Most people will pay tribute to Anthony Bourdain as a chef, as the author of Kitchen Confidential, and as the host of several food and travel shows, most recently Parts Unknown on CNN. They will say, and already have said, that they looked up to him as a rebel, a truth-teller, a man willing to own up to his mistakes and make changes, to listen to those in pain. These are certainly all of the things I think about with respect to Bourdain, who died early Friday morning in Strasbourg, France, at age 61.
What may be less appreciated, but is what I keep returning to, is his crime fiction. As his celebrity grew in stature, as he transformed from line cook to chef at Les Halles and further high-grade Manhattan restaurants to charismatic television star, I kept hoping, foolishly perhaps, that Bourdain might return to his first writing love, to the books he wrote and published when his audience was smaller, but still devoted.
Five years before Kitchen Confidential — and before then, the New Yorker essay that led to the book — Bourdain published A Bone in the Throat, a crime novel set in the restaurant world he lived and breathed. (The spate of murders took place in a restaurant with an uncanny resemblance to One Fifth, where Bourdain worked at the time as a chef.) It was funny, witty, and had zinging prose.
In A Bone in the Throat, he describes his protagonist and alter ego, the cook Tommy Pagano, as “darker, and not as tall as the chef, his hair stood up straight and spiky like a young Trotsky’s.” He describes Little Italy with such verve, such flavor, that it is impossible not to smell the streets or taste the food. Like the crime novelists he revered, like Dashiell Hammett, Elmore Leonard, and George V. Higgins, Bourdain gets into scenes late and exits early, leaving the reader hooked and determined to read further.
Two years later, Bourdain followed it up with Gone Bamboo, which was a way, he told the New York Times in 1997, to update Nick and Nora Charles, Hammett’s iconic detective duo from The Thin Man, to the present day. But crime fiction had a broader draw for him, too: “Crime as work appeals to me … The guy who gets up in the morning and makes his living by crime. I’ve always been a crime buff and a big fan of crime jargon, and in the restaurant business, I’ve met a bunch of gangsters.”
Then came Confidential and accompanying stardom, and it wasn’t clear if Bourdain would gift us with more fiction. But he did, with my own favorite of his books, The Bobby Gold Stories. Its publication history was somewhat curious, arriving in Britain first, in 2001, as Bobby Gold. (The U.S. edition published two years later.)
I read the original British edition as an import that I picked up at the late, great mystery bookshop Partners & Crime, a Greenwich Village staple where Bourdain sometimes stopped by. Bobby Gold had all of the dazzling sentences and stone-cold syntax of his earlier novels, but there was something darker, more meaningful, at work here.
Here’s the opening of the second story, “Bobby Gold at Work”:
Bobby Gold, six foot four and dripping wet, squeezed past an outgoing delivery of Norwegian salmon and stood motionless, smelling of soggy leather, in the cramped front room of JayBee Seafood company, taking up space.
Or later in the story, as Bobby endures further tribulations:
He felt as trapped as the old man … Even with the tough guys, the mouthy, think-they’re-smart assholes who he’d straightened up in recent weeks — the big-shouldered power-lifters who’d thought they didn’t have to pay because of their hulk-sized chest and their bad attitudes — Bobby no longer took pleasure in proving otherwise.
It’s not that writing with humor means you can’t be serious. Far from it. But the stories contained in Bobby Gold carried more purpose, somehow. They augured something bigger for Bourdain in fiction, if he chose to keep on with it.
He didn’t, though. The “something bigger” manifested itself in a myriad of other media. It manifested itself most recently when speaking out against the Trump administration, calling bullshit on Henry Kissinger, and defending his partner, Asia Argento, when she spoke up about the monstrous harm done to her by Harvey Weinstein and when her home country of Italy blamed her, the victim, rather than Weinstein, the perpetrator.
Two more things stick with me about Bourdain. I met him only once, at an Edgar Awards party in 2003 at Partners & Crime, where I worked as a part-time bookseller. The party, called the Nevermores, gave out parody awards, gently poking fun at the actual Edgar Awards. The store was packed with the crime-fiction hoi polloi. I worked the register. At some point, I got hungry and noticed a tray of canapés moving around the store. I went to get one, looked up — way up — and realized the server was Bourdain, a half-smile on his face throughout. (I learned later that he was good friends with one of the store owners, both of whom thought it was a hoot that he hid in plain sight.)
I think, too, of something he told the Daily News in 1995, just after A Bone in the Throat was published. Explaining why he drew from transcripts of John Gotti’s trial for his dialogue and what appealed to him about jargon, Bourdain said, “I love when people say something while trying hard not to say something.” His life, his books, and certainly his crime fiction, adhered to that ethos, perhaps more than we can ever know.