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.
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.