Anthony Bourdain set the bar so high for travel series, I wonder if we should retire the format for a generation, like a super-athlete’s sports jersey, after watching Zero Point Zero’s Nomad with Carlton McCoy on CNN.
I feel sorry for Bourdain’s heir. Carlton McCoy is tracing incredibly deep tracks without the experience or maturity to either fill or reshape them.
Scheduling Nomad at 10 p.m. (ET) Sunday, CNN did McCoy no favors because he follows Stanley Tucci: Searching for Italy. After an hour of Tucci charm, sophistication, wit and easy Italian banter in gorgeous settings, McCoy barely stands a chance.
I’m speaking with generational bias. McCoy is 37, with a shaved head, one of those itchy-looking stubble-beards, and tats all over. His personality reminds me of Rick Steves, and not in a good way.
McCoy’s quick backstory: Father Black, mother Jewish, but raised in the Pentecostal church of his paternal grandmother. Grew up in Washington D.C.’s tough, underprivileged Southeast section. Bounced around high schools, but managed to graduate with a scholarship to the CIA (Culinary Institute of America).
While working in restaurants, he studied wine and became a master sommelier. Only 5% who take it pass that exam, and there are fewer than 300 master sommeliers in the world.
He brings to the show a chef’s knowledge of food and what makes a good wine pairing. So far, that’s about it.
Remember Bourdain’s voiceover opening to No Reservations?
“I’m Anthony Bourdain. I write, I travel, I eat, and I’m hungry for more.”
This is McCoy’s…
“I’m a nomad, driven to move in and out of different cultures, different worlds. We celebrate diversity by embracing what makes us both unique and the same. After all, we carry our travels with us to our next destination. That’s what life is all about. Let’s do this.”
OK, wake up, I’m not finished!
Like Bourdain, McCoy’s voiceover is clear (more on that in a minute), but the content is as personally insightful and humorous as a book report about the dictionary.
Nomad’s inaugural episode is Paris, a place McCoy has visited before. The B-roll included all the usual tourist sights. The show wraps at Elysée Palace (the French White House), where McCoy talks to one of President Emmanuel Macron’s chefs.
But to its credit, for most of the episode, McCoy is in the seedier outer arrondissements, the banlieues parisiennes or No Go zones.
Nomad emphasizes the new, the next generation, with little acknowledgement of origins. Cultural context was Bourdain’s forte, thanks to his insatiable study of literature and film.
Nomad feels like early No Reservations. The camera work is safe and competent, and scenes tick the usual boxes…
Bowl of noodles at hole in the wall
Famous chef cooking in Michelin starred restaurant
Host strolling the streets
In the second episode, Korea, McCoy meets up with an old CIA classmate, and they immediately hit Seoul’s open-air market, including a meal of blood sausage and chicken feet washed down with local booze and beer.
Has your déjà vu alarm gone off yet?
When McCoy leaves Seoul for the countryside, they load the car with hard-sided, unscuffed luggage.
OK, that’s something new.
I can’t remember ever seeing Bourdain’s luggage. He wanted us to think he could and did go anywhere with just a carry-on. Stanley Tucci probably has steamer trunks for his impeccable wardrobe, but he’d never show them.
In the third episode, McCoy travels back to D.C. and hangs out with old friends, relatives and teachers. It seemed far too early in the series for him to be showing us his roots.
At the end, I expected to see Bourdain’s crew all over the credits, but there were only Chris and Lydia as executive producers. On second thought, new names mean Tony’s crew has moved on, and I’m glad. They reached the Emmy pinnacle for cinematography and writing, so going back to scratch with a noob would have been unthinkable.
With time, McCoy will probably grow into the job. But if he gets a second season, ZPZ must address his sloppy diction. His conversations almost need subtitles. His voice isn’t distinctive and he speaks too fast and slurs his words.
One other beef: He needs to lose that ridiculous New York Yankees baseball cap that screams, “I’m a dumbass American tourist!”
In the remaining season, McCoy travels to Ghana, Toronto and Mississippi. If you want more details on his early life, I found this excellent article by Amiee White Beazley.
Found: His Chef’s Knife – If you’re in Singapore, stop by the display at The English House by Marco Pierre White, which is where you’ll find Anthony Bourdain’s beloved Bob Kramer chef’s knife, that chrome duck press he bought after seeing one in the Paris episode of The Layover, as well as a few pieces of his art collection.
I believe Tony originally paid $5,000 for the knife. The English House got it for a cool $231,250 at the 2019 auction of Tony’s belongings. At the time, I don’t think we knew who the knife’s highest bidder was. But now the truth is out there.
The English House is also serving, in Bourdain’s honor, his favorite Italian pasta dish, Cacio e Pepe.
Unauthorized Biography Postponed – Publication of Charles Leerhsen’s unauthorized biography of Bourdain, Down and Out in Paradise, has been postponed from June to October 11 for reasons unknown.
I’m lifetime-banned from Twitter, but I was able to stroll through Leerhsen’s Twitter feed to see if I could find out more. From his retweets, Leerhsen is undeniably liberal, but his bona fides include being Donald Trump’s ghostwriter from 1988-1990 on Trump’s second book, and he wrote an article about how he is no fan of Putin’s greasy orange sock puppet (my description, not his).
In February, I found this pair of tweets…
What “intimate sources” on EARTH could he be talking about? And how would Bourdain’s “personal files” be in anyone’s custody but his family’s? And since the book is “definitely unauthorized” (according to the Amazon blurb) Tony’s family’s lack of cooperation is admitted.
I’m not attacking Leerhsen’s credibility here, but he seems to raise his own bar extremely high for delivering trustworthy, significant new facts.
From other tweets I found, he did some genealogical digging into Tony’s late mother Gladys’ ancestry. He could find the scoop on Tony’s paternal forebears right here at Cats Working — and maybe he did.
Brasserie Les Halles Has Moved On, But Not Too Far – Bourdain’s last kitchen workplace in New York City closed in 2016, but its darkened front instantly became a makeshift memorial site after his death in 2018, entirely covered with notes and flowers from fans.
It reopened recently under new ownership as La Brasserie, still with a French bistro vibe. As a remembrance of Bourdain, the signature dish of steak frites remains on the menu.
Bourdain Market Idea Revived, in a Fashion – Bourdain regretfully pulled the plug in 2017 on his vision of founding a Singaporean-style food court in NYC, to be called Bourdain Market. But the James Beard Foundation has picked up the baton and is working with the same developers Tony partnered with to transform Pier 57 into a food hall and community gathering place. It sounds like it may lack the international flair Tony was hoping for, but it proves his idea wasn’t such a pipe dream, after all.
Where Are the Crew Now? Helen Cho – While recently watching season 2 of the HBO series, Painting with John, I noticed Helen Cho’s name listed in the credits. “John” is artist/musician John Lurie, one of Bourdain’s last acquaintances. Remember Helen from Roadrunner? She seemed the one most ferociously willing to “go there” when it came to acknowledging who probably pushed Tony too close to the edge.
As it always seems to happen in life, soon after seeing her name, Helen did an interview with Eater that crossed my radar. She’s gone the freelance route with her work and seems to be making good connections. I wish her every success.
Cats Working PS – That earlier tweet by Charles Leerhsen about Bourdain’s world beginning to “shift and fade,” reminded me of one of the things I miss most about having Tony on the planet — discovering new people through him.
For example, John Lurie is a person I’d never heard of until Tony bought one of his paintings and had him on Parts Unknown. Now I absolutely love that guy and the quirks of his boundless imagination. He makes me want to dust off my watercolors and try again.
Come to think of it, Marco Pierre White is another one. When it came to celebrity chefs, Gordan Ramsay and Emeril pretty much comprised my repertoire. Bourdain introduced me to Jacques Pépin, Eric Ripert. Nigella Lawson, Ludo Lefevre, Marcus Samuelsson, David Chang, Gabrielle Hamilton, I could go on and on.
Not to mention Nancy, Ottavia, Ariane, his brother Chris. Zamir. Crew member Tom Vitale.
When Bourdain’s world stopped spinning, my world stopped expanding, in a way. No one else has been opening new doors to new people and places the way he regularly did for me, just by waking up every day and letting his curiosity lead him.
Veterans Day feels like the fitting occasion to share the story of Anthony Bourdain’s paternal grandfather, Pierre. Jim McNiff originally submitted this as a comment, and Cats Working has edited it for clarity and length. He found his facts and photos at Ancestry.com and Newspapers.com.
James McNiff is a health care industry retiree who now does genealogical research on famous people for fun. His work has appeared in The Boston Globe and the Irish Echo (New York). He also self-publishes some of his findings and makes them available on Amazon.com.
Now, let’s learn about Anthony Bourdain’s paternal grandparents. But first, Jim sets the scene…
National WW1 Memorial Debuts in Washington, D.C. Smithsonian Magazine, April 16, 2021
President Biden delivered a speech virtually, saying…
“More than 100 years have passed since WWI ended, but the legacy of those doughboys sailing off to war, and the values they fought to defend still live in our nation today.”
& & &
From The Stars and Stripes: American Expeditionary Forces Newspaper, November 29,1918…
“One of the most heartening and cheering things about this whole business is the infinite capacity for mutual friends that exists between the children of France and the soldiers of America.”
* * *
On July 19,1919, the U.S.S. Kroonland sailed from Saint-Nazaire, France, with Army personnel onboard. The Treaty of Versailles had ended the Great War a few weeks earlier. Over 9 million soldiers would never return home. Another 21 million were injured, some beyond repair.
As soldiers streamed up the gangway, Quartermaster Sergeant Arthur H. Murphy waited until the last minute to personally escort a 13-year-old boy dressed in military garb. The child seemed to become invisible as he ascended the ramp; officers overseeing embarkation turned their backs as if he didn’t exist.
Next stop: Hoboken, New Jersey.
This is the U.S.S. Kroonland’s manifest for that sailing…
Army Field Clerks
And 1 French boy
The New York Tribune reported the story of “doughboy” Pierre Michel Bourdain:
“The Kroonland had the distinction of bringing the youngest number of the A.E.F. (American Expeditionary Force). He is Michel Bourdain, 14 years old [his 14th birthday was actually two weeks after the article], dark-haired and blue-eyed. He stands 5’2” and wears the Sphinx head on the collar of his blouse, denoting a civilian interpreter. He says he speaks ‘Amurican,’ not ‘Engleesh.’ He was accompanied by Sergeant A.A. [sic] Murphy, who said he had the permission of the lad’s parents to adopt him.
“Bourdain helped his aged parents on a little farm at Maine-Loire, in Brittany.
[Pierre’s actual birthplace was a commune in Trelaze. The farm was on the outskirts of Angers, a larger city in western France. The Loire River was a few miles south. Trelaze is 440 miles due east of Port Saint-Nazaire.]
“When the 52nd Ammunition Train camped at [the farm], Pierre thought they were the finest soldiers he had ever seen and immediately started to help them in their marketing, using the little English he learned in school. The 52nd Ammunition Train moved on and was followed by the 54th Coast Artillery. Now called “Mike” by the soldiers, Pierre had accumulated quite a vocabulary and made himself invaluable to the new arrivals, none of whom spoke French. Soon they found that they could not do without him, so he was given a uniform and put on the payroll as a civilian employee interpreter at 225 francs a month.
“His parents moved to Bordeaux… The[y] opened a grocery store with Mike’s savings, which they realized was much more profitable than farming. Sergeant Murphy said that he is going to give Mike a good education.”
[Pierre’s father (Anthony Bourdain’s great-grandfather) is portrayed differently in various newspapers. Some say he died at Verdun. His birthplace quite frequently documented was Sao Pedro, Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil).
Pierre’s American Guardian: QMC Sergeant Arthur H. Murphy
Arthur Murphy was born in Duchess County, New York, in 1888. His father was from Virginia and his mother lived in New York.
By 1910, Arthur lived in Poughkeepsie and worked as a candy salesman, according to the census. He was single and never married. At age 29 he enlisted in the Army at Fort Slocum in New York.
He was promoted to sergeant in 1918 while overseas, where he spent 14 months and made a stop in the commune of Trelaze, where he met young Pierre Bourdain. By his discharge in 1919, he was a Quartermaster (QMC) Sergeant.
Upon returning to New York, Arthur, and presumably Pierre, lived in an Allerton House (later renamed Tatham). The Allerton Company rented homey apartments to young men to provide “a safe, stable and economical arrangement,” according to their owner.
Pierre’s Future Wife Arrives
When Pierre was 9 and still living in France, Gabrielle Riousse [Anthony Bourdain’s paternal grandmother] crossed the Atlantic on the Lafayette and passed through Ellis Island on December 6, 1915. She was 22, 4’11”, with chestnut hair and eyes, and her occupation was milliner [dressmaker]. She was visiting her older sister Berthe Corr, who lived with her husband James at West 91st Street in New York.
Gabrielle was born in Paris on February 25, 1893, to Alfred and Ernestine (Loret) Riousse.
When Gabrielle arrived in New York, her parents still lived in Paris. Alfred was from Alençon, Orne, home of Alençon lace, “the Queen of laces and lace for Queens.”
Gabrielle eventually returned to Paris, but came back to New York in February 1920. Her height then was recorded as 5’4”, and her profession switched to teacher.
Arthur Murphy Adopts Pierre
The New York Herald of September 9, 1919, provided this update…
Yank Adopts Lad He Met in France. Ex-Interpreter to Rear son of Verdun Defender
“There was something in the wistful face of little Pierre Michel Bourdain which haunted Sergeant Arthur H. Murphy of 143 East Thirty-ninth Street, on the occasion of their first meeting in France. From the time the eyes of the big sergeant, who was an interpreter in the American Expeditionary Forces, and little Pierre met in Bordeaux there developed a mutual attachment.
“Every opportunity found the doughboy and the French lad together, and little Pierre told his story. He was a half-orphan; his father having been one of the thousands of French poilus who defended Verdun against the German onslaughts at the cost of their lives. His mother, Mithilde Belliard Bourdain, was in poor circumstances, scarcely able to support her children and herself.
“When the time came for his departure from France, Sergeant Murphy obtained permission from the boy’s mother to have Pierre follow. There was a lot of trouble in getting this permission, but it was only the beginning of Sergeant Murphy’s difficulties. There was the official red tape to be untangled, and that also took time.
“Finally, however, young Bourdain arrived in New York and was welcomed by his doughboy friend Murphy, an accountant, who had returned to civilian life.
“It was fitting that the day on which Gen. Pershing returned to America should be made one of the happiest in little Pierre’s life. Surrogate Cohalan signed yesterday the papers of adoption for which Murphy had applied, and Pierre Michel Bourdain became Pierre Michel Murphy. He will reside with his foster-father and the latter’s widowed sister.”
[CW Note: This account contains some unverifiable factual discrepancies from the earlier New York Tribune story.]
1924 was the last year Pierre was noted living in New York before returning to France to visit his mother, now in Bordeaux. It’s unknown if Pierre had a falling out with Arthur Murphy, but when he returned to the U.S. on the Rousillon, his name was listed as Pierre Michel Bourdain, not Michel or Michael Murphy, and the person he knew in the States wasn’t Sergeant Murphy, but a neighbor named Mr. Wilgus.
Gabrielle Returns to New York While Pierre Sails to France
Gabrielle traveled to Paris twice between 1924 and 1926. Gabrielle lived at 57 East 58th Street, NYC (the Hotel Claredon), and her occupation was professor.
It’s unknown how or where Gabrielle and Pierre met. On October 3, 1928, she married Pierre M. Bourdain in Manhattan. She was 35, he was 23.
Their son, whom they named Pierre [Anthony Bourdain’s father], was born December 12, 1929.
Gabrielle and her son Pierre made many trips over the years to Paris to visit Gabrielle’s father Alfred and her mother-in-law Mithilde, who had moved to La Teste de Buch in Gironde, France.
The 1930 census listed Pierre M. and Gabrielle as married and living at 675 West End Avenue in New York with baby Pierre. Pierre Sr. was then working as a merchant in a department store. Gabrielle was again a dressmaker.
Sadly, Pierre Sr. would die at age 28, when Anthony’s father was only 3 years old. Cause unknown.
From the records of “New York City Municipal Deaths”…
317 West 95 Street
1 Jan 1933
31 Dec 1932
Fresh Pond Crematory
PS: In the Oral Biography at the bottom of page 3, Christopher Bourdain mentions how their father would take him and Anthony to visit their grandmother Gabrielle in New York [presumably in the 1960s], but remembers only that she was very old and crippled by arthritis.
If not for whatever inspired Pierre Sr. to drop his adopted surname and reclaim his birth name, his grandson, who became an international phenomenon, would have been Anthony Murphy. Somehow, it just doesn’t have the same ring, does it?
In the same instant the video shifted to Asia the girlfriend, the table lamp blew its bulb. My light bulbs always fail when I first switch lamps on, not after they’ve been burning a few hours. Maybe it was coincidence, but it creeped me out.
Commenters here have discussed Tom’s treatment of Asia in the book, so I had to ask him about…
Anthony Bourdain’s Last Girlfriend
CW: On page 217, you wrote…
“Tony’s ethic of relentlessly pushing the envelope — the very drive responsible for getting us where we were — had reached such a fever pitch, it felt like the pace was becoming unsustainable.”
It seemed you felt this while you were making the 2016 Rome episode with Asia. Why then? Was she trying to direct? What was the dynamic?
TV: A lot of scene ideas, like the boxing and pasta, and the stornellis [Italian street songs] that were so beautiful, were her idea. Those Roman folk songs are dirty and hilariously dark. She made a lot of creative contributions, but she was definitely not directing the episode. But it was very high stakes because Tony wanted to not fuck it up.
I think that period in general was particularly tough. The shoot with President Obama was coming up and completely top-secret. Constant battles with the accounting department were grating. Tony wanted to do fancier, more expensive things just as they were clamping down on the spending.
CW: Were you on the shoot with Tony and Asia in Southern Italy?
TV: I did do that one, yes.
CW: How were they together then? It seemed joyous. He was in love, and they were having fun at the beach, on the boat. Was the vibe good? Putting it in historical perspective, they had come out as a couple, right?
TV: I think we were in Portugal when they became public in February 2017. And Italy was June 2017.
CW: They were in their honeymoon phase.
TV: But it was an incredibly difficult shoot for a host of reasons. Italy is one of the greatest countries to visit, but also the most difficult and stressful from the production standpoint. For example, we set up this whole scene for a big party at a farm, then at the last minute the police shut us down because the location was being used as refugee resettlement area and it didn’t have the right permits. We lost an entire day of shooting due to some stupid bureaucratic miscommunication. Things like that were happening.
On the other side, I don’t think Tony was ever so nice and happy, to me, as he was on that shoot.
CW: Something we’ve debated at Cats Working is how you went to Rome seeking answers and met with Asia. She asked about his will and supposedly missing fortune. In the book, it seems like the first thing out of her mouth, but was it really further into the conversation?
TV: No, she pretty much opened with that.
CW: So, in so many words you conveyed her priority. Some seemed to fault you because they felt you were giving her a pass. Did she ever take any responsibility at all?
TV: I certainly don’t think she wanted Tony to kill himself. That probably screwed up her life in a lot of ways, too. I’m not saying she handled things the right way, by any stretch of imagination. But in my book — I wasn’t in Hong Kong or Florence — I only write about things I saw.
It was really difficult for me in that when Tony got together with her, he became a lot nicer to me. She was always very good to me. I think it’s unquestionable she played some role in his downfall. I guess I was blinded to the fact that something wrong was happening, whether it was her fault or not, because he got nicer to me.
CW: It sounds like she didn’t feel you were any threat, like maybe she did Zach or Helen.
TV: I knew how important pleasing her was to Tony. I moved mountains to make things happen, whatever he wanted, as I always did for Tony.
CW: Maybe she thought you were her ally. Perhaps you can confirm or debunk a rumor that circulated after he died. Did he ever buy her a house in Rome?
TV: No, he didn’t.
CW: In hindsight, that now makes sense. Where your book made my eyes Boing! out like a cartoon was when Tony told you she would be moving to New York in fall 2018.
TV: That was the plan.
CW: We dodged a bullet there, in a twisted way. The mess it would have created for everyone related to both of them. And to promote her “career,” he’d have found ways to get her in our faces every day.
TV: He was in love. He acted like a teenager about it. But he reacted to a lot of things like a teenager. That was part of his magic. He was really a romantic.
CW: He did have a certain boundless child-like enthusiasm. When he found something he really loved, a place a food, a person… That’s what made him inspiring for so many people. He pulled out all the stops.
TV: Back to the topic of giving Asia too much of a pass, in the book I don’t try to judge. It’s up to the reader, in the same way it was to me, to try to derive meaning from those things. It wasn’t always clear.
CW: I think you were even-handed. The Oral Biographyseems more damning.
TV: I’m sure everything in the Oral Biography is true. What I include in my book is what I saw directly.
CW: That’s what sets your book apart. The Biography puts several degrees of separation between Tony and the reader. Your book is firsthand. Plus, you’re fair to the point of being too hard on yourself. Tom, the fact that you could go toe-to-toe with Tony for so many years and survive, while creating amazing TV, is proof that you’re much stronger than you probably think you are.
TV: Tony used to talk about how your greatest humiliations are most entertaining or funny for other people to read. I don’t think I 100% consciously set out to do that. But after having been steeped in Tony’s storytelling process for so long, I see the book is definitely a collection of my biggest fuckups and worst moments and failures. He was right, again. Those do make the most interesting stories.
CW: On page 282 you wrote…
“I’ve struggled with persistent questions of whether he actually cared enough about me to give me his best.”
I think if you can’t picture what his best would have looked like — had it been even better than what you got from him — that answers your question. I believe he did give you his best.
TV: He did.
CW: And I think a lot of people would agree.
BONUS: Tom loves cats.
CW: Being Cats Working, I have to ask about the many random shots of cats on your B roll that made it into the shows.
TV: Tony would joke a lot about my cats and my relationship with cats. I adore cats. So, the camera guys knew whenever a cat was around they would film it, and I’d use it in the edit.
CW: Do you have any cats currently?
TV: I do, Lucy and Tabby.
CW: Are they both females?
TV: They are. Both Tabby and Lucy are tabby white, which is half white, half tabby. But I think Lucy, because of her very distinctive meow and incredible elegance, is actually at least half or mostly Siamese. They’re rescue cats.
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.
CW: I’ve always been fascinated by writers’ habits. When Tony wrote at home, he worked first thing in the morning. With the volume he constantly put out, I was surprised when you told me he was a two-fingered typist. The documentary Roadrunner showed him in action a few times…
CW: Since Tony always knew he’d have to write a voiceover, or edit one, did he write when he traveled? Did he carry a notebook for taking notes? How did he collect his material?
TV: He did have a notebook. A couple times he asked me to procure one for him when we were on shoots. He liked black Moleskins and would use whatever ballpoint or gel pen was handy.
All his writing was handwritten in first draft, always early in the morning, as far as I know, or late at night. Sometimes those times were the same.
Voiceover scripts we had to print out for him, regardless of where we were. He would rewrite them longhand, either on the script or in a notebook, and retype them. He was always very fast unless he didn’t like it and rewrote and typed the whole thing. It was a laborious process he’d go through, even when he had the electronic file.
CW: In the Hong Kong episode, when I first saw that now-classic shot of him sitting on the ferry with a notebook, I went, “Aha! He’s writing!”
TV: He was really a big notebook guy.
CW: Did he ever write in airports during layovers or on planes?
TV: No, I wouldn’t see it that much. I think he needed to be in a zone, some kind of private space without distraction.
CW: I never saw him talk about his writing process.
TV: We had a lot of conversations about writing, because it was up to me when I was the director and the editors to write discretionary shit for the shows. He would tell us things over and over again. One was this “Kill your darlings” thing he’d learned from his writing teacher. Something about hacking up your favorite piece with a bleeding axe because it’s probably too over the top.
He also said that if you write 10 pages and two are even usable, that’s a really good day.
CW: So, you usually did the rough draft for his voiceovers.
TV: Yes, and our scripts he’d return then required a lot of editing. He’d turn a sentence into a paragraph. Sometimes the whole paragraph worked because his writing was so wonderful, and so was his delivery reading it.
But generally, his writing required quite a bit of work. He would make a powerful joke or statement and keep going with it, which then had to be edited for length. That was painful, because it was all really good.
I’m dyslexic myself and have trouble spelling. I imagine Tony must have been somewhat similar because his rewrites were horribly misspelled, with very strange grammar. He didn’t really worry about grammar, at least when he turned things around fast. Sentences would go on for paragraphs.
CW: When he recorded voiceovers, did he just read his script through, or was he watching a rough cut while doing it? From what you’re telling me, he didn’t make any effort to match what he said with the final footage.
TV: Quite often, he would do the exact opposite. He would watch a cut, put it away, and then write. They were very disconnected. He definitely was not writing to the cut. We either had to change what he’d written, or recut to film to match what he had written.
CW: Wow. Now I’m amazed that the finished episodes always meshed so beautifully.
Tom, I think you’ve got enough untold stories for another book. I came up with a title for you. Tony wrote Medium Raw. Your next book could be Raw, but Well Done. Feel free to use that.
TV: I was with him when he was writing Medium Raw. That was a horrible time for him, a lot of pressure. He saw it as a follow-up to Kitchen Confidential, and he was convinced he couldn’t live up to that. He suffered from writer’s block.
CW: I totally understand writer’s block. I started this blog in 2007, after publishing How to Work Like a CAT. Publishers expected authors to do our own marketing, and probably still do. But once I started blogging, it took so much out of me, writing for publication ceased. I’ve got half-baked book projects all over the house now.
I think Tony began doing so many interviews and putting out so much content, it dried up his well and sapped his creativity, too. You sit down to write and realize “I got nothing left.”
TV: That’s the sense I got from Hungry Ghost (title of Tony’s as-yet-unpublished manuscript). That writing was stuff he had not shared yet. It was a new thing to write about, very different, so he wouldn’t have had that problem.
CW: He found another vein to tap into that he hadn’t already used up.
During COVID, which I didn’t expect to drag on so long, I posted seven days a week for 142 days straight. That attracted a group of regular commenters, which was rewarding while it lasted. But the effort burned me out even more than I thought possible.
TV: Tony struggled with the blog posts he had to write for each episode, and it was exhausting for him. It’s hard to keep going at that speed.
CW: Sadly, he didn’t.
BONUS: Roadrunner the documentary came out on DVD October 12, and our own Tony B. was waiting. He hopped up on the TV stand during the first scenes and gave me this rare opportunity to catch him with his namesake…
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.
But now that I’ve read it, I think the cover is just right.
We’ve had a Bourdain avalanche lately. Last week it was his Definitive Oral Biography by his assistant Laurie Woolever. And now we have the inside scoop on his TV life.
Both books add considerably to what we thought we knew about Bourdain. What sets Vitale’s book apart (and above, I would argue) Woolever’s is its sometimes almost painful sense of immediacy and intimacy. Vitale’s writing seems infused with Tony’s darkly funny snark. For example, in describing a furious exchange Tom had with a member of the security squad in Libya, he writes…
“Damien reminded me he hadn’t been just any old soldier, but one of those specially trained killy soldiers.”
Vitale also has a keen eye for description and paints vivid pictures of the countries they visited. Of filming in Naples in 2010, he writes…
“Tony walked across the pebble beach and sat on the gunnel of a bright turquoise-and-red-striped fishing boat. It was one of those overcast days that did something strange to the light, amplifying rather than muting color. Clouds obscuring the sunset glowed an almost cotton candy pink and reflected off the shore.”
If you’ve seen the shows (Vitale directed about 100 of them in total), he makes you want to binge-watch them again.
I particularly enjoyed the chapter, “Jamaica Me Crazy,” where they filmed Parts Unknown in 2014. It was one of the rare times that Vitale and other crew indulged in a zany adventure that Tony was largely unaware of. (I happen to know the Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville in Ocho Rios where much of the action went down.)
In the Oral Bio, we get recollections of those who knew Tony, as told to Woolever, as told to us. But Vitale was THERE, in the weeds. His is a firsthand account of working, often under ungodly pressure, with Bourdain, who had conflicted feelings about even being on TV, and it often wasn’t pretty.
For all of Tony’s empathy with the people he met in his travels, much of the time he seemed oblivious to, or even deliberately fed, the crew’s tension and frustration. While filming in Baja, Vitale recalls Bourdain saying to him…
“Jeez, you never give up, do you?!” he joked. “When I die, you’ll be there at my funeral, poking me with a stick, asking, ‘What are your first impressions of being dead?’”
But I don’t want to give the impression that Vitale is out to trash Bourdain. It’s the opposite. In spite of everything, Tom loved and was devoted to the guy and never dreamed it would end so horribly.
Vitale is unsparing in exposing his own personal phobias and weaknesses, and is probably unaware that his efforts to overcome (most of) them seems almost heroic. He was willing to sacrifice anything to serve what he considered a higher purpose: helping Anthony Bourdain tell his stories.
Another difference with the Oral Bio is the chronology. Weeds opens in the immediate aftermath of Bourdain’s death, then Vitale weaves past and present together in a seamless way that totally makes sense.
Cats Working even gets a shoutout, but no spoilers here.
Vitale’s research involved immersing himself in the vast trove of documentation he’d collected — logs, notes, video. As a result, he could vividly recreate that life in a way that makes you almost forget Tony is no longer wandering the planet.
In the first few pages, Vitale describes an incident with Bourdain in Manila that’s never explained, but it foreshadows what happened to Eric Ripert when he entered Tony’s last hotel room France.
Vitale also recounts a violent incident during their second trip to Borneo that also never gets explained, but it shows a side of Tony darker than anyone has ever seen.
Such was Bourdain’s life. His public persona was all about confidence, love and acceptance, but privately, he was filled with doubts, insecurity and possibly self-loathing. Vitale saw it all, and tried to alleviate the bad stuff when he could.
I’m grateful that Tom Vitale chose to work through his pain and regrets by putting them on paper, giving us a better understanding of the man who entranced the world while thinking so little of himself.
BONUS: Coming up next week is my interview with Tom Vitale.
Anthony Bourdain’s assistant Laurie Woolever has pulled off another remarkable feat with Bourdain: the Definitive Oral Biography, although I wonder how “definitive” it will ultimately be. I still have 100 pages to go, but I can’t wait to tell you about this book.
Woolever interviewed 91 people Tony knew throughout his life. Some are his famous friends or career-related contacts whose names I recognize, but many aren’t.
Most notably, Woolever spoke at length with Tony’s first wife Nancy (who also contributed touching never-before-seen photos) and his now-14-year-old daughter Ariane. Cats Working readers who have always wondered about these two important females in his life will be gratified by how openly they share their memories.
The book’s format surprised me in the best way. I expected 91 straight interviews, which risked becoming dull and redundant. Instead, Woolever pulled off the Herculean task of breaking each interview down by topic, then reassembling those pieces under 59 page-turning chapter headings into a miraculous chronological narrative.
Instead of picturing each person sitting across from Woolever with a tape recorder between them, it’s more like she gathered a room full of people to casually share notes on Tony topics like, “I Absolutely Always Saw a Talent in Him,” “I’m Not Gonna Censor the Guy,” “He Was a Man of Extremes,” and so on.
This, coming on the heels of her previous project, where she stitched together World Travel: An Irreverent Guide from Bourdain’s vast trove of published materials, makes me think Woolever does 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzles for fun, like those geniuses on YouTube who solve Rubik’s Cubes in 5 seconds.
Tony’s brother Chris and mother Gladys (who died in 2020) are included, and they sketch out the most complete picture yet of Tony’s father, Pierre Bourdain, and Tony’s relationship with him. The closest I’ll come to a spoiler is to say that you’ll see Tony’s parents in a whole new light, particularly Gladys.
Of course, Ottavia pops in throughout, although Nancy naturally dominates the early years when she and Tony were together, and we learn some of her side of that story for the first time. As the person who “outed” Nancy online back in 2008 in an old episode of A Cook’s Tour, I was stunned (and chagrined) by her revelations about traveling to Spain with Tony.
Nancy connected Woolever with friends who knew Tony in high school and at Vassar, but the one period where there seems to be a hole is during his CIA years (the culinary school, not the spy agency), and what kind of student he was there.
With 100 pages still to go, I haven’t quite gotten into his final years and what I know is coming, although late last night I touched the edge of that on page 330 when someone said, “And then fucking what’s-her-name entered his life…”
Woolever, keeping the wagons circled, didn’t interview “fucking what’s-her-name,” nor, I’m curious as to why, Tony’s most notorious “fixer,” Zamir.
My next observation isn’t to fault Woolever in any way, because I’m gaining (and confirming) many insights into Tony’s behavior and events.
Weirdly, many people speak of him in present tense as if he were still alive. But even so, because they and Woolever are two layers between the reader and Tony, I feel like I’m in one of those dreams where you’re searching for someone. You keep meeting people who say, “Oh, he was here a minute ago, and he did this…” but he’s always just around the next corner and out of sight and you wake up without finding him. I guess there’s no escaping this detached quality, given the secondhand material Woolever’s working with. But the people she talks to tell myriad great stories about him.
The other thing that surprised me physically about the book is the rough paper, which seems destined to turn yellow. You’d think anything with Definitive in the title would have some archival quality, but I’m guessing it was a cost decision.
Bottom line: If you’re still curious about Anthony Bourdain, this is a book to read sooner rather than later.
Trust me, there’s virtually no overlap between these books, even though Vitale is interviewed in the Biography. I found Tom’s to be the more satisfying book because you can call it anything but detached. However, both are must-reads if you want answers to many (not all) of the questions Tony left us with. I hope we’ll have conversations here about both books, so get reading!
The documentary about Anthony Bourdain that we’ve been anticipating for at least two years finally hit theaters today, and I just returned from the first showing.
Besides me, only 11 other people, including four men, were in the audience. I sat in the top row corner in case I got emotional and had tissues ready, but I didn’t come even close to crying. Maybe all I’ve read about the content prepared me.
Context: I’ve followed Bourdain on Cats Working for so many years now, whenever I see anything about him, I approach it with the attitude, “Is this something I didn’t already know?” More often than not, it isn’t.
Here are a few tidbits I haven’t read in reviews and interviews about Roadrunner. For example, when Eric Ripert read Kitchen Confidential and first invited Tony to lunch to meet him, what Eric noticed about Tony was, “He has amazing good manners at the table.” I wonder what Eric expected?
(I took notes in the dark. They came out surprisingly readable!)
My favorite part of the film was early and was not director Morgan Neville’s work. It was all the footage I’d never seen of Tony shortly after KC made him famous. It came from a documentary being made about him at the time that was never finished.
There, we get several glimpses of Tony and Nancy when they were a couple. Their small apartment in New York City was filled with plants and books, and the walls were covered with pictures.
Ottavia didn’t appear as much as I expected, but Neville used some of her black-and-white scenes from the first Rome episode of No Reservations, which it happens I had just rewatched. It was so nice to see them joking and in love.
Later in the film, Ottavia explained that the romantic side in the marriage “dissipated when he started traveling intensely and we couldn’t follow him.” I’d assume that was when Ariane started school. But they always remained friends and even grappled together. She described jiu jitsu as “problem-solving under pressure.”
By the last year of his life, she said Tony was coming by to see her and Ariane only about once a month.
We see Ariane’s face as a toddler and small child. And there’s one quick scene where she looks about nine. She’s getting tall and she’s simply beautiful.
I was moved by the raw emotions and tears — still — when people talked about his death. His literary agent Kim Witherspoon, producer Lydia Tenaglia, artist David Choe, and of course, Ottavia, who has one great regret I won’t spoil for you. Eric Ripert, who was with Tony in France when he died, declined to discuss it.
But the reaction that grabbed me most was from Lydia’s husband, producer Chris Collins, who summed up the whole shitshow of Tony’s last year of life.
Chris was talking about filming the Hong Kong episode, which Tony hired his girlfriend Asia Argento to direct. Tony shocked everyone by firing his multi-Emmy-winning cameraman Zach Zamboni for daring to question Asia, and meekly let her interrupt and direct him in ways he’d have never tolerated from anyone else. Chris simply said, “In Hong Kong, we were trying to help our friend.” But his look said, “If only we knew where that was leading…”
As for Asia’s appearance in the film, I think the Parts Unknown footage Neville used was more flattering than she deserved, and he essentially handed her a pass, considering, although he did flash the paparazzi photos that totally unraveled Tony’s life.
My impressions are still roiling, and I know when I watch it again on CNN or HBO Max I WILL cry. If you want to see it in the theater, don’t wait. I’ve heard the run may only last a few weeks.
I just wanted to create a quick space here for comments.