I was a working Chef in NYC, a graduate of The Culinary Institute of America, and at that time was running the catering department at Columbia University. I had no time for trivial stories about some drunk’s exploits in the kitchen. I myself was a drunk, trying to get on the straight and narrow….and succeed in the Big Apple.
My career in NYC started in 1999. My future wife and I moved to the city for her educational pursuits and I scored a sweet job at the Russian Tea Room as Chef Tournant. The Tea Room was re-opening in a grand new gaudy style, with the backing of restaurateur extraordinaire Warner LeRoy.
By the end of the first week I knew I had to get out of the Tea Room. I was starting work at 2pm and not leaving till 2 in the morning. The minute I clocked in I was running up and down 4 steep flights of rat infested stairs, pumping out borscht by the cauldron, getting yelled at by coffee drunk Sous Chef‘s and in turn yelling at line cooks! The place was an utter mess. Completely F#*cked up! One night the catering department served 200 raw Chicken Kiev‘s to a dining room full of stunned VIP guests. The only benefit was when I made a quenelle of Caviar for the signature RTR stuffed potato, I could lick the spoon clean of the excess delightful Ossetra row; tossing the sterling silver utensil into the dish room with gusto! Hey, it was 1 in the morning!
In 2001 I was lucky enough to score a job as Catering Chef at Columbia University….and get out of the restaurant mayhem….never to return. Later I would run Ferris Booth Commons, Columbia’s premier gourmet retail outlet. Working for Columbia had its own issues though….weekend parties, 5000 guests/parents on graduation day, Ivy League Politics etc…..But Columbia gave me a semblance of normalcy, and that’s when I was given Bourdains book. So you can see that I had no interest, or time for Tony.
Columbia did afford me time to travel, and my wife and I went off to Peru, South Africa and Europe. With this new love of traveling came an interest in Tony’s travel show, “No Reservations”. At first I was reluctant to watch, maybe even jealous: this old Chef got it right…and here I am still slinging hash. Regardless, I couldn’t help but enjoy his show. He was a natural on-screen. He was funny, insightful. His shows went to all corners of the world…and he ate whatever was served to him. When I was in South Africa I attempted to copy Tony by agreeing to eat roast goats head. The head was buried in hot ashes and was fully intact, eye balls and all. Luckily the tour guide forgot about our deal….thankfully I was let off the hook.
So I was now a fan of Bourdain…watched all his shows, rented the “Lebanon” episode from Netflix. I was impressed that as he became more popular, he stayed true to his form; unlike Emeril, who I used to watch when his show was simple and interesting and he didn’t wear so much make-up.
Recently my wife was promoted to a position in South East Asia. The location was between Bangkok, Thailand and Jakarta, Indonesia. We eagerly rented Tony’s shows on the 2 mega cities. Bangkok was our first choice, but to our surprise, Bourdain didn’t have great things to say about the city (protests and all). Jakarta on the other hand came across quite well. So Jakarta it is. I’m not saying we made our decision based only on Tony’s show, but it did make an impression.
Last week we were back in NYC, saying goodbye to friends and family. I was looking through some old stuff of mine at my mother’s house. I came across Tony’s book…in the same place I tossed it 10 years earlier. The book didn’t look a day older, not even a crease, just a bit of dust. I was about to put it in the “goodwill” pile, but hesitated. I thought to myself….”should I read this? Give it another shot?” I was at a different place in my life, maybe the book wouldn’t bother me as it did long ago. I thumbed through the first few pages, and there it was, the connection I missed in my arrogant past. Tony mentioned that he was the guy who came in after “the first Chef turned out to be a psychopath, or a mean, megalomaniacal drunk, “and stabilized the kitchen. He was no superstar, but he was a solid, damn good Chef, and that was his value. That was my role as well. And it took some time for me to accept that role. Everyone starts fresh out of school thinking they will be the next big thing on the Food Network.
Anyway, I always followed some high paid, blustery fool, who had ground the kitchen right into the grease-trap/sewer. After a few successful “clean ups”, I found my niche. I introduced sanitation programs, addressed employee issues, tightened up inventory controls, lowered food cost and got the business into the black. Not very glamorous, but a solid career. So after all, Bourdain and I did have something in common. We were both solid Chefs…so I read on…and was hooked!
Now, just as Bourdain has, I am about to embark on my next career path. No one should stay in the kitchen for too long…it can burn you out, but you will never get the kitchen out of your blood. So thanks Tony. Sorry for dismissing you way back then….but back then I was too close to the fire to enjoy the burn!