When publisher and poet Daniel Halpern paid $100,000 for the paperback rights to Kitchen Confidential, he helped launch Anthony Bourdain’s career as well as a bright new phase of his own. The best-selling memoir helped put Halpern’s fledgling HarperCollins imprint, Ecco, on the map. The publisher and the writer became good friends and, a decade later, collaborated on a new imprint, Anthony Bourdain Books — one of Bourdain’s numerous projects across all media. [Bourdain also wrote two crime novels in the ’90s.] The imprint will end in the wake of Bourdain’s death last night after its slated books are published. Vulture spoke to Halpern this morning about Bourdain’s influence on writing and food, politics and #MeToo, as well as the more personal memoir he would have turned in this summer.
How did you first come to publish Bourdain, and why?
I read the piece he published in The New Yorker and I thought, “Nobody has written about food in this way.” He was a line cook and he had his run at drugs, but he was a real writer. You couldn’t read a sentence out of context that Tony wrote where you wouldn’t recognize his stamp, and it was in his voice whether he was in front of a large group or talking to you over a table. His sentences were always unpredictable. His descriptions were just things you would never think of, but once he said them, they seemed inevitable. It was like Coloratura. You wouldn’t mistake a trumpet for a clarinet, and he just had a kind of unmistakable sound to his prose, which was also his way of speaking.
That’s probably what made him so successful in every medium.
And that’s rare. But there was no arrogance, no sense of privilege. If you’re walking one block to go to a bar to have a beer, there are ten people who come up for selfies, and he never said no. So I would always just go to the bar and have a beer and wait for him. And then, when he came in ten or twenty minutes later, the staff wanted pictures inside the bar. Everybody knew him and they knew that he stood up for everybody in the restaurant business, from the busboys to the chefs. He was adamant about acknowledging the people who can be invisible in a restaurant.
Did you do a lot of editing on his books?
You know, just ordering the essays and doing basic edits, getting rid of repetitions. He was very easy to work with. Once in a while, I would say, “Do you really want to say this about so and so?” “Yes, I do.” He was never somebody that censored himself. But because he was moral and a nice guy, there weren’t things that were bad — just opinions you could agree or not agree with.
How did Anthony Bourdain Books come about?
Tony was always reading — and not food books. He loved novels, and we talked at one point about doing a line of reprints that he could write introductions to. Then we talked about how much he liked publishing, and that he would love to do a line of books. It seemed like a great idea, given the number of people he came across and his very catholic taste. Most of the books have been food-related because those were the people that he met, but he did other books and he really wanted to strike a balance between cooking books and literary books.
One surprising book on the list, for January 2019, is Prisoner, a memoir by journalist Jason Rezaian about his 18-month imprisonment in Iran.
That’s really interesting because that is exactly why he wanted to do the imprint. While he was doing one of his shows in Iran, he came across Jason and they became friends and he was actually in the episode. Tony was instrumental, among other people, including Obama, in getting Jason out of prison.
Did you ever think of Tony as a journalist?
No. He’s a writer. I think Medium Raw and Kitchen Confidential are iconic books in the genre of memoir. They were a complete game changer for everybody — the way they thought about food, the way you could write about food. I don’t think we get any kind of food-book proposal, or memoir proposal, that doesn’t acknowledge Kitchen Confidential as being a definitive book in the genre.
Why do you think it was groundbreaking?
Well, one, you have have a very reliable and likable narrator. You trust him because he doesn’t pull any punches. Then you have the good writing. He’s funny, he’s honest, he’s unpredictable. And he gives over so much information even when you’re not aware you’re taking it in. You feel like you’ve lived his life in some way.
We’re drowning in celebrity chefs and food writers these days. What made him unique?
Well, he’s the best writer of them. And Tony would always say he never really was a chef. He was so in awe of somebody like [Le Bernardin chef and co-star] Eric Ripert that when they became friends that was very meaningful to him. Also, there was just something very moral about Tony and the way he behaved in the world — his way of understanding politically complicated situations and always coming out on the right side. Look at his response to #MeToo and his outrage at people like Weinstein, but also chefs who had been friends with him. He was one speed, forward, take no prisoners. You cross that line and you were the enemy. But he was like that with everything. He thought long and hard about positions that he took and then he defended them relentlessly.
Is there anything about his personality that would surprise fans of his books and shows?
One thing. Every time I met him I had the same reaction: how shy he was. That’s the word that always came to my mind. And therefore very winning, you know. He never held forth. He’d be in a group of six people at a dinner and you know, if you asked him a question, of course he would talk, but he just, he wouldn’t be the guy that talks the whole time.
Is it true that he was working on new essays?
There was a book that he was going to deliver at the end of the summer. I know he’s been working on them and I know that he had a bunch of them last summer. I think that it was going to be much more personal. I think he planned to talk about traveling more, what it’s like to be on the road, having a family. But I haven’t seen anything and I’m guessing I’ll hear from his agent at some point. I hope there’s enough for at least a small book.
A recent profile mentioned that they would tackle loneliness. Was there any intimation that he was prone to depression? Did you see this coming?
No, none of it. I’m sure there’ll be more information coming out, but I can’t imagine what happened. He loved his daughter, he was at the top of his career, and people loved him. I’ve never heard one person say anything negative about Tony Bourdain. Maybe it’s because I’m his publisher and friend, but usually you hear stuff, especially with a guy who is so out there in the way that he was. I hope it’s not anything terrible. I mean, it’s terrible because he’s dead, but I can’t imagine what it could possibly be that would take him to that place.