Uncle Tony in the Bardo: John Birdsall Remembers Anthony Bourdain

anthony bourdain and john birdsall
Anthony Bourdain and John Birdsall dining at Juhu Beach Club in 2015. Photo: Helen Cho.

On June 8, news of Anthony Bourdain’s suicide at a hotel in Kaysersberg, France, seized the screens of what must have been every device in the Wi-Fi world. CNN, the network of Bourdain’s Parts Unknown, confirmed his death on Twitter just before 4:30 a.m. Pacific time. Hours later, when many of us in the Bay Area were waking up and clicking into Instagram, it felt like we were the last people on earth to know.

But not James Syhabout of Oakland’s Commis, Old Kan and Hawking Bird and San Francisco’s Hawker Fare. Incoming texts started searing the chef’s nightstand at five that morning.

“I always have it on silent,” he says. “That morning—dead tired, three hours of sleep—my phone started vibrating. My wife nudged me.

‘Oh my God,’ she said. ‘Tony died.’

“I’m like, ‘huh? What do you mean, Tony who?’”

‘Check your phone!’

The first message was from Mourad Lahlou, just four simple characters: “WTF?”

Syhabout spent the next two hours in bed, crying. “I was in denial,” he says. “I was shell-shocked. I didn’t know how he died, I didn’t want to know the details.”

Syhabout got to know Bourdain in Luang Prabang in November 2016, during taping of the Laos episode of Parts Unknown. In January of this year Bourdain’s line for Ecco Press (an imprint of Harper Collins) published Syhabout’s cookbook and memoir, Hawker Fare, which I co-authored. Syhabout and Bourdain appeared together at promotional events—he felt close to the man he calls Uncle Tony, Bourdain’s nickname among certain chefs. But then, Uncle Tony had a way of making strangers feel they knew him.

Yeah, he was all over CNN promos and book blurbs. He was an inexhaustibly punchy quote machine for journalists on deadline, for everything from Trump’s travel ban to the culture of sexual assault, but something besides ubiquity made Bourdain feel familiar.

In books and travel shows, he voiced an interior narrative in which many of us heard an echo of ourselves. Even if we’d never worked the line or trekked to Libya, we knew the mix of curiosity and hopefulness, of wonder and self-doubt Bourdain expressed on the page or in musing voiceovers. Like us he seemed to teeter on the edge of despair and optimism about the world. Like us he found comfort in food, in strangers who cared about the small, vivid places in a city they’d found and burrowed into. Like us he longed to disappear into landscapes we never knew existed but secretly hoped to discover.

Cooks and chefs, though—many thought of Bourdain as family in the restaurant sense, a brother in the tribe of work, bonded by grease burns and finger cuts, relationships wrecked by overwork, by stress on the line and the love of a kitchen crew you play out with no limits.

A cook’s life is a calling with scant rewards and a long string of fuckups. Just by understanding—by not judging, because whatever dark shit you’d seen or felt shame about in your own life—Uncle Tony made it better. He’d been the guy in a place even darker than yours, a junkie at the floor-shelf level of kitchen status, and lived to tell about it—so eloquently, in fact, that it makes you remember why you get up every morning and jump right back into the grind.

“All of a sudden,” James Syhabout tells me, recalling the morning his phone exploded, “the world drifted farther apart.”

“For a lot of people—for me personally—he gave me a light into the rest of the world.”

Chris Cosentino is talking into the phone from Portland, Oregon. He’s the chef of Cockscomb in San Francisco (also of Acacia House in St. Helena and Jackrabbit in Portland, and the author, with Michael Harlan Turk, of Offal Good: Cooking with the Heart, and Guts). Cosentino met Bourdain in 2001, when Bourdain was on tour in San Francisco with his second book A Cook’s Tour. After a speaking gig and book signing at Herbst Theatre, Cosentino introduced himself.

They ended up talking for 30, maybe 45 minutes.

“He took the time with me,” Cosentino says. “At that point in my career I wasn’t even aware of everything that was going on. But he took my email, took my name, and made the introduction to Fergus.” That’s Fergus as in Henderson, chef at St. John restaurant in London, the pioneering offal cook, and author, in 1999, of Nose to Tail Cooking. Cosentino was exploring whole-animal cooking (it was the year before the start of his 12-year run at Incanto in Noe Valley), and Henderson was its most famous advocate. Cosentino ended up doing a stage with Henderson in London. He credits Bourdain as being the catalyst.

“He didn’t have to help me,” Cosentino says. “He was just a really great person. I respected his opinion. I loved his snarkiness. I loved that he didn’t have to agree with everyone’s opinion.”

And Uncle Tony had his own opinions. Lots of them.

In late 2011, when his Travel Channel show The Layover was launching, Bourdain crowned San Francisco as the best city to eat in America—and not for its foie gras towers, warm goat cheese salads, or vegan nutloaf.

“Anyone who doesn’t have a great time in San Francisco is pretty much dead to me,” he told the New York Times. “You go there as a snarky New Yorker thinking it’s politically correct, it’s crunchy granola, it’s vegetarian, and it surprises you every time. It’s a two-fisted drinking town, a carnivorous meat-eating town, it’s dirty and nasty and wonderful.”

In a famous scene, Bourdain and Cosentino get trashed on tiki drinks at the Tonga Room. They suck two-foot straws across a table from each other, dredging the syrupy tropical cocktail lees from a ridiculous flaming bowl. They order again. “In spite of all established notions of good sense,” Bourdain says, “I’d like a Bora-Bora Horror and a Zombie.” You think he’s ordering for Cosentino but nope: they’re both his. (Cosentino gets his own, a Singapore Sling.) They drink to Don Ho, the campy Hawaiian pop singer who died in 2007. “Rest in peace,” Bourdain says. “You will be missed, gentle warrior.” He takes a sip from a glass that might as well be a bong, for the punch it packs. “Ohhh, that’s lethal,” he says. “Every American needs this. Because if you got no love in your heart for this place you’re a sick, twisted, lonely fuck with too many cats.”

The light into the world could illuminate some dark things about Uncle Tony. Anyway, he always seemed to be having a good time.

Back in 2007, when I was a staff writer at the East Bay Express, someone from Bourdain’s Zero Point Zero production company emailed me.

I’d written some big cover story about a taco crawl through the loncheras of Oakland’s Fruitvale neighborhood, and reviewed about 40 trucks, and the producer had seen it online. Bourdain was coming to shoot an episode of No Reservations, the producer said, and their scout would be in town to find filming locations. Did I want to tag along and give advice?

They settled on a Salvadoran truck on Foothill, mostly, I thought, because it had a cool mural behind it. The truck didn’t make the best tacos in the neighborhood. It was primarily a tamale truck, the Salvadoran kind, moist, with smooth masa and the green, jungly taste of the banana leaf wrapper leaching into it.

Weeks later, on the day of shooting, I showed up to meet Bourdain (I’d introduced the crew to a local community organizer who would appear on camera). Bourdain pulled up in a van with a three-man crew and an air of guerrilla paranoia—Eater was asking readers to crowd-source Bourdain’s location that day. They were trying to get in and out without a gaggle of fans showing up. “What do I order?” Bourdain asked me. I told him definitely a tamale, and described the smoothness of the masa and the banana-leaf taste.

“No tamales,” he said, shaking his head. “Nuh-uh.” They’d just shot someplace in the Mission, and he’d eaten tamales. “Maybe pupusas?” “Okay, okay,” he said, “pupusas,” and ordered some while the camera rolled.

He made them look extraordinary—like he’d traveled all the way from New York just to eat these fucking amazing pupusas in Oakland. He had an aura or something, an invisible cloak of improvisational magic he could wrap himself in. He was also very, very kind.

I was an insignificant local writer working at a poorly funded alt weekly. Bourdain said he’d read my taco crawl piece. “Keep up the good work,” he said, as he and his guys got back in the van and rushed off.

Maybe it was bullshit, just being nice, the least he could do after I’d spent a whole day helping his scout, with no pay. Or maybe it was genuine. He had a way of making you think it was.

anthony bourdain and preeti mistry
Chef Preeti Mistry talks to Anthony Bourdain at her restaurant, Juhu Beach Club, in 2015. Photo Helen Cho.

It’s pretty strange,” Preeti Mistry says. “I only met him once, and I was kind of worried he would be another fucking macho bro, but he was not.”

In June 2015, Bourdain was in Oakland to shoot a scene for the Bay Area episode of Parts Unknown. He’d come to Mistry’s restaurant, Juhu Beach Club. Bourdain and I sat on camera across a counter from Mistry, who delivered dish after dish.

“I think that what I’ve always admired about him is that he just didn’t have a lot of room for bullshit,” she says. “That night I remember the producers coming over and saying, ‘He really likes it. He doesn’t just say that shit unless he means it.’” The best dish Mistry cooked for us that night was an Indian kofta egg: spiced ground lamb wrapped around an egg, with a yolk that stayed beautifully runny out of the deep fryer. Mistry explained to us her theory that the place of origin of the Scotch egg—she was convinced—was India.

“There’s so much bravado in our industry,” she says. “I thought, ‘Oh, he’s just going to be another white mansplainer expert-of-everything,’ but he had a wide-eyed humbleness. I remember by the end of the filming I felt that I had scared him into agreeing with everything I said,” she says, laughing. “Not in an aggressive way, but in a ‘Hey, it sounds like you know what you’re talking about, right on.’ There was never a sense, watching his shows, that Tony knew everything. It didn’t matter who you were, didn’t matter if you were a chef with all these accolades or a just a guy fishing on the side of a river, Tony was always, ‘I can learn something from you.’”

In that 2015 episode of Parts Unknown, Bourdain sat across another counter in Oakland to teach anybody who was watching a different kind of lesson.

In January of that year, Daniel Patterson and Roy Choi opened the first branch of LocoL on a corner in Watts. LocoL was a radical concept for fast food, a restaurant that sought to enrich the community around it by serving good food and empowering the people of color who staffed it. In the words of Jonathan Gold, LocoL combined “a sense of purpose, a place within its community, and the ability to drive the conversation forward.”

When Bourdain and Zero Point Zero were taping in June, the Oakland branch wasn’t yet open, but Patterson cooked him a veggie cheeseburg.

“Tony was always very excited about and supportive of LocoL,” Patterson told me recently in an email, “and he knew the impact its success could have. It meant a lot to me that someone so important and who I respected so much shared our values. I think that Tony believed in a better America—and a better world—than the one we have.”

He believed in a better San Francisco, too.

Bourdain noticed my writing for real in 2015, a piece for the food site First We Feast in defense of the chef Richie Nakano (he’s now a writer for Chef’s Feed). Nakano’s tech-bro financial backer had booted him from the ramen business he’d built from the sweat of a thousand pop-ups. Bourdain jumped on that as a symbol of how the city was changing, losing its heart, or crossing some irreversible threshold of greed. Bourdain sat down on camera with Nakano, at 4505 Meats on Divis, to talk about it.

“It was nice,” Nakano says, “because that was a confusing time in my life, a difficult time in my life. I spent a lot of time second-guessing what happened. In the back of your head you wonder about the choices you’ve made, but having someone like that champion you felt nice.” The Bay Area episode of Parts Unknown was planned as Bourdain’s defense of a region he loved at the radical edges.

“I think that if you go back and watch that fucking Cook’s Tour show, that one where he goes to French Laundry, you get the sense he kind of loathed it here,” Nakano says. “But by the Layover show, you think he kind of comes around to think there were blue-collar, dive-bar-y places that he liked. His big thing he hated the most? Fake shit. Chefs that are fake, and fake food, and music that’s fake. He wanted this real experience about everything. He made cooks and chefs feel like they were actually being seen. He made us feel like we were something, more than just a bunch of dudes in a kitchen, and he made us feel cool.”

Anthony Bourdain loved San Francisco, or anyway, the city where he could still feel the ghosts of Beat poets and longshoremen who drank in waterfront bars, of crabbers, freaks, and short-order cooks, and of kids who left Idaho or Indiana to come, take acid, and say no to the bullshit that life pitches everyone toward. You will be missed, gentle warrior. Uncle Tony, rest in peace.

Uncle Tony in the Bardo: John Birdsall remembers Anthony Bourdain was originally published in the Summer 2018 issue of Edible San Francisco. © 2018 Edible San Francisco.

Photos for this story by Helen Cho: @helencho

edible sf cover summer 2018 anthony bourdain

Cover illustration by Dan Bransfield.