Fellow chef Mike Nutt, the Chef de Cuisine at Laurenzo's Grill on Washington, invited me to tag along with him and the other chefs catering the book signing following Anthony Bourdain's sold-out talk at Jones Hall, called Up Close and Confidential.
I read Medium Raw, Tony's latest memoir, which followed up Kitchen Confidential, the book that made him famous. Medium Raw shows that Bourdain who has come a long way since his days of standing next to a fryolator at Les Halles in New York. It's a fascinating account of what it's like to be, as Bourdain himself says, a "sell-out TV personality." Instead of revealing the underbelly of restaurant-kitchen culture, this is his tale of traveling with no reservations, being a father, and his drastic change of lifestyle. There's also some backpedaling from opinions expressed in Kitchen Confidential.
To say the least, I like the guy. I have seen every episode of No Reservations, read all his books and reread Kitchen Confidential a half dozen times.
After sneaking through a side entrance reserved for the staff, I walked down a long hallway, right past Tony. This was the first time I'd ever seen him in person. I was a little star-struck, but I managed to contain my composure and not say anything stupid...yet.
I wandered down to the women's dressing room in the basement and made myself a drink of Tito's vodka and cranberry juice. All the while, Chef Nutt and his crew were scooping duck confit and pork rillettes onto tiny toasted baguettes. They offered me a taste, and it was rich and musty — just really fucking good. Nutt told me the duck was confited over two months ago and cryovacked in its own fat. Yes, it was. It was amazing. After a few nibbles on some free food, I topped off my cocktail and headed back up to the stage level to see if I could strike up some sort of conversation with Tony and have something funny to tell my fellow chefs at the farmers' market on Saturday. This did not happen.
Bourdain was hanging out by the stage drinking a Saint Arnold's Lawnmower and talking to his assistant. The overly stressed stage director rushed over and told me I would have to hang out downstairs in the basement and not on the side stage. When I refused to do that, she shuffled me toward the lobby with the pedestrians, who paid to be here. The problem with this was, I didn't have a ticket. Even worse, the free booze was back in the dressing rooms. I paid for a drink and meandered around the lobby, shaking a few hands with a couple of talented local chefs.
Then I just walked in with the crowd and managed to snag an empty seat right before showtime.
Anthony Bourdain's talk was awesome. He bashed the Food Network, which he said is so full of "food stars" there is no room for chefs anymore. He eviscerated everyone from the sneaky Rachael Ray to Bobby Flay, who has sunk so low in the Food Network chain he will do any show no matter how bad it is. "At this point Emeril is like fucking Escoffier," he screamed at the audience. "What about Tyler Florence?" an audience member heckled. "Hey, I love what he's done with Applebee's," replied Bourdain. The talk was spewed from Bourdain's new book almost verbatim, but it was equally brash and hysterical. I was impressed. It was everything you'd expect from Anthony Bourdain.
It ended with Bourdain giving some simple advice about traveling that is all in the book: eat what they eat, drink what they drink and don't dress like an asshole. When Tony began his Q&A with the audience, I headed for the door. I figured I would beat the crowd and give myself a better chance of getting backstage again. I went to the front of Jones Hall and spotted a couple of catering servers having a smoke. I went to them and made light conversation. I filled them in on the talk and then followed them inside through the service entrance. Nobody batted an eyelash. Backstage, I grabbed another cocktail and watched as Bourdain finished up his Q&A. Meanwhile, the Laurenzo's crew put the final touches on the food displays.
Bourdain walked off the stage, grabbed a rillette, shoved it in his mouth and took a sip of beer. He sat on a stool while the Stooges played over the sound system. This was my chance. I tried to think of something clever to say, but all that came out was, "So, did you request this song?"
"It is my play list," he said. That was it. That was my conversation with Anthony Bourdain.
I am such a dickhead. Then some cute girl came up to get her book signed, and Tony didn't have a pen. The girl was holding Medium Raw in her hand like a Bible, but she didn't have a pen. Nobody had a freaking pen, except me...and not just a pen, but a black Sharpie. I always carry a black Sharpie; it's a chef thing (also just in case I need to defend my honor in a bathroom at some dive bar in Montrose). I offered my pen, and for the next half hour Tony signed his books with my Sharpie. Then his assistant brought out a dozen multicolored markers and pens.
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I spent a while schmoozing with people backstage: people with money, chefs, food writers and the people giving out free booze, of course. I went from vodka cranberry cocktails to Saint Arnold's to champagne. Yeah...then, just when things couldn't get any better, I looked up from my drink and saw t'afia's Monica Pope.
Back story: I was a sous chef for Monica ten years ago at the legendary Boulevard Bistrot. I worked my ass off for her, and after a couple of years she fired me. I've never had any resentment toward her, though. In fact, I have the utmost respect for her, as a chef and a talented businesswoman. After ten years, I'd never had the opportunity to tell her that I don't hate her. This was my chance.
"Monica Pope," I slurred out at her. I told her everything I just told you. She smiled and laughed and went back to drinking champagne and eating cheese. It's probably something she will never think of again. As for me, I finally got some closure.
I soon realized the booze was running out, the crowd was thinning and I was shit-hammered. Also, if I stuck around too long, I might have to help the Laurenzo's crew clean up. I looked around for Bourdain, who had disappeared back to his hotel room...with my Sharpie!