“Move. As far as you can, as much as you can. Across the ocean, or simply across the river. Walk in someone else’s shoes, or at least eat their food. Open your mind, get up off the couch, move.”
– Anthony Bourdain
In the days since the late and great Tony Bourdain’s passing, I’ve read a lot of tributes to his character and influence upon people the world over. Suicide awareness posts have blown up my Facebook feed in a righteous riposte against the disease that is depression. Friends all over the culinary and travel industries have shared how Tony inspired them to pick up the knife, the pen, or the pack.
Indeed, I find myself in the same camp. I found Kitchen Confidential, Bourdain’s breakout novel, in my formative years as a young chef and traveler, and it changed me. It taught me to look closely, to wander aimlessly, and to try everything. Bourdain wasn’t shy about showing us the dirty, undiluted underbelly of the world we all inhabit and ingest. He wasn’t afraid to tell the messy truths that so many might avoid. More so than most, he wasn’t afraid to live, to learn, and to let the road lead the way.
Today, I don’t want to mourn his passing, although it is a tragic loss. I don’t want to bring awareness to suicide, although it is a growing problem that we all need to work together to solve. Instead, today I would like to celebrate all the wonderful ways that Anthony Bourdain showed us how to travel, how to learn, and how to savor every little sensation that makes life so amazingly worth living.
Because although we will never know the circumstances that caused Tony to call it quits, there’s no doubt that before he did, he lived a life richer than some lives that are lived to their old, geriatric ends. In Tony’s own words, “Your body isn’t a temple, it’s an amusement park. Enjoy the ride.”
The sensational traveler
Tony once wrote in his seminal novel Kitchen Confidential, “Writing anything is a treason of sorts.” After all, how do you describe the feeling of warm flan cake using something as tasteless as words? How do you share the myriad flavors that are coaxed from bone to broth without using a spoon? How do you put the smell of roasting chilis onto a page thousands of miles from the dry red dirt where that chili grew and then was plucked, dried, and fried here before my own eyes?
You can’t. Tony taught me more than anything that you have to go out there with your own hands, feet, and face, and find out what the world tastes like, smells like, and feels like. There’s no story in this world that can satisfy the wanderlust in you except your own. There’s no replacement for real sensations, for being there yourself, for finding out.
Tony taught me that in order to know the truth, you have to taste it, touch it, try it. Now, when I travel, I follow my nose instead of my map. I take every opportunity to sample a different street food or flavor. When I arrive in a new country, I look for the places that aren’t on the postcards; I ask after recipes that aren’t in the restaurants. I’ve learned that traveling isn’t all about the big things you’ll brandish on social media to say you’ve seen the world. Truth is more subtle than standing atop an ancient pyramid and more complicated than can be taught by a tour guide.
Tony wrote with an incredible awareness for the texture of things, for the fine grit that collects in the soles of your shoes and under your fingernails. He had an extraordinary sense for the nuance of each passing moment and an incredible gift for giving life to the little details that make a story into a sensational experience. But in the end, he was right. Writing can never really capture the beauty of even the most basic, bite-sized, morsel of life. In order to taste it, you have to try it.
Learning how to learn
“No, no, no. Esperate hasta que estan dorados.” Alba scolded me in Spanish for my monumental impatience, what to her must have seemed like incompetence. When they were ready, she showed me how to turn the chilis over and test them with my fingers to feel the changing texture. The dark red skin slowly bubbled into a blackened, boiling crust.
Alba was four years my junior, only 19 at the time. But already, it seemed she had prepared pepian, one of Guatemala’s most traditional dishes, more times than I’d turned on a stove. She came from a family that was famous for preparing the best pepian in El Hato, the village where I lived. So when I asked the Guatemalan kitchen staff at the restaurant where I worked to teach me, they all turned to her expectantly. Now, she was looking at me like some incompetent child who needed adult supervision lest I burn the whole kitchen down.
Pepian is a complex dish with a storied history. Much like the moles of Oaxaca, pepian is made from more ingredients than most cooks can count. Each is fire roasted over traditional woodburning stoves to just the right color. The word dorar — to make golden-brown — comes up often. Roasted seeds, tomatoes, onions, garlic, tomatillos, and other vegetables are blended with browned cilantro, cinnamon, cloves, and other spices into a thick, brown paste. Chunks of potato, carrot, and squash are stewed for hours in massive pots with chicken parts and all the charred, blended flavors of that region’s unique style of pepian. At the end, you fry flour in a dry pan until it turns light brown and lets off a smoky aroma. This becomes the thickener for the dark, blended sauce once it’s added to the pot. Pepian is served over rice with fresh cilantro and usually a whole chunk of chicken straight out of the stew.
The girls all giggled at me as I browned the wrong type of cilantro and burnt my fingers on the hot chilis. I felt like I was making mistakes I didn’t understand. But slowly, like the chilis roasting, I learned. Alba told me when the chilis were ready, and I could feel the difference with my fingers. When the flour was just right, I could smell its smokey readiness. When the stew had enough spice, they taught me how to taste that it was time.
But it was Tony that taught me to ask the right questions. Tony is the one who opened my eyes to the opportunities to learn that were all around me. This isn’t a recipe you can read in a book. It’s a tradition that is passed down through the generations. It is taught by touch, taste, and smell, not by time, measurement, and temperature. And by asking Alba to teach me this recipe that is deeply part of her family and tradition, I learned much more about her and her country than just how to cook a meal. At some point while I waited and watched chilis turn from red to slightly darker red to black, I started to gain an awareness for the subtle texture of things, for the grit in the soles of my shoes, so to speak.
So what did Tony teach us about traveling?
I’m curious what he taught you and the countless thousands of other people he influenced. To me, he taught a code of conduct, a way of wandering, watching, and wondering. When I first read Tony’s writing, it changed me forever. To use his own words, “I remember it well, because it was such a slap in the face. It was a wake-up call that food could be important, a challenge to my natural belligerence. By being denied, a door opened.”
To this day I am still a traveler, currently living on the road. I am still a cook, whether I’m working on a single burner camp stove in the back of my Subaru or a restaurant kitchen in a high-end resort. The feeling of spinning pizza dough in the air over my head is more poignant than the memories of many of my past lovers. My fingertips are still impervious to heat and my ears alert for the sound of a ticket printing, even though I’m months away from line cooking at this point.
If Tony taught me one thing, it was to live fully, openly, and adventurously. Try fearlessly, learn humbly, and give endlessly. He taught me a lot about cooking, eating, and traveling. In the end, the tragedy of his passing is hemmed by a silver lining of a lesson. Life may be long or short, but in the end, it always ends. What matters then is the breadth of your experience, the depth of your compassion, and the release of all regrets. To use Tony’s own words one more time, “[When I die], I will decidedly not be regretting missed opportunities for a good time.”
We love and remember you, Tony. Your legacy will live on through untold thousands of us around the world. We will love deeply, live adventurously, and we will most certainly enjoy the ride.
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