Flight of fancy| Food

Anthony Bourdain, one last time

In the past two weeks, two public figures from the era of my New York City youth committed suicide. Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, certainly not mentioned in the same breath when they were alive, were inexorably linked in death. Kate Spade’s handbags were all the rage when I was a 20-something New Yorker in the 1990s. Although I never quite got the aesthetic nor the appeal, many of my contemporaries did, and Kate became a sensation. Just as we were processing her passing came news of Bourdain’s. The Internet imploded. People were genuinely affected and, unlike Karl Lagerfeld, who famously never thinks of the past, I couldn’t help but feel nostalgic for a time long gone.

In 1996, I moved from Manhattan’s meatpacking district — back when it really was just that, with rivulets of blood running down the streets and grim, grey, nondescript buildings dotting the neighbourhood — to no-man’s land on 28th street on the East side. This new neighbourhood was insipid and drab (but the rents were cheap). One block away was Curry Hill, populated by small, greasy desi restaurants and some dosa joints that were frequented by South Asian taxi drivers, Jews seeking kosher food and students on a budget. On another block was arguably NYC’s most famous Thai restaurant, Jaya Thai, which was adored by Indians because of its insane spice levels.

Where was a young girl supposed to go to unwind with a pal in the ’hood, at the end of a long workday? There was nothing in the area. I constantly escaped to cooler places downtown. And then I discovered Les Halles. A French bistro on Park Avenue South, just two blocks from my apartment. It featured a butcher shop, it was madly dark, and its waiters were sullen. The menu, in quintessential French fashion, was totally overloaded with items like foie gras, steak and pork, which wasn’t ideal for my vegetarian self. But it had charm, a je ne sais quoi. It felt like Paris in New York.

So 411 Park Avenue is where I parked myself on many a night. Les Halles became my go-to joint. It helped that it served superb pommes frites (so much chicer than saying French fries). And since I was in my early 20s, I could eat all the frites in the world. The chef was a guy called Anthony Bourdain. He would sometimes appear from the kitchen and walk around. My friend and I didn’t pay him much attention, engrossed as we were in our own lives and worlds. I wish we had. I wish I hadn’t been so oblivious and had struck up a conversation.

Later, I read The New Yorker piece that shot him to fame and was angry at his outspoken contempt of vegetarians. In it, he described us thus: “Vegetarians, and their Hezbollah-like splinter-faction, the vegans, are a persistent irritant to any chef worth a damn. To me, life without veal stock, pork fat, sausage, organ meat, demi-glace, or even stinky cheese is a life not worth living. Vegetarians are the enemy of everything good and decent in the human spirit, an affront to all I stand for, the pure enjoyment of food.”

I thought to myself that this guy obviously had no idea about the rich vegetarian culinary tradition of India nor, for that matter, of the Buddhist cuisine found across Asia. I was one of those “irritants” at Les Halles about whom he said: “I’ll rummage around for something to feed them, for a ‘vegetarian plate’... fourteen dollars for a few slices of grilled eggplant and zucchini suits my food cost fine.”

Eventually, I stopped going to Les Halles. I didn’t read his bestseller, Kitchen Confidential, because what was the point of reading a guy who was going to berate my ilk? But later, I started watching his show. It was a revelation. He had redeemed himself in my eyes by calling out a man who should’ve been made accountable for his actions and never was. That man was Henry Kissinger and this is what Bourdain wrote about him in his 2001 book, A Cook’s Tour: “Once you’ve been to Cambodia, you’ll never stop wanting to beat Henry Kissinger to death with your bare hands. You will never again be able to open a newspaper and read about that treacherous, prevaricating, murderous scumbag sitting down for a nice chat with Charlie Rose or attending some black-tie affair for a new glossy magazine without choking. Witness what Henry did in Cambodia — the fruits of his genius for statesmanship — and you will never understand why he’s not sitting in the dock at The Hague next to Milošević.” After that, I loved Anthony Bourdain. He will be missed.

This fortnightly column tracks the indulgent pursuits of the one-percenters.

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Printable version | Jan 27, 2021 1:05:22 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/life-and-style/food/bourdain-one-last-time/article24171897.ece

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