There are people in this strange year I had to hear from again for the sake of my sanity. My two favorites are gone: Anthony Bourdain and Christopher Hitchens. Neither man had patience for injustice or idiocy. Given the incessant injustice and idiocy of 2020, I re-read and looked at both Tony and Hitch.
I was fortunate to see Hitchens, the British-born social and political critic, in person in 2010 in Alabama during a debate on atheism at a Christian think tank. He struggled to the podium, bald and tired from chemotherapy, and I feared the big lion would roar less. Oh, I of little faith! He was learned, astute, and funny. We infinitely small creatures, he said, are made of dust from the stars of a billion billion galaxies, and since we will walk the path of all stars, the original sin is not to think critically in our short time. Seeing his brain at work while facing his own annihilation was nourishing. When Hitchens died the following year, Bourdain tweeted, “The world just got fucking dumber.”
Bourdain, whose death by suicide came in shock to hell in 2018, offered us the same kind of assistance when we saw him trudge through life, food, culture and the world and puzzled and exulted. He led with a strong heart. What struck me the most was his introspection and interest in the problems and work of others.
We could certainly use a lot more of that now. I recently reread Bourdain’s seminal book, Kitchen Confidential: Adventure in culinary underbelly, on the occasion of its 20th anniversary; it is worth reading again. In 2000, Confidential kitchen landed like a frozen turkey in a deep fryer and exploded in the greenhouse journeyman’s kitchens of New York City with its shabby reports of sex, drugs, and crime. It was fun to read, even if it was a bit too much.
Until 2017, Bourdain regretted the misogyny and sexism built into the macho bravado of his kitchens, but two deeper themes stand out in him Confidential kitchen. The first was his honesty over two decades of excessive underperformance (before joining Brasserie Les Halles, the bistro on Park Avenue South where everything came together for him), described with the rare denominational quality that made him likely before the worst Seductions from saved fame.
The second was Bourdain’s call to pay tribute to others. In the case of Manhattan kitchens, that meant the most underrated color. Bourdain admired not only the diligence of the “Ecuadorian, Mexican, Dominican, and Salvadoran chefs” who kept these restaurants running, but also their mastery. “A man who has worked his way up through the ranks, knows every station, every recipe, every corner of the restaurant and, most importantly, has learned your system before anyone else is probably more valuable … than any bed-wetting white boy whose mother believes him raised him the world owes him a living, ”wrote Bourdain.
In doing so, he fired an early warning fire on a subject that the catering industry has only recently been grappling with intensely: the success of the chefs – all too often white and male – was usually based on the work of the same workers of South and Central American origin who defended Bourdain (as well as those of African and Asian heritage). He would return to this point many times. In 2012 he tweeted: “Let’s play a game. Count the Mexicans at the James Beard Awards. ”In 2015, he condemned Trump’s attacks on immigrants and predicted a disaster for the catering industry if mass deportations were to occur.
Well, in 2020 bad luck hit restaurants, and I keep thinking of Bourdain’s celebration of his colleagues down the pay chain. As much as owners and operators have suffered this year, Latino workers have certainly suffered more. At the national level, they represent nearly 19 percent of the population but 27 percent of restaurant workers. In Colorado, 21 percent of the population are Latinos – that number rises to 34 percent in the Denver metropolitan area – with Hispanic or Latinos holding 25.4 percent of restaurant jobs in Denver, Aurora, and Lakewood. When I spoke to Lorena Cantarovici, the Argentine owner of Maria Empanada, in April, she said: “We are laying off people from the lowest income brackets in the state. Placing a dishwasher is difficult. We have to do something so that they don’t feel abandoned. “
It is true that in recent years the recognition of the role of women and people of color, at least at the chef’s level, has increased, and justice has received shifting attention. After much criticism, the James Beard Foundation, whose price advice I witnessed from inside, has deliberately become more diverse – nevertheless, this year’s awards were, according to the New York Times, partly due to a lack of diversity among the yet to be announced winners. On the spot, colored chefs are beginning to claim with the rise of stars like Cantarovici; James Beard – nominated Dana Rodriguez of Work & Class and Super Mega Bien and Tommy Lee of Uncle and Hop Alley; Theodora and Sylvester Osei-Fordwuo from African Grill & Bar; and other.
What Bourdain came across Confidential kitchen was the value of work and the richness of the American restaurant kitchen subculture. However, the Corona crisis has brought a hard truth to light: The hospitality industry seems to be perceived in Congress as a kind of servant of the domestic economy, valued, but not taken seriously. A bailout package has been granted to airlines while at the time of going to press relief laws specific to the much larger restaurant industry had stalled.
COVID-19 will leave restaurants in a dump that this neglect has deepened. It will take years for companies to recover, with many invisible victims – disproportionately the people who work the hardest and deserve the least credit. In Denver, wage equity will continue to be the greatest challenge because I doubt that minimum wage increases can be achieved without government subsidies.
Bourdain said his life was “a happy, stupid, wonderful confluence of events” and his ability to appreciate his journey in the context of regret now resonates. This quote is from one of his most moving episodes of No reservations, in season seven (available online). It included a return trip to Cambodia which was a televised mea culpa for a Cambodian episode of A cooking tour which he had done for the Food Network a decade earlier.
In 2000, Cambodia was devastated by the war and genocide of the 1970s. Bourdain, he said, had gone there with a “romantic, tragic, narcissistic idea of the kind of place I wanted to see and experience … totally inappropriately”. He returned to listen in 2010 and spent much of his time with women fighting for social justice and human rights. He did something that I thought was impossible: to weave the subject of food and travel into a program that deals with the eradicating power of evil. “The food I used to find with my mother is no longer there,” said a Bourdain woman over an outdoor lunch of crayfish and fresh peppercorns. “The noodles that the Chinese used to make … like my grandparents don’t exist. Killed. ”Bourdain renounced his former hubris and constructed a message of hope amid losses in the shadow of injustice.
I wonder if Bourdain would remain as popular today as it was when he died, or if the Twitterati might even have taken a slap on him. At one point in his redeeming Cambodian program, he was blessed by a man who sold him groceries in an open air market.Happiness and long life, maybe 100 years! “I don’t want to live that long,” mused Bourdain. So much we learned was true. But as his journey unfolded he made his point of view clear and it is there for all of us to see and act.