Conversation with Tom Vitale, Part 3

By Karen

Tom Vitale, author of In the Weeds: Around the World and Behind the Scenes with Anthony Bourdain, published October 5, talked with me at length on October 10 and graciously expanded on some things he brought up in his book that left me with lingering questions about…

Anthony Bourdain, “The Talent”

CW: Throughout your book, you mention getting walkie-talkie notifications, “One hour till Tony,” “Five minutes till Tony.” What was he doing? Who was with him?

TV: Tony would be at the hotel, and we had a rough idea of what the day’s schedule was. I would call him about 30 minutes before he was supposed to leave his location. There would be a PA [production assistant] or his driver waiting for him in the lobby. The driver would send us updates on how far away they were.

The reason was that by the time Tony arrived, in an ideal scenario he’d be able to walk right out of the car into the scene, sit down, and not be distracted by setting up lights or any of the artifices of making television.

CW: What’s your theory on Tony’s reluctance to speak on camera? Do you think he was having sensory overload, or was he afraid of not being brilliant enough before he’d had a chance to process everything? Was he just being an asshole?

TV: He wasn’t being an asshole, at least, most of the time. I think the whole convention of the host talking to the camera was something he didn’t like. But when he found something particularly inspiring, he would talk to the camera.

In the first episode of Parts Unknown in Burma — I probably neglected to include this in the book — but there was a time when he thought there just wouldn’t be any more direct talking to the camera. That was a No Reservations thing. But he was so good at it and such a natural, there was no way that was ever going away, whether he wanted it to or not.

CW: Can you tell me anything else about his room service phobia? Did he have that same reluctance talking to airline ticket agents or desk clerks? Or was it specifically a room service thing?

TV: Tony was shy overall. The room service phobia I discovered a bit later. I wish I knew more about it. It seems very strange to me, too.

When we went to hotels, they definitely knew who we were and who he was. We weren’t just regular guests. Sometimes they would have the head chef and other prominent people from the food and beverage department of the hotel lined up to greet Tony when he arrived. Sometimes there would be crazy things left for him in his room from the hotel staff, like I remember one time a giant marzipan sculpture of him.

So, he was aware that they were aware of him. He must have thought, “Here’s this traveling chef guy who’s famous for liking to eat all the local food. Why would he be ordering room service?” That’s my best guess.

With a lot of things with Tony, if they seemed emotionally troubling, the best way to deal with them was by not confronting them. If I’d asked him about it, I don’t know exactly what he would have said, but he would have had some snarky, condescending answer and an eye roll, as a way to protect himself from whatever was causing the issue in the first place.

CW: In so many shows, Tony talked and made jokes about death. It was often really funny. Now, in hindsight when we see him doing that on a show, we go, “Oh, shit, if only we’d known.” Did you use most of his death talk or cut a lot out? I’m wondering how great that obsession was.

TV: It was pretty constant. “I’m going to hang myself in the shower stall,” was very common. But like everything with Tony, only about 1/70th of whatever we recorded made it into the finished show.

CW: I wondered if the editors would roll their eyes and say, “My god, he’s talking about death again. Let’s take this out.”

TV: We started rolling eyes over the “What would you have as your last meal?” thing, because it came up all the time and became a little less interesting to use.

The “My hotel room’s so awful, I’m going to hang myself in the shower stall,” kind of thing automatically would get cut without too much discussion because it didn’t reference anything in the show.

But it was always very funny, and I think it was funny to him at the time. It’s in retrospect that those things are particularly painful.

CW: Lately I’ve been watching reruns of No Reservations because I like seeing him when he seemed happier than those last two years of Parts Unknown.

TV: The stresses and pressures were greater during Parts Unknown, but he was not unhappier, I’d say, across the board. Clearly in that last six months, things got a bit more out of control.

But the difference between Tony No Reservations and Parts Unknown has more to do with the seriousness of the locations and the subject matter than it did with the general overall personality shift.

The people we’d spend time with were in more seriously precarious positions than they had been over the years. No Reservations was definitely a lighter time in general. The stakes just were lower. There was more room to screw up. And screwing up was an important part of the magic recipe. The space to risk screwing up was a very important space for Tony.

Final installment next week: The Last Girlfriend.


23 Responses to Conversation with Tom Vitale, Part 3

  1. Bob says:

    Karen I am glad you broached the subject of Tony’s fascination about death. I wonder how many of those “joke lines” really had some real darkness about them?

    It wasn’t a constant refrain but it was much more than the odd one off. I wonder if he was running scenarios in his head a lot as people with depression often do. Speaking from my own experience there are really some days that are much closer than others.

    The stress of the show contrasted with his need to keep moving and perhaps guilt at missing his daughter growing up with out him for a good portion of her life. Of course we will never know but I wouldn’t imagine that just any event would send him spiraling but something closer to the heart could have been a trigger for sure. Just my two cents.

  2. catsworking says:

    Bob, Tony’s jokes about death were usually pretty funny, if dark. But it wasn’t until after he was gone that I really noticed how often the subject came up for him. Now when I’m watching any episode, I go, “Yikes!” whenever I hear one. As Tom said, I think Tony believed he was just making jokes at the time.

    The only other time in his life that we know of where he sincerely felt suicidal was after he and Nancy separated. Fortunately, Nancy didn’t publicly humiliate him and rub another man in his face, so he was able to walk himself back from that ledge. He was untethered because they’d been together off and on since high school, so he’d really never been a swinging single.

    The breakup with Ottavia seemed pretty low-key. They’d grown apart but were still a friendly family unit until the skank went into her “It’s her or me” schtick to force the issue and make him get his own place.

    The whole thing with the skank probably felt like deja vu all over again — only much worse. He’d now have the whole world asking WTF? (remember he had the ongoing Jimmy Bennett payoff secret hanging over his head, poised to make him a #MeToo hypocrite). Maybe he decided it was more than he could deal with.

    He admitted he had bouts with depression over stupid stuff, but nothing seemed to make him spiral down worse than a romance gone bad.

  3. Bob says:

    I agree with everything you just said Karen.

  4. shannonsvp says:

    This is so awesome, Karen. Thanks for asking Tom such great questions. Looking forward to Part 4!

  5. catsworking says:

    sannonsvp, you’re very welcome. Tom is very interesting to talk to. And he’s a cat lover!

  6. GlamourMilk says:

    Cats –

    Thanks for part 3 of the interview. I especially like the bit about the difference between No Reservations and Parts Unknown. That makes sense, that the stakes had gotten higher with PU and therefore things also got a bit more serious. In that way, it’s fair to think that NR was perhaps a more loose, and slightly less serious show. I do like the looseness of NR and might prefer more episodes from that series than the episodes from PU. Perhaps PU got a bit too ‘slick’ in places? Either way, there were many good episodes in both series.

    Have you seen The Serpent? That’s a whole different kind of ‘travel series’. A docu-drama (I suppose) about a real person who killed many backpackers/hippie-travellers in the seventies throughout Thailand, India, Nepal etc. It’s dark and scary stuff but I did like the series very much.

  7. catsworking says:

    GlamourMilk, I haven’t even heard of The Serpent. Doesn’t sound like my kind of thing, but then again, I can’t wait for the Dexter reboot to start. Go figure.

    I have my DVR set to catch No Res, but not Parts Unknown. I think the reasons are that 1) He was revisiting many places, and I prefer seeing them through his eyes the first time around, and 2) He seemed increasingly exhausted and almost listless. You could tell he was over the travel, even though it was an addiction he couldn’t kick. He just didn’t seem to be enjoying himself. I prefer the energy, the humor and the general joie de vivre he had during No Res.

    I don’t think PU will age well because of the political angle, but No Res will remain evergreen and in syndication for years.

  8. Bob says:

    Imagine my surprise when I saw those special passages in Tom’s book. Good on ya.

  9. catsworking says:

    Bob, if you’re referring to the paragraph where Tom mentions Cats Working, I was stunned. It was just a few months ago that Tom made me aware that he and the crew had any idea I even existed. Had I known, would I have done anything differently? I doubt it. But if Tony did think highly of my investigative skills, he was giving me too much credit. All I do mostly is connect dots that are already out there for anyone to find.

  10. Bob says:

    Well to be fair the first caper was a joint effort. I also kinda feel like a Dick trying to get him to Winnipeg.

    But you’re right if you knew where to look and who to talk to you can really dig up a large amount of information.

    You did deserve a reference for keeping things honest and not falling for too much. Just my opinion.

  11. catsworking says:

    Bob, that he never went to Winnipeg was his loss. That movie you sent him was so totally up his alley, I can’t believe he didn’t follow up on it.

    I will admit that I came into possession of some bits of info over the years (some of which Bourdain himself supplied) that would have really infuriated him and burned all my bridges had I used it. Tom Vitale told me he thought Tony must have trusted me. I never had any idea that was the case.

  12. Bob says:

    Well thanks for the nod on Winnipeg and that film. The first time I saw My Winnipeg I instantly thought that is right up Tony’s alley. As for visiting Winnipeg it’s come to my attention that he in fact visited a few times. Once on book tour, for his cookbook I think, it was still pretty early on in his career. I am kicking myself now for missing it but I was chasing skirt then and it was one or the other.

    I have some well placed cooks that work at a very relaxed restaurant and apparently he would pop in from time to time, on layovers I suspect. In any case the places he was said to frequent were directly behind one of the premier hotels in Winnipeg. So that makes perfect sense.

    I know you were always more in the loop than I was but for a while I did chat with Ottavia on Twitter. I still chat with Zamir from time to time though and he really is a grifter of epic proportions. He has his own line of vodka in the States and he’s constantly hanging around in Baltimore.

    I’m glad he actually knew who we were since the Nancy posts. Oh I also met Carlos and Timmy at Les Halles and have the pictures to prove it. Even at that early stage he was moving in from the restaurant and Desmond’s pub through.

  13. catsworking says:

    Bob, didn’t you guest-blog here when you ate at Les Halles? I just did a search of the archives and couldn’t find the post. If you can give me the month and year, I’d be able to locate it and we could resurrect it for our newer readers. Les Halles is gone and the space opening as something else, sadly, but I’ve been reading that a smaller version of the Bourdain Market will be opening in NYC in 2022, but as yet has no name. Some of the people Tony worked with on his vision that never materialized are behind this attempt, and it seems to be going OK now that Trump is not a factor.

    Zamir is definitely a strange character. I had a few one-on-one exchanges with him when he had a falling out with his editor on a book he’s writing, but they apparently patched things up and he didn’t need my services. However, I’ve seen no word on his book’s progress. He’s definitely milking his Bourdain connection for all it’s worth, although I grant him that his “GottaTravel” tagline is catchy. His Zamir vodka brand is not sold in Virginia, as far as I know. I’ve looked for it in our state-owned stores and it’s not there.

    You made me a copy of your movie “My Winnipeg” and I still have it. I want to watch it again. I remember seeing horses’ heads in a frozen river, but that’s about it.

  14. Bob says:

    Yes, indeed I did. It was the Cats Working crowd that got me excited about writing about the NYC trip. It was just before Halloween 2009 and your gang had me write about it, I used your blog for a few posts and then you kicked me off and told me to start my own blog. That’s where the bad blood came from. But all of that is in the past and we are both older and wiser.

    As I recall things got pretty nasty and you took down the posts and basically erased me from the blog. So if you are trying to find the posts on Cats you told me that you deleted them all. I did check and they were indeed gone. I didn’t know if you just removed them or outright deleted them? I do however have my early posts and they were written in Dec 2009 so any posts regarding the trip on your blog would be before that. 3 month window from late October 2009 to early Dec 2009. Good luck in finding them I would like to see those originals again.

    My own Les Halles post featured the restaurant and Desmond’s Pub I will enclose links to my site on Les Halles and Desmond’s.

    New York, New York

    I could of sworn that I had Desmond’s pub content in the first NYC post but apparently not? All I can find is a photo of me standing in front of the pub before we went for dinner next door. I was trying to post it here but it won’t let me

  15. catsworking says:

    Bob, I don’t think you can post photos in comments. At least, no one has ever succeeded in doing it.

    I do remember banning you from the blog at one time, but I have no recollection whatsoever of what got me so pissed off at you. And if I removed your post, I must have been REALLY pissed.

    I may still have them backed up as Word documents. I’ll see if I can dig them out. They’re on a thumb drive somewhere. If I also deleted comments, then those are gone forever because there’s no way to retrieve them that I know of.

    You did start your own blog and have written some great stuff on it, so maybe that’s the silver lining. And since I have no memory of what offended me, all is forgiven. 🙂

  16. Bob says:

    I went out to the library and found a copy of my Winnipeg so I may watch it tonight or tomorrow. Did you have any luck finding those old posts? Would be probably November 2009. I hope you manage to find them, would be a hoot to see.

    As you may have noticed my blogging has pretty much been non existent. But I went to go see the new James Bond film so maybe I’ll do a review.

    I’ve been off work for a year or so and my mental health has been in the toilet. I seriously thought about just chucking it all and jump into the mostly frozen river. It was about 2 years ago and I was essentially homeless. But instead I put myself in hospital and they brought me to a live in crisis unit that is separate from hospital but still run by the Manitoba Health Agency.

    I’ve been working hard to get my life in order and have been consulting my doctor who agrees that it would be beneficial for me to return.

    I’ve also been talking with Boeing HR and they sent me for a two day physical evaluation. I feel I did well with that, so now they want me to have a psychological evaluation. I am cool with that and it shows progression in my journey.

    Nice talking with you again about Tony and the old days. Just talking with you makes me want to write again.


  17. catsworking says:

    Bob, I haven’t had a chance to look for your old posts, but if I find them I will let you know. I had noticed that I hadn’t received any notifications of new posts on your blog lately. It’s very hard to keep one going.

    So sorry to hear about all your life setbacks, but it sounds like maybe you finally hit bottom and have nowhere to go but up. Fingers crossed that you get the job with Boeing. It sounds like Canada has got a decent safety net for mental health, whereas if you were an American, you most likely would NOT be in recovery, so count your blessing that you weren’t born on this side of the border. It probably saved your life.

  18. Bob says:

    It’s not me looking for a job at Boeing I’ve been working there for over 20 years. I just went off on a medical leave and working at getting back. I count my blessings daily for being Canadian, the heath care is a great benefit we all pay into with our taxes so it’s not free as some think. But the system works and everyone has access to healthcare. It doesn’t cover everything but you don’t go into severe debt to access it either.

    I was wondering who reached out to whom for the interview? Since the crew was aware of Catsworking did Tom approach you for publicly on his book? Or was it the other way around?

    In either case In the Weeds was a really insightful look into the man. So much of his behavior makes perfect sense now. I am halfway through Oral Biography and the two books really work well together to piece this enigma of a man together.

  19. catsworking says:

    Bob, I’m happy to report that I’ve located the three posts you did about your visit to Les Halles. They were in November 2009, just as you said, and they include photos. If you still have my personal email address, please email me and I’ll send them to you.

    I knew you worked at Boeing way back when, but for some reason I had the idea that you’d been laid off at some point. Glad to hear it’s just a matter of getting yourself off medical leave. That sounds doable.

    Some months ago, Tom Vitale contacted me and just wanted to talk. I didn’t even know I was on his radar, but he told me that Tony used to talk about me, which absolutely stunned me. So, we had a nice phone conversation and discussed his book a bit, and he said he’d be willing to be interviewed for the blog, so I was more than pleased to take him up on it. I don’t think he was looking for publicity, but just enjoyed talking about his days with Tony. We’ve stayed in touch a bit since then. He’s a good guy.

  20. Bob says:

    That’s good, I can tell by his writing that he must be pretty laid back. It doesn’t surprise me that Tony would speak about you. A significant portion of your blog was devoted to him and we know you had contact with significant people in his life.

    I did get laid off briefly but that was before I started blogging, right after 9-11. Bastards using our products to murder thousands. I’ll check and see about that email, I am sure I have it somewhere.

  21. Bob says:

    You can’t still be using the AOL account? In any case mine is

  22. catsworking says:

    Bob, my AOL address is alive and well. But thanks for yours. I hope you don’t get flooded with spam. I’ll send you the posts Sunday when I’m on my main PC.

  23. Bob says:

    I’m not too worried about that. Can’t wait to see the old stuff.

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