The Chef in My Kitchen: How Anthony Bourdain Healed My Heart with a Knife

For Anthony Bourdain, who gave us the recipe for a true life. May he be resting sweetly and well.

It was a kitchen seemingly built for toddlers: cramped, short-ceiling and dim, the overpainted cabinets patterned with the last tenant’s flowered shelf liner.  That tiny awkward space staged the love affair I began with chef Anthony Bourdain, and was the stage for a my return to solid ground.  To be clear, Tony never actually stood on the squeaking linoleum, never guided my hands through a ball of pasta dough.  No.  He came by way of the internet.  I brought him in to teach me to do hard things. To fortify me with the way he could make order and chaos coexist, acids and salts co-mingling with sugars.  Tony showed me how ugly and messy can make beautiful, tongue-pleasing, heart-healing things.

I’d been dumped by a guy who said a female co-worker made him feel the way he really wanted to feel.  So you should go, he said.  So I did. Left his mainland suburban house and dog that I’d grown to love over our weekend visits.  Left to go back to my tiny island duplex.  A terrible, rickety, cheap thing. But it was a safe space, with beachy shingles on the inside living room wall, peek-a-boo view of the bay across the road. It came equipped with one short countertop and a half-sized oven topped with four lopsided electric burners.  Evenings after work, with the sleepy sun glowing off the naked rust-orange trunks of the Madrona trees, I began to teach myself mysterious things: coq au vin, chicken cacciatore, cheese souffle (beautifully fluffy for a few precious moments).  Me, Google, Anthony Bourdain, and, sometimes for her funny, assuring way, Julia Child.  I watched videos, read articles, and inspected recipes as if they were odd maps. With my chef gurus as compasses, I learned that vegetables can become something more than a stick for dip. They can soften, caramelize, go from bitter to earthy. I learned that cream beautifully bolsters savory things, rounding out any edges of stock and herb, and that a quality, heavy-bottomed pot will christen a soup with the deepest flavors of comfort.

My childhood had been fed decently enough, but by a working, tired mom. Meals were careful proportions of canned things and thawed meats, tossed in a worn-out electric skillet, seasoned with S & P, and sometimes, for flare, a little onion powder. It didn’t help matters that I was a picky eater, afraid of anything weird, like raw onions or a ribbon of gristle in chuck roast.  My first “fancy” meal didn’t happen until a man took me on a date where Italian food meant hand-cut pasta (He called it pasta, not spaghetti! So sophisticated!) tossed in a perfect coating of long-simmered, rich Bolognese. This, alongside fat glasses of plummy red wine.  My tongue-to-brain connection ignited, and I finally understood why some people made such a big deal out of food.

Sometime in my 30s, I began devoting much of my reading to memoirs, soaking up the life lessons I never got, building an invisible community of people I wished to know, to love, or to love me.  After reading Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential I was smitten with the grit of him.  A girl not prone to celebrity crushes, mine of Tony stuck like a shiny marble in the place between heart and stomach. Something in his travel-sunned face, and that rake of gray hair, of which I always imagined lofty hotel-bed pillows and sipping espresso plaza-side after a long night.  Something about his hands. Oh, those hands, all muscle-memory, lean and knotted, ready to either punch something or choregraph a blade through a tiny garlic clove. I liked his willow-tree/rockstar body, all rooted, wiry, fluid, ready. He was a man in the flow of finding a way to live, to feel moments as tangible things, through food and people.

After my ex found his soulmate, I had little reason to leave my tiny island. Instead, I streamed Tony on Netflix, propping the laptop in the crook of my hip and thigh, body balanced on the hard, second-hand sofa.  Lusting and learning.  And lonely.  Let’s be honest here: At that time moment in time, I felt, as author and comedian Hannah Stadtmiller perfectly described, “unwifeable.”  Dumped, poor, lacking in certain urban formalities like knowing good wine or the appropriate shoes for the theater.  I felt inadequate, unworldly, unskilled in the ways we girls are taught to impress a man to commitment.  Between binging episodes of Tony’s food and travel show No Reservations, and going to work, I puttered around recipe websites, tested out a few things beyond a grilled chicken breast or bowl of cereal.  Maybe the wilted girl in me wanted to impress my ex—or a man like him—but deep down, what I really wanted was to impress a man like Tony.  Wanted to be the scraped-up girl that just dug in and figured shit out. For herself. Like Anthony did. For himself.  I realized that to do this, the first thing I would need was a good knife.

On a cheap acrylic cutting board, with a beautifully shiny 7-inch Wüsthof Santoku (charged on Macy’s credit), I began to practice the art of the chop, the dice, the mince. Coq au vin 012 (2) My first thought: “What a difference the right tool makes!  Look at this, I barely need any pressure.”  My cuts became lovely, uniform, assured.  I loved crying with the onions–it felt like victory.  Quickly, I realized I would need a new cutting board.  Something not plastic and warped, slick against the beige-and-gold flecked laminate countertop.  Soon after, I acknowledged the thin aluminum cast-offs pots weren’t ideal.  I needed something substantial.  Ironically, I was gifted a beautiful Le Creuset Dutch oven from the mother of my ex.  Perhaps she felt guilty for her son’s poor showing, though, at the time, she still liked me very much despite the break up.  It was a strange feeling of gratitude and fury to use that pot, but I think Tony would have said “Fuck that. It’s your pot. You earned it.”  And I couldn’t deny the way it reduced the braising liquid in short ribs to a rich, lovely pour-over for the thick polenta I had recently experimented with and mastered (mostly).

Depending on the evening, that tiny apartment smelled like peppery seared meat or browning doughy dumplings or overcooked butter or garlic gone in too soon and too hot. I printed off a list of Tony’s basic cooking techniques that everyone should know, from an episode of No Reservations.  For a week, I practiced omelettes each morning before work. For the first time in my life, I bought chives, then a soft French cheese.  My favorite part of evening meals was the garnish, something I’d always thought was silly, pretentious. As it turns out, that green sprinkling matters! Oh and the carbonara! Carbonara 004The cracking of that egg onto the hot pasta was a terrifying thrill. And the richest, most palate-pleasing sauce I’d ever tasted.  I paired my Anthony skills with The Art of French Cooking by Julia Child.  I learned to test a chicken’s doneness by pulling its leg. (Really, you wobble its little leg in its little socket.)  I tried souffles, both cheese and chocolate, without much success except for the fact that I was required to purchase the sweetest little white ramekins. I felt fancy doing such a thing. I felt proud that I allowed myself something that I would have once considered impractical.

It’s safe to say, though my chef skills eventually stalled out, those months made up for years of what I’d missed as a growing girl, and for the sense of worth I so sorely sought as an adult woman. Wrangling cramped burners and a one-rack oven in my chicken-coop duplex kitchen taught me to cook, but more than that. There in that space of time, me and Anthony Bourdain, streaming iTunes music, sipping wine I’d picked out on my own, was a single woman embracing her own aptitude for finding pleasure, for building herself up through the wisdom and worldly journeys of a handsome guy on TV with a knife.  There I was alone, staring out at my tiny patch of sea, no cable TV, vaguely lonely but largely whole, eating the best food I’d ever had in my life, savoring each forkful to the rhythm of my sturdy-girl heart.


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