the name).
But Bourdain was still nowhere on her radar. She said, “I never thought I would get mixed up with a celebrity.”
Tony and Eric Ripert were good friends, and Ripert’s wife thought Ottavia and Tony might be a good casual match because Tony was on the road so much.
Ottavia made it clear to me that when she met Anthony (she uses his full name), he and Nancy were long separated, although not divorced, and he’d been dating. There was no overlap whatsoever with their meeting and his first marriage.
It took Tony a couple of months to follow up and contact Ottavia, and he did it via e-mail around Thanksgiving 2005. Their first date was that weekend, a very late night of drinking and smoking (she also had a 2-pack-a-day habit), so Ottavia was feeling rough the next morning and declined when Tony called and asked her out again that night.
He didn’t call again for about a month, but when they finally had another date, something clicked, and they became a couple.
While Ottavia and I were talking, Tony kept casting worried glances our way from the stage. At one point, he stood downstage in front of us and signaled her to button her lips, but she ignored him. I wonder what he was afraid she’d tell me?
Next: Becoming Mrs. Bourdain