The first time I met Anthony Bourdain in person was at a now closed restaurant in NYC called Veritas where I was the pastry chef. It was located in the Flatiron District practically directly across the street from Gramercy Tavern. The year was 2001 or 2002. By met, I should say I interrupted his conversation with whomever he was to introduce myself and tell him how big of a fan I was. He was drinking at the bar and I had been drinking at the bar as well and was on my way out. My shift had ended and I was always welcome to have a drink (or a few) after my shift if there was room.
Had I not been what I must admit was intoxicated, I don’t think I would have said anything. While I don’t recall the exact words I said, I do recall the feeling soon after I left that I had said something completely awkward and plain, along the lines of “I’m a big fan”, or something which only gave him enough fuel to muster a polite and quick nod. No words. A nod.
In the hell that our minds can be, I had gone over this moment in my drunken head for the duration of my long subway ride home from Union Square to Bed Stuy in Brooklyn, the aftermath of which still resonates in my head. I can now think of a million other infinitely better, smarter or wittier things I could have said instead, such as: the reason why I work here at Veritas has very much to do with the chapter you wrote on its chef, Scott Bryan. And this would have been a pure, true and honest statement, albeit devoid of any sort of wit. A statement that probably no one else, except for those of us who worked at Veritas, and perhaps not everyone who worked there, could say to be true or feel the same way about.
Many cooks or chefs will say that his book, Kitchen Confidential, was responsible for pushing them into a culinary career. I don’t see how this is possible, as the underworld of kitchens he paints is not one that many could find appealing.
It is incredibly truthful but perhaps less so in present times where we at least superficially try to put a better foot forward. Substance abuse, long hours, complicated personalities (verging on sadistic and sociopathic behavior often coming from the chef or sous chef above you) and poverty line wages are few unappealing selling points. To say you want that or feel at home with it speaks to problematic areas in a person’s life that need to be looked at carefully.
Admittedly for me, this book did not stir those warm fuzzy feelings of wanting to work in a kitchen full of maniacs, because I had already been working in them many years before this book came out.
I was and had been in the thick of it and my skin was pretty thick by then (as was my daily drinking habit and workaholic tendencies), and his book was an inward voyeurism looking directly at and into the industry I was in but also myself. It had an enormous entertainment value, providing me with a morbid curiosity into my own world and those who inhabited in it. I knew every kind of personality in that book, and then some. I had some parts of those people inside me.
My affinity for his book, beyond its entertainment value, was a chapter he had written about the chef at Veritas, Scott Bryan. The chapter is titled “Life of Bryan” and it paints such a vivid portrait of the chef I eventually got to know very well when I became his pastry chef, years after having read the book. Bourdain describes the back of the house goings on as some form of hell where most chefs and cooks are hooligans barely getting through the day in one piece, cutting corners on cooking techniques, chefs scheming for ways to lower food costs that would make a health inspector scribble furiously on his clipboard, all while living on the fringes of society, staying up all night drinking and/or getting high. This is (or was) mostly true in many restaurants. But not all. Bourdain describes Scott Bryan and the food being made at Veritas as the exception to everything bad he had written about chefs and their food thus far in the book. He was the living symbol of everything good that a chef could aspire to be.
I had been a pastry sous chef at a now also shuttered restaurant in NYC called Ilo, located at the Bryant Park Hotel just by the NY Public Library. I had done my time there and was looking for the next step in my career, which would be as a pastry sous chef in a higher end restaurant or as pastry chef in a small but well regarded one. I had a few offers I was considering but wasn’t crazy about any of them.
You can call it fortune or chance, but the then pastry chef at Veritas, Heather Carlucci, phoned my then pastry chef, Patrick Coston to ask if he knew anyone who would be interested in replacing her as she was moving on. She sold it to Patrick as being a good starter restaurant for someone ready to take on their first pastry chef job. As I said, it was very fortuitous. Of course, Patrick could have selfishly said he knew of no one but as he was speaking to Heather, he held the phone to his chest and asked me if this was something I’d be interested in.
Of course I was, but I will tell you that what closed it for me within seconds was the fact that it was Veritas. It wasn’t a given that the job was mine. Often you have to do a tasting for the chef and some key staff before you get the job so that they know you have the skill but also, very importantly, that your tastes and aesthetics match those of the chef. Scott didn’t ask me to do any of the sort. He hired me and I started work there a month later. Some time after he hired me I asked him about this. How did he hire me without a tasting? I wanted to know if this had been an act of desperation, in which the chef hires someone just so that they can have a warm body doing the work they despise doing, whatever it may be.
Know that most chefs are terrified of making desserts and will hire just about anyone who is willing to make them so they can wash their hands form this task, including students just out of pastry school, giving them the now watered down title of pastry chef right off the bat. No so with Scott who had his own repertoire of “chef desserts” he could have pulled out of the bag of tricks had this been the case. It’s simple, he said, he hired me because of Patrick’s recommendation but mostly because of the interview we had. I believe this, you can know so much about a person by what they say and how they say it if you have been in the business long enough.
Thus began my time as pastry chef at Veritas. And thus began the on and off sightings of Bourdain, a good friend of Scott’s and a fan of the food and wine at Veritas.
My next job as pastry chef was what I consider to be quite possibly the single biggest career gamble that actually paid off. A friend had told me that they were looking for an executive pastry chef position to be filled at The French Laundry, in Yountville, CA. I recall laughing at her for even thinking I should apply, but then laughing even harder at the audacity I had to fax my pretty thin resume to Thomas Keller the following day. I did get the job eventually. Incredibly. I still don’t know how it happened.
There is a memorable episode from No Reservations where Bourdain has dinner at The French Laundry during its first few years when it started to take off. He went with Michael Rhulman, Eric Ripert and Scott Bryan. Again, Bourdain’s prose would have you think that TFL was THE best restaurant in the world and that Keller was the best chef in the world, but in a way that anyone who saw the episode would hold as gospel. I am not saying that TFL and/or TK aren’t great, but Tony’s words have a way of taking something that is great and describing it as something so sublime and perfect that you simply must do everything in your power to experience it as well or risk the chance of dying a miserable wretch. I believe this is what pushed me to send that fax to TK. What did I have to lose? Nothing.
In this episode they are all ooing and awing the food, except for Scott who hilariously keeps saying “I don’t get it!” over and over again. There are two ways to interpret this. The first and incorrect interpretation is that he doesn’t get it because the food is so good it is way over his head: “I am just a simple chef! I don’t know what is going on! Silly me!” Or, if you know Scott, it is more that he doesn’t understand why so much fuss. He truly doesn’t understand it. But he respected the food, the chef and the restaurant enough to give me his blessing when I gave him my notice to go work for TK.
The next time I saw Tony was for a few seconds when he was filming an episode at The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY, with Michael Rhulman many years after I left TFL. It was through the glass window of the classroom I was working in. I nodded at him and he nodded back. That’s two nods so far.
Many years would pass before I saw him again, and it would be at the original Modernist Cuisine Lab in Bellevue, WA where I became the head chef in January 2014. He was on a speaking tour, we invited him to the lab for a sit down multi course meal which I imagine he enjoyed since he is not one to mince words or lie about a bad experience. We had done some work for one of his last cookbooks on what the perfect hamburger should be like. So far I had been in contact with Tony at three very different times in my life, and he still had no idea who I was (I should add, that he understandably had no idea since he meets more people than most regular people do; and many likely have a point of reference of him and not vice versa).
The last time I saw him was very special. Parts Unknown, the show he hosted on CNN, was doing a Seattle episode and he wanted Modernist Cuisine to be featured. Of course, we bent over backwards to accommodate his crew and give them everything they needed and beyond. Eventually Tony showed up, we shook hands and I finally was able to speak to him. I told him about Veritas and we reminisced about it and mourned its closing, we spoke about Scott Bryan, whom he had lost track of after so many years.
I remember thinking how fortunate he was to be 60 and still have all his hair and frankly look so good. He was a handsome guy and by all appearances he seemed to have it all and have everything figured out. Appearances is what is key here.
Having heard of his death by suicide last June 7th boggles the mind. This is not a judgment piece by any means. Trying to understand why he did it is a dead end. There is something he said which I have trouble reconciling this whole thing with. He quit smoking a few years ago, and the reason he gave was because of his daughter. He wanted to live longer for her and by all accounts he succeeded in quitting smoking. Could I even imagine what sort of demons finally won over his will to live, even for his daughter plus everything else he had to live for? To say goodnight to Eric Ripert in that hotel in Strasbourg, acting normal, but maybe thinking while he opens his hotel door, this is it, I can’t take it anymore, this is happening tonight. I am ending this tonight. I will take my own life and then this will all be over. Nothing is worth living for. Not even my daughter.
I have never been this kind of sad. It is a new and different kind of sadness that has many angles and layers.
It certainly brought tears to my eyes more than a few times. We will all miss out on what could have been and what else he could have done that would have enriched our lives. But the loss. God, the loss for those close to him must be unbearable, particularly and mostly for his 11-year-old kid. When normal people die they don’t leave so many traces behind, they don’t leave as many mementos or records of their time on this planet. They don’t have as much effect on things and on so many people. He barely knew me and yet he had such a profound impact on just my life alone. Thank you, Tony, for everything. I am sorry you had to go.
Lovely memories, sad and poignant. Just finished “Kitchen Confidential”. Was not a fan “back in the day”, but came to appreciate Bourdain again through “Parts Unknown”. His Lyon episode will stay in my memory forever. Thank you for this, Chef Migoya.