Book Review – Anthony Bourdain: The Last Interview

September 9, 2019

By Karen

I read The Last Interview, a 109-page trade paperback, in two sittings over the weekend. I believe it’s the 23rd installment in a series about deceased writers, musicians and celebrities.

It begins with an introduction by food writer Helen Rosner about how she discovered Bourdain and eventually got to know him personally. They were in touch right up to his death, and she never got to respond to his last note.

It’s unclear if she selected the seven interviews in the book, arranged chronologically from 2003, 2011, 2013, 2014, 2016, January 2018, and finally June 3, 2018, the last Sunday he was alive.

Quick digression on production quality. This book isn’t going to age well in your Bourdain collection. It’s printed on that coarse, cheap paper that yellows. And I wonder about the editing. Some chapters are transcripts of live appearances, and I was surprised to find typos like “Namimbia” and “Columbia” (the latter misspelled four times).

During a 2011 appearance in Sydney, Tony said about his daughter Ariane, “I don’t want her reading terrible shit about me on the internet, behaving badly toward women, for instance. I’m not going to do that.”

I just shook my head, thinking, “No, Tony, you did something much, much worse.”

As a Bourdain watcher since 2007, I didn’t really learn anything new about him here. The most notable bit for me was when Tony mentioned in his 2013 interview with Neil deGrasse Tyson the Roman condiment garam. He described it as “essentially rotten fish guts and rotten fish sauce,” and said it was as ubiquitous a seasoning in Europe as salt is to us. If he’s ever mentioned garam on TV, I missed it, and it was another example of his encyclopedic mind.

January 2018 is a transcript of Bourdain on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah. That might have been the last time I saw Tony alive in real time. He seemed in good spirits, saying, “I’m an enthusiastic son of a bitch.”

In hindsight, we know he was then embroiled in trying to extricate his girlfriend Asia Argento from charges of allegedly raping a 17-year-old boy. You may refresh on the timeline of that in this archived post.

The last chapter is an interview with IndieWire, which was published on June 3, a Sunday. Parts Unknown Hong Kong first aired on CNN that night. It was also the weekend Argento cavorted around Rome for the paparazzi with Hugo Clement.

Obviously unaware he was being betrayed as he spoke, Tony raved about working with Argento on Hong Kong, which she supposedly directed. “My god, I’d love nothing more than to repeat the experience. She made it incredible.”

In other interviews, he’d called that shoot some of his best work. It’s become one of CNN’s “lost” episodes because they no longer rerun any Parts Unknown Argento was involved with.

Bourdain went on about Argento: “She listens to my advice and frequently if not most of the time, rejects it. That is something Asia cannot help but do. She is brutally honest about herself and anything, and it’s a great quality.”

I just about gagged on that paragraph. And when I turned the page and realized that was the last line in the book, my jaw dropped. It felt like the editor deliberately left readers to wonder, was Bourdain really that deluded or just lying? We still don’t know.

You can read that particular interview at IndieWire.

On Tuesday, June 5, Bourdain, while filming in France, would see the photos of Argento with Hugo. We’ve heard only unverified stories about arguments, and Eric Ripert told Tony’s mother Tony had been in a “dark mood,”

On Friday, June 8, Ripert found Tony dead in his hotel room of apparent suicide.

Personally, for the foreseeable future I’ll buy any book about or by Bourdain. Fingers crossed he left something more to publish. But I’d say go ahead if you want to give The Last Interview a miss. Reams of more illuminating interviews are available online.

For example, I was surprised that “Bourdain Confidential” in Popula from February 2018 with Maria Bustillos wasn’t included.

Or even better, you can just reread the books Bourdain wrote before his life took that last fatal turn.

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Gordon Ramsay Couldn’t Shake Bourdain’s Shadow

September 4, 2019

By Karen

Gordon Ramsay’s first season of Uncharted recently wrapped on National Geographic. On the NatGeo site you can watch his travels to Peru, New Zealand, Morocco, Laos, Hawaii and Alaska. The reviews were not positive, usually comparing Ramsay unfavorably to Anthony Bourdain.

Ramsay has been my guilty pleasure for years, though I admit he’s not for everybody.

He shows (I hope) his nice side on MasterChef Junior with adorably precocious kids. On adult MasterChef, the withering insults flow, but he leaves the heaviest dickishness to fellow judge Joe Bastianich.

I love Hell’s Kitchen when Ramsay, in bleep-filled fury, strips culinary bozos of their delusions of competence. He’s similar on 24 Hours to Hell and Back, trying to save failing restaurants by berating and humiliating the owners in front of their customers. I was also a fan of Kitchen Nightmares and Hotel Hell. Not so much The F Word.

Bottom line: I’ve seen a lot of Gordon Ramsay. Uncharted was something else.

Ramsay denies ripping off the Bourdain formula, saying he got the idea in Cambodia during a 2004 visit. But comparison was inevitable because both men’s series focused on travel and food. Ramsay’s big twist was his trademark move: turning the food into a competition with a tight deadline.

Ramsay’s mission was to learn as much as he could about the place’s cuisine in a week, then to prepare a feast against a local chef, with invited guests blindly choosing which dishes they preferred.

To make it a “fair fight,” Ramsay gave himself the disadvantage of cooking outdoors with unfamiliar ingredients. He always managed to create something edible, but his dishes weren’t always the favorites. His willingness to come in second showed, at least, an attempt to be humble.

To develop his menu, Ramsay roamed around and had people show him where ingredients such as eels, ants, beetles, grubs, plants growing on cliff sides, fish and game were sourced. Gathering them was often physically grueling, showcasing that 52-year-old Ramsay works out a lot.

What Uncharted never showed was Ramsay strolling through city or village markets, looking effortlessly chic and cool in a rumpled shirt and jeans.

Also missing was the stunning cinematography that Bourdain’s Zero Point Zero film crew had honed to Emmy quality. Uncharted captured what it needed of Ramsay, but any tourist could have shot the uninspired B-roll.

Another glaring omission for Bourdain-spoiled viewers was compelling narrative. Ramsay’s voiceover was often nicely self-deprecating, but light on wit and insight.

Ramsay did break new ground by introducing the Ugly American’s cousin — the Ugly Scot. He mocked locals for going to extremes to snag ingredients. He spit out what he was served a lot. Apparently not a drinker, he missed those opportunities to bond with his hosts, settling instead for a quick sip of the local brew, then insulting it with a puckered face.

Most irritating to me were Ramsay’s ever-present deadlines, which he enlisted everyone into helping him meet.

“I want to hear all about your history, your culture and your cooking techniques, but I’ve got this feast to prepare in the morning, so chop-chop!”

Bourdain had a production schedule, but I can’t recall ANY meal in ANY of his series where he ever made his hosts feel like he didn’t have all day or night to spend with them, eating, drinking, just shooting the shit and enjoying himself.

If Gordon Ramsay accomplished anything with Uncharted, it was to unwittingly remind us of the extraordinary soul we lost with Bourdain’s passing.


It’s June 25. How are You Celebrating #BourdainDay?

June 25, 2019

By Karen

I’m inviting everyone to let us know how you may be remembering Anthony Bourdain on #BourdainDay, what should have been his 63rd birthday.

[People.com]

Eric Ripert and José Andres, who initially announced this celebration, were in Singapore (12 hours ahead of the U.S. East Coast) and posted their toast and feast on Twitter yesterday.

Restaurants across the country too numerous to list here are planning various events and special menus to honor Tony.

Later today I hope to trek to Popeye’s Chicken, a few miles off my usual rounds, to try some spicy chicken, biscuits and gravy, and mac and cheese, which were Tony’s guilty favorites.

[Weirdly, when Bourdain died last year, I was in such a state of shock that I patronized a nearby Bojangles Louisiana Chicken by mistake and couldn’t figure out why they didn’t serve his mac and cheese.]

A few notes on some new developments…

The book, Anthony Bourdain Remembered, seems to have dropped off the Publishers Weekly bestseller list already, after standing at No. 10 a week or so ago.

His last graphic novel, Hungry Ghosts, is being made by Sony into a four-part animated series. They say each episode will have a different look and include the accompanying Bourdain recipe. Not sure how that will work. Also, no word yet on where or how the series will be available.

New Jersey officially opened the Bourdain Food Trail on June 13 with a ceremony that Tony’s brother Chris attended. It includes 10 stops they made for an episode during season 5 of Parts Unknown.

Tony’s alma mater, the Culinary Institute of America, in partnership with Eric Ripert and José Andres who are helping with fundraising, has established a scholarship to enable students to study abroad. Donations are also being accepted online.

On June 10, Bourdain was named one of 10 winners of EatingWell’s 3rd Annual American Food Hero Award.


One Year: Anthony Bourdain Remembered

June 8, 2019

By Karen

Eric Ripert and José Andrés declared on Twitter that June 25 — Anthony Bourdain’s 63rd birthday — is #BourdainDay. They encourage us to pay tribute to Tony in any way we see fit.

But today, June 8, marks one year since Tony ended his life while filming in France, shocking a world unaware of the internal and external demons he was battling.

On May 28, CNN and Ecco published Anthony Bourdain Remembered, a gorgeous book of photos and tributes to Tony originally compiled as a keepsake for his daughter, Ariane. I’m so thankful she agreed to share it with us.

Brace yourself upon first read because many pages turn and you suddenly have Tony’s brown eyes close up and staring through you. It’s a joy to see him, but also heart-breaking.

Cats Working wasn’t a contributor in spite of the reams you and I have written about Tony here. Neither was Nigella Lawson.

Rewatching Parts Unknown, and poring over this book, I find myself searching for his silver wedding ring. To me it signifies when he was relatively content and grounded. In hindsight I’ve bisected his life into two very lopsided halves: pre- and post-fatal attraction.

Speaking of Parts Unknown, I’ll confess my interest waned near the end, and unwatched episodes piled up on the DVR. Tony seemed to be retracing his steps, but lacking joie de vivre. I don’t think he filmed his last season without a friend or acquaintance with him. It was as if he’d grown sick of his own company.

I rationalized that Bourdain once described himself as a bus that made many stops, and he didn’t expect everyone to stay on for the entire ride.

In his “spare” time, he was everywhere: producing documentaries; trying to launch the never-to-be Bourdain Market; Roads & Kingdoms; editing books for his Ecco imprint; writing and recording voiceovers for other ZPZ shows; doing personal appearances and interviews; supporting charities; filming Raw Craft videos for The Balvenie Scotch Distillery; writing a novel he’d been working on for years.

I’m sure I’ve left a lot out.

Now I wish I’d stayed on that bus and hung on, like I did for the years after I first stumbled upon him in 2007 on Travel Channel and began sharing my fascination with him on Cats Working.

The archive still has the most complete account of Bourdain’s career and life in those days that you’ll find anywhere on the internet. He was on the cusp of transcending cable TV obscurity to become what the world came to adore — the antithesis of the Ugly American.

We all thought we had many years ahead to hop on and off the Bourdain bus. Until we woke up one Friday morning to learn he’d hopped off it himself.

I don’t know yet what I’ll do on June 25. It’s a Tuesday. But food and drink will definitely be involved. Maybe you can give me some ideas.

UPDATES…

I haven’t seen anything about CNN’s documentary on Bourdain’s life. Ditto on the two books Tony’s co-author Laurie Woolever said she was working on.

Tony’s Russian sidekick Zamir Gotta was enlisting companions for a five-day tribute cruise to Cuba on Royal Caribbean’s Majesty of the Seas October 14. But Trump just fucked that up by suddenly, for no reason, banning port calls in Cuba by cruise ships sailing from the U.S.

I’ve lost track of Ottavia and Ariane. They moved from the home where they and Tony staged some of the photos in his last cookbook, Appetites. The place sold in May.

One day I arranged all of Tony’s books in order of publication (from right to left) so I could see his evolution. I once hoped to fill the entire shelf with his books, but the only new additions now will be written about him. I’m sure there will be many.

Parts Unknown has continued to win awards, including…

The six-part Explore Parts Unknown web series on Little Los Angeles won a James Beard Media Award in May, as well as an award for Visual and Technical Excellence.

In February, Parts Unknown: Bhutan won a 2019 Cinema Audio Society Award for Re-Recording Mixer.

Also in February, Parts Unknown: West Virginia won an American Cinema Editors (ACE) Award for Best Edited Nonscripted Series.

In January, Parts Unknown Seasons 11 and 12 won a 2019 Producers Guild Award for Non-Fiction TV.

BONUS…

Actor Michael Moriarty has been writing a series about Bourdain on his blog, Enter Stage Right. They’re strange, to put it mildly. See for yourself. The blog is needle-in-a-haystack on searches, so here are the links I found…

#1 Introduction (3/11/19)

#2 Detroit (3/18/19)

#3 Mexico (4/8/19)

#4 Russia (4/15/19)

#5 Chiang Mai, Thailand (4/22/19)

#6 Shanghai (4/29/19)

#7 Tanzania (5/6/19)

#8 Iran (5/13/19)


Unintended Consequence of Silence RE: Bourdain’s Suicide

November 27, 2018

By Karen

CNN has eked out its last moments of Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown. His apartment has new tenants. His condo is on the market because his wife and daughter have moved elsewhere.

In spite of his books, reams of interviews, TV shows and movie appearances still available to read and watch, because his voice is gone on current events, he’s inexorably blurring and slipping into irrelevance, like a dream remembered.

It’s been nearly six months, and not only do I still feel no closure, but I’m troubled by how his suicide is morphing in a way he never would have intended.

On November 13, The Wall Street Journal ran an article, “The Dark Side of the Restaurant World.” It led with a Chicago restaurant manager, Charles Ford, deciding “he would no longer be silent about his three suicide attempts,” and discussed the physical and emotional toll of restaurant work — long hours, abysmal pay, never-ending physical demands.

But the sentence that got my attention was, “Through Mr. Bourdain’s literary manager, Kimberly Witherspoon, the late chef’s family declined to comment for this article.”

On one hand, that made sense because Bourdain hadn’t worked as a chef since 2000, when he began filming A Cook’s Tour for Food Network.

On the other hand, his family’s silence let his suicide be used as a consequence of what ails the restaurant industry. This is what they should have said…

ANTHONY BOURDAIN DIDN’T KILL HIMSELF OVER A JOB HE HADN’T DONE IN NEARLY TWO DECADES.

I think by his count, Bourdain spent 28 years slaving in restaurant kitchens. He was proud to pull himself up the chain until he achieved head chef status at Brasserie Les Halles in New York City. He told this story across several books. If there’s someone out there with a better memory, please tell me where he ever mentioned feeling suicidal over working in a kitchen.

What I recall is his pride in having the toughness and stamina for the work. He loved hanging out with co-workers after a brutal shift. Later, when he had a platform, he became their most outspoken advocate, particularly for the immigrants and women.

I truly sympathize with Charles Ford’s struggles, but I wonder what Bourdain would have said in his snarky days about a general manager who worked in a suit everywhere but over a hot stove and couldn’t hack it.

Kitchen workers have grueling jobs, but I think they’re mistaken to make Bourdain their poster boy for suicide. It’s just like how people still insist on calling him a “celebrity chef” when he NEVER was.

Pre-Kitchen Confidential, nobody ate at Les Halles because Tony Bourdain was the chef. He’d be the first to say it. By the time he became a bona fide celebrity, he hadn’t been a chef for years.

So far, Chef Daniel Boulud has been the ONLY acquaintance to come anywhere near speaking what’s probably closer to the truth about Bourdain’s death. This month he told Us Magazine Bourdain died because “his heart was broken,” and that his death was “a shock to everyone, absolutely.”

Tony’s mother Gladys said essentially the same about his lack of suicidal tendencies when the news first broke.

In the months since, those of us seeking the truth have taken a closer look at the dark forces that began to consume Bourdain in 2016 when he fell in with Asia Argento and her friends.

This past September, Argento was still giving teary interviews about how she felt Bourdain had abandoned her and her two children (for the record, her daughter is 17 and her son now lives with his father in the U.S.), with no mention of Bourdain’s own 11-year-old daughter.

This month (November), Argento was reported to have hooked up with a paparazzi sprung earlier this year from his second jail stint, they had sex on her table, and he claimed to be besotted with her. Italian media soon reversed course, reporting it was a stunt Argento pulled for money and publicity. Whichever version is true, that’s just a peek at the woman Bourdain considered his “soulmate” until he learned three days before he died that she had cheated on him.

Tony’s family didn’t hold a public memorial service because they didn’t think he’d want one. But memorials are for the living, not the dead. Into the void have grown many pop-up homages, mostly by restaurant chefs, which is great. Bourdain was their champion. His life had become one of showing us restaurants and their menus all over the world that we’d otherwise never know.

He was restaurant workers’ biggest cheerleader, but I think he’d be the last to consider his death emblematic of how hard and hopeless kitchen work can be.

Rather, he was a SURVIVOR of it and proud to be. It was his life AFTER being a chef that killed him. We still don’t — and may never — know exactly what aspects of his life did it.

Unfortunately, this silence has left the door open to whatever spin anyone wants to put on it. I don’t think Bourdain would have approved.


Bourdain’s Travels End in the Lower East Side

November 14, 2018

By Karen

On November 11, CNN aired the final new episode of Parts Unknown that Anthony Bourdain’s crew could finish without him. Remaining in limbo is unseen footage from a shoot in May in Florence that Bourdain did with then-girlfriend Asia Argento. CNN has said it will not air whatever film was captured in the Alsace region of France with Eric Ripert during the week leading up to Bourdain’s suicide in June.

Tony’s final wander through the Lower East Side of Manhattan was given kaleidoscopic effects that may have mimicked the mental downward spiral he was trying to conceal. The visit aptly brought his life full circle by showing his stomping grounds of the 1970s and ‘80s, when he was a young heroin addict who thought he had no future.

Once fame found Bourdain, and particularly when he became a father at age 50, we watched him reject, one by one, the trappings of that former life: his thumb ring, his earring, his leather jacket and smoking.

But in the end, he was heavily smoking Marlboro Reds again, and the last leather jacket he chose looked as weathered and worn as the man himself had become.

Bourdain in Lower East Side of Manhattan

(Photo – David Scott Holloway/CNN)

I confess that I had mostly never heard of the musicians, artists, writers and poets Tony met and reminisced with. I’m only about two years older than he, but I must have been living on a different planet, although decades ago I got a taste of his origins.

My family was transferred to New Jersey in 1969 and I became a freshman at Freehold High School, about 50 miles south of Leonia, where Tony would have been in 7th grade. Had we met then, he probably would have scared the shit out of me. I was still reading Little Women, but found myself surrounded by tough kids who smoked pot, had sex and terrorized the teachers.

We moved again when I was a sophomore and I blocked out my year of living dangerously in Freehold, but it would all come rushing back whenever I saw Bourdain talk about his disaffected youth.

The ZPZ cinematographers really captured the LES’s cigarette butts, garbage, graffiti, abandoned shopping carts — a landscape Bourdain could wax nostalgic about. Spinning and blurry video, close-ups of dolls with dead eyes and dirty bare feet, and talk of rats completed the picture. Did I see some man about to bite off a mouse’s head?

From that squalor, thanks to the power of his writing, Bourdain’s world evolved into a $13,000-a-month 64th-floor apartment with river views at Columbus Circle.

Finally, forget the bone marrow or sushi Tony always cited as last-meal preferences. The last meal of his TV career was plain eggs boiled by artist John Lurie in his apartment. It must have been when Tony admired and bought Lurie’s painting, “The sky is falling. I’m learning to live with it.”

The LES episode was filmed in April 2018. That’s when Tony paid Jimmy Bennett $200,000 to make Bennett drop his claim that Argento had raped him when he was under the age of consent.

During the final montage of frantically swirling graphics, I wondered if that’s what Tony saw in his last moment. The accompanying music was Johnny Thunders’ “You Can’t Put Your Arms Around a Memory,” and if you listened carefully, you could hear Tony’s 11-year-old daughter Ariane singing along.

If Bourdain had lived to polish the episode, I have no doubt his narrative would have pulled it all together, making the gritty Lower East Side the natural spot for young Tony to hone his tastes in music and art. But without his reassuring voiceover, seeing his sad-eyed, now-haggard face just highlighted for me the dreadfulness of seeing Anthony Bourdain’s hard-won ascent to bestselling author and revered world traveler end in oblivion in a lonely French hotel room.


Bourdain Revealed Last Wishes in Indonesia

October 9, 2018

By Karen

Anthony Bourdain probably filmed Parts Unknown season 12 Indonesia in April 2018, about the time his $200,000 payment went to Jimmy Bennett in hopes of killing Bennett’s claim that Tony’s then-girlfriend, Asia Argento, had sexually assaulted Bennett as a teenager.

Bourdain filmed one scene at a Bali resort surrounded by sunbathing and swimming tourists while he braved the heat in jeans, sipping an umbrella drink, mocking Wagyu beef sliders, and seeming to hate every minute.

Then a one-eyed man named Lawrence ferried Bourdain to a former penal island, where they shared an enormous lobster and talked about death. Tony says, “I’ve thought about, as one does, how do I want to go?”

Lawrence suggests, “You want them all to cry, don’t you?”

Tony answers…

“No. Leave me in the jungle. I don’t want a party. ‘Reported dead.’ You know, what actually happens to my physical remains is of zero interest to me unless it can provide entertainment value. Throw me into a wood chipper and spray me into Harrods [London department store] at the middle of the rush hour. That would be pretty epic. I wouldn’t mind being remembered in that way.”

Two months later, Bourdain didn’t get his “epic” ending; he was cremated in France on June 13 and his ashes flown home to his brother Chris on June 15, ten days before what would have been Tony’s 62nd birthday.

But the rest of what he said is pretty spot-on. We know he killed himself by hanging with some alcohol in his system, but no suspicious drugs. Period.

Esquire just presented as fact that Tony’s family held a small private ceremony, but that statement is only based on a June 22 New York Times article that says…

“The family will likely have a small, private ceremony of some kind, said Gladys Bourdain, his mother. ‘He would want as little fuss as possible,’” she said.”

So, we still don’t know for sure. Many restaurants have been hosting special dinners in Bourdain’s memory, as on October 5 at Sardine in Madison, Wisconsin. It was ostensibly to honor Jacques Pepin, but when Pepin and his daughter Claudine arrived, they learned it was also a suicide prevention fundraiser.

Barring some new revelations in a CNN documentary and a biography scheduled for 2019 release, this could well be the end of the story. Except…

Tony’s ex-girlfriend, Asia Argento, used Trump’s well-known tactic of spreading lies by claiming “people are saying” to tearfully tell the Daily Mail details of a far-fetched tale about Tony’s death that she claims Rain Dove told her.

But, of course, Asia doesn’t believe it. Anything to paint herself as the victim.

As we’re watching Parts Unknown’s final episodes, it becomes clear Bourdain was increasingly preoccupied with death. Although Indonesia footage was edited posthumously with the benefit of hindsight, it includes THE most grisly scene I’ve ever seen on ANY Bourdain series, bar none. And I’m not talking about the whole pig roasting on a spit.

It’s a human funeral, beginning with a close-up of the deceased’s face as the body is being prepared for final rites. The public cremation includes the sight of the now-skinless, hairless blackening skull, fingers, joints and bones. Finally, the fragments and ashes are gathered into a cloth, several people wade into the nearby surf, and the remains are dumped into the water.

The cremation was supposed to be the mourners’ happy phase of the ceremony, and an off-screen voice explains…

“Time is circular. Death is but the beginning of another journey.”

One has to wonder if Tony believed that, and if those words came to mind in that hotel room in France, making what he was about to do seem not such a bad thing.

The episode ends with a bit of recycled voiceover (from Greece?), where Bourdain says…

“All stories should end on a beach. All the good ones do, anyway. Why should this one be any different?”

I wonder if it’s a clue for us that his family scattered his ashes in the Atlantic. I hope so. It seems fitting, considering how much time he spent living near it and flying over it.

PS: I started Bourdain’s last graphic novel, Hungry Ghosts, today. Stay tuned for a review. (So far, I’m impressed by its high-quality hardcover production for the amazing low price of $11.99.)


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