Tony grew up to be one of the world’s most adventurous (and opinionated) eaters.
Here, he credits his father for the man he became.
By Anthony Bourdain
I was shucking oysters at a raw bar in the Village when my father died. He was 57 years old, an age I’m rapidly approaching. I think about that a lot—and about my father, whose face I see in my own more and more with the passing of the years. There’s a picture of me with my then four-and-a-half-year-old daughter that was taken at a food festival in the Caymans last January. She’s sitting on my lap, eyes closed. I’m holding her tight, my face sunburned and blissed out with the joys of fatherhood. I’ve never looked so much like him.
My father was, as he liked to say, “a man of simple needs.” He grew up with a French mother, a French name, speaking French, and spent many summers in France. But this history wasn’t really a factor in my childhood. It always came as a shock to me when he’d break into French with a Haitian cabdriver as there was, seemingly, nothing “French” about him, or us, or how we lived. He liked wine (on the rare occasions when some came our way), making pronouncements like “all wine is red,” but couldn’t have cared less whether it was a Chateau de Something or a vin de table—as long as it was from Bordeaux, near where his family came from.
To him, all food was either “marvelous” or not worth mentioning. A decent steak frites at a crummy brasserie was as good as a fine-dining meal. (During my early vacations in France, our family’s crummy brasserie of choice was the unpromising-sounding Quick Elysee, where a thin slice of humble rumsteakwith curiously blond frites soon became a treasured taste memory.) In his view, France and New Jersey, where we lived, were the same; he seemed equally attached romantically. France had runny, pungent cheeses and sausages that were “marvelous.” But the Jersey Shore, where we were more likely to vacation, had steamer clams, not to mention the occasional lobster with drawn butter.
He taught me early that the value of a dish is the pleasure it brings you; where you are sitting when you eat it—and who you are eating it with—are what really matter. Perhaps the most important life lesson he passed on was: Don’t be a snob. It’s something I will always at least aspire to—something that has allowed me to travel this world and eat all it has to offer without fear or prejudice. To experience joy, my father taught me, one has to leave oneself open to it.
The world, in his view, was filled with marvels. George C. Scott’s manic eyebrows in Dr. Strangelove were deemed “marvelous.” But then so, potentially, was any food that was new. Wherever you were, he taught me, was an opportunity to eat something interesting.
Growing up in New Jersey, American food was Italian. Chinese. Jewish. Diner. (I still drive out to Hiram’s roadhouse in Fort Lee to order my father’s favorite birch beer.) It took a trip “across the bridge” to be able to delve into the exotic worlds of “smorgasbord,” “sukiyaki,” “German,” and old-school bistro French. Chinese food was deemed worth investigating as a family—and investigate we did, venturing frequently into Manhattan on weekends for fabulously gluey and bright-colored Cantonese on Upper Broadway and in Chinatown. Visits to my father’s office in Manhattan would yield trips to Wienerwald for foreign sausages steamed with sauerkraut; salty pretzels and charred roast chestnuts from street carts; the mysterious joys of the dirty-water hot dog.
He was delighted by different. Thrilled by discovery. In the early ’70s, he “discovered” sushi because it was being served in the signless, some-what sinister back room of a run-down hotel on 55th Street that some Japanese colleagues had tipped him off to. When he walked me, 14 years old, through the shabby hotel lobby for the first time, opened an unmarked door, and ushered me into a smoky room crowded with Japanese people eating raw fish, he was bubbling over with childlike glee.
There’s a photo of my father. My favorite. He’s sitting on a beach at Cap Ferret in France, near the oyster village of La Teste-de-Buch, where he’d spent many summers as a kid. My younger brother, Christopher, and I are with him—we must have been about 10 and 12, respectively—eating sandwiches: saucisson a l’ail or jambon blanc. I remember very well the texture of crusty baguette, the smear of French butter, the meat, the inevitable grain of sand between the teeth. Surely, somewhere nearby, there was Orangina or Pschitt for us kids, and a bottle of warm Evian or Vittel—all wildly exotic to my brother and me at the time.
There might well have been a comically runny cheese. My father, upon unwrapping it, would have joked about it, comparing its reek to “old socks,” calling my brother and me by our alternate names in Dad language: Oscar and Eggbert. He was generally a pretty serious man, prone to escaping into books and music—a moody one, too, I suspected. But with us, he was almost always goofy and without vanity. I think it was that day—the day of the photograph, or another very much like it, sitting by the edge of the rough Atlantic, perhaps after a swig of rough red table wine—that I first heard him make that statement: “I am a man of simple needs.” An expression of genuine satisfaction with the moment.
It left an impression. I remember those words every time I find myself made ridiculously happy by a bowl of noodles eaten while sitting on a low plastic stool, sucking up the smell of burning joss sticks and distant wafts of durian, the sight of Vietnamese families on their motorbikes around me.
I feel myself moving like him. I feel his face in mine when I pick up my daughter. I hear his voice in mine when I say something silly, make myself ridiculous for her entertainment. When we eat together, I can’t help but try, like my father, to portray what we eat as potentially awesome or funny—as “marvelous.” While I feel strongly that to try and make a small child into one’s own image as a pint-size “foodie” would be at best annoying and at worst a form of child abuse, I am secretly proud when she reaches for a hunk of salty Pecorino, a caper, or an anchovy, as she is apt to do on visits with my wife’s family in Italy. I admit to shamelessly praising her when she, to our surprise, became enamored with oysters on the half shell.
I was made proudest in Paris last year. My daughter came along for dinner with me, my wife, and Eric Ripert—the grown-ups eating oysters and clams, whelks and periwinkles from an enormous seafood tower at La Coupole. She had been picking at her pasta with butter and moved on to oysters. She looked up at what must have seemed, from her perspective at near eye level with the tabletop, an Everest of crushed ice and sea creatures. Her gaze traveled up and up, past the giant crabs on the second tier, settling on the two steamed lobsters dueling at the top.
“Sebastian!” she cried, misidentifying one of the lobsters as the adorable crustacean sidekick of Ariel, the heroine of the Disney film The Little Mermaid. Without blinking, she reached up, grabbed her little friend, and began devouring him without hesitation or remorse.
I thought, That’s my little girl.
I’m quite sure my father, had he been there, would have been just as proud—of both of us.
Anthony childhood Photos
Courtesy of Bonappetit magazine