Conversation with Tom Vitale, Part 1

By Karen

Tom Vitale is author of In the Weeds: Around the World and Behind the Scenes with Anthony Bourdain, published October 5.

We spoke by phone October 10. The full transcript of our wide-ranging convo runs 6,400 words, so I’ll be sharing it in a series of edited segments. First up…

Lingering (Now)-Solved Mysteries

Cats Working: Tom, thanks for doing this. How do you feel now that your book’s out and has a life of its own?

Tom Vitale: It’s weird and a bit surreal. It’s hard to be excited like I feel I should be, because it still means Tony’s gone. Overall, it’s becoming clearer that I needed to write the book to help process all the different crazy things going on inside my mind.

CW: I scanned back through the blog, and maybe you can tell me something about the Chase Sapphire incident. It was No Reservations, Season 6 —

TV: Yes, I know that quite well.

CW: Tony started using this credit card. In fact, I just rewatched Prague, and he flashes the card upside down, which I took as a “Fuck you, Chase.” What was that about?

TV: I worked on the Chase Sapphire integration in Harbin, China. He pays for a big meal at the end with his card. I remember Tony thanking me for that placement because it didn’t stand out like a sore thumb. Chase paid him for product placement. Typical Tony, he hated doing it.

TV pays pretty well, but not that well. The real money comes from product placement or endorsements, which Tony resisted because his integrity wouldn’t let him sell out. But he was always looking for ways to do something pretty low-impact. Chase Sapphire was one. I think we had to use it five times in that season and work it in naturally. There was a Bing thing we had to do once —

CW: Yes! My next question is Bing.com. He did a commercial.

TV: I had to direct that. Bing was a Microsoft search engine, and I don’t even know if it still exists. We staged a faux-production meeting, and we actually had to use Google to find Bing. Microsoft was hoping it was going to be big, and they paid for a commercial. I don’t remember if it ever aired. Nari, and I think Sandy, were in it.

CW: It aired because I saw it, but I don’t remember it. At the time, I wrote that Tony said in it he made all this travel plans using Bing.com.

TV: [Laughs]

CW: There was some outrage over Chase Sapphire, particularly. We thought evil Travel Channel had forced him to do it. But thanks to you, now the truth is on the record.

TV: Travel Channel probably proposed those. They came to him to all the time with product placements. I remember one involving Cadillac he refused, but they did it anyway, and he was furious.

He didn’t want to do them, but he also needed to pay for private school for his daughter and so on. He rejected many things and would joke, “You endorse Imodium one time, and then for the rest of your life, you’re the Imodium guy.”

He had so many opportunities over the years that he refused. Making those shows was so hard, he was looking for income that didn’t mean 250 days a year traveling around the world.

CW: Here’s more trivia. In August 2011, Bill Maher had Tony on his HBO show, Real Time, and Maher was an asshole. Tony came on with a copy of his latest book, and it sat uncomfortably on the table. It seemed Tony expected to discuss the book, but Maher ignored it. At one point Maher even called Tony “Arthur.” Did Tony ever mention it? He never did Bill Maher again.

TV: Tony used a lot of unflattering words to describe Bill Maher, but I don’t remember him saying anything specific. I never saw it, but he did not enjoy it.

CW: I would wonder why Bill Maher would set a guest up like that, but he’s just a dick.

TV: It was funny how personally Tony would take things. I once read this book called Cockpit Confidential by an airline pilot who basically dispelled notions about fear of flying. I was talking to Tony about it, thinking there was no way he’d be aware of this book. Not only was he aware, he was quite angry that the author ripped off his title for Kitchen Confidential. I just couldn’t believe he knew or cared, because the two books couldn’t compete in any way.

CW: That is funny. I’ve got a Cruise Confidential, about working on cruise ships, on my bookshelf. Tony created a genre.

Now I’m going to share a story I’ve never told anyone. Once upon a time, I received an email from a woman, I think on the West Coast, who told me she had Tony’s cellphone number. She’d been calling him repeatedly and hanging up because she wanted to hear his voice. She felt badly about it and decided to confess to me.

I kept telling her she had to stop it. She finally sent me a number and said, “OK, now that I’ve given his number to you, I feel free of it and I don’t have to call him anymore.”

I never heard from her again. This is the number she gave me [XXX-XXX-XXXX]. Do you remember if it was his?

TV: I’m looking it up right now. Yes, that was it.

CW: So, she really had it. I didn’t know what to do with that information at the time. Did he ever mention getting those hang-up calls?

TV: I don’t remember that specifically, but he was paranoid, and I’m sure that contributed. Very early in No Reservations, they put his phone number on the schedules. For some reason, there was a big kerfuffle and it was taken off. I don’t know if those things could be related.

He definitely would have done some thinking, like, “Where was my number left out? I was just on a shoot, and it was on the schedule.” He might have had some idea who it was.

9 Responses to Conversation with Tom Vitale, Part 1

  1. Mary Hunter says:

    Karen,

    Absolutely fascinating! Thank you so much for posting this. It seems there’s just so many layers to Bourdain and his life. I have a like, not like feeling about Bill Maher, but geez, what a jerk to treat a guest like that.

  2. GlamourMilk says:

    Cats –

    Thanks for sharing. Looking forward to the next parts.
    There are already new things I hadn’t heard about before 🙂

  3. catsworking says:

    Mary, I also have a like/not like with Bill Maher. I think he and the rest of the media need to get off the schtick that Trump’s running in 2024 and start laughing at the very notion until Trump dissolves into a pile of sputtering orange good. He’s getting closer to it every day, and the sooner we finish him off, the better.

    I’ve never seen him be such a jerk to any guest as he was to Bourdain. I think with Maher, it was a combo of short man/short dick envy that Bourdain totally didn’t see coming. If Tony realized it in the moment, he didn’t take the bait, but tried to be a good guest and respectful of his host.

  4. catsworking says:

    GlamourMilk, if you had been around “in the beginning,” I used to spend hours every Sunday compiling everything I’d learned about Bourdain the previous week for a post on Monday (I think). There is SO MUCH stuff in the archives we’ve all forgotten, but at the time was news. And then there were things that came up which I never saw addressed, and that’s what I tried to find out from Tom.

    My next installment will be something I don’t think anybody has covered before, at least that I’ve read.

  5. Bonnie Wells says:

    Thank you Karen. It’s interesting to read about his attitude towards endorsements. I suppose I should go back and read in your archives. I had no idea you did so much research on Bourdain.

    BTW, I just listened to a very intimate podcast interview with Tom Vitale, perhaps you’ve heard it already. It’s fascinating to hear the tone of his voice ~ one gets a sense of his deep love and respect for Bourdain, and also of his lingering grief.

    https://touristinformation.podbean.com/e/episode-71-tom-vitale/

  6. catsworking says:

    Bonnie, I listened to this podcast yesterday. I thought the interviewer did his homework very well, but because he hadn’t really been paying attention to Bourdain all those years, he really didn’t get it. Tom did a good job. He’ll probably be answering the same questions over and over as he does more interviews, and will really get to know how Tony felt the 100th time he was asked, “What’s the grossest thing you ever ate?”

  7. GlamourMilk says:

    Cats –

    I can definitely see there is an archive to go through (have already read some posts), so I will dip into the past from time to time. Thanks 🙂

    Here’s an interview with Eric Ripert, from April this year (you may have already seen it). There’s a written interview where he speaks about Buddhism and behavor in kitchens, and a couple of video interviews, in one of which he speaks about Bourdain:

    https://www.cbc.ca/radio/thecurrent/the-current-for-april-20-2021-1.5993292/how-buddhism-helped-renowned-chef-éric-ripert-break-the-cycle-of-abusive-kitchens-1.5993295?fbclid=IwAR2T6QYA9v-w-pvzrtdD3sbPzARDGqblxGX_mUSpnskXKieYNbaz_gGaMhw

  8. Bonnie Wells says:

    “I thought the interviewer did his homework very well, but because he hadn’t really been paying attention to Bourdain all those years, he really didn’t get it.”

    Curious what you mean…what is it he didn’t get?

  9. catsworking says:

    Bonnie, I wasn’t taking notes, but I felt that he wasn’t diving too deep. He said upfront he didn’t like Bourdain for years, so he was working off what was in the shows, the documentary and Tom’s book. Overall, I thought he did a good job with what he had.

    The lack of insight comes through in all these interviews when they bring up the girlfriend without knowing most of the backstory. It’s admittedly a difficult topic for Tom to talk about. I’ll have a post on what I found out from Tom on that as soon as I can get to it. My day job has been crazy demanding lately.

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