By Scott Mechura Explore Big Sky Food Columnist
From a wild youth to a chef who ground it out in the trenches for over three decades. From author to Food TV and CNN food celebrity; and let’s not forget a cult hero to line cooks and chefs everywhere. The world lost yet another great chef when Anthony Bourdain took his own life in a hotel room in Strasbourg, France the morning of June 7.
Chef Bourdain first gained notoriety when he wrote “Kitchen Confidential” in 2000. It was the public’s first real tour behind the swinging doors into the kitchen. He told you how the sausage was made, and what kind of individual it took to make it every day.
He began by contributing a number of articles to a small publication in Manhattan’s East Village in the witching hours after finishing his 12- to 14-hour kitchen shifts at the now-closed Brasserie Les Halles. But it was “Kitchen Confidential” that thrust him into the spotlight when he appeared on Oprah Winfrey shortly after its completion to give us a couple snippets of what was in the first real culinary tell-all the public had seen.
Bourdain had a penchant for telling it like it was, and not being concerned about turning over the apple cart. In fact, he believed over-turning the apple cart was exactly what the consumer and food lover needed. He had no time for pretention or spurious conversation. He was about fun, adventure, manners and sharing an honest perspective.
Many facts about his career and personal life are easily accessible on platforms like Wikipedia. But much of what I can tell you about him you won’t find in a book or on the web. It comes from conversations I had with him when I spent the better part of a weekend with him right here in Big Sky and Bozeman in late 2007.
Chef Bourdain was invited as part of Montana State University’s annual Alumni Gala fundraiser. First we did a dinner together at The Timbers in Moonlight Lodge, then, the following night, we were part of a cocktail and hors d’ oeuvre reception during which he entertained donors and attendees simply by telling war stories from his career. As anyone who has met him can attest, he was part Manhattan chef, part Buckaroo Banzai.
The third and final night, and my favorite, Bourdain, and his New York City sous chef that had flown in that day, personally cooked for 10 of us at the MSU athletic director’s house. While his sous chef was cleaning up and most of the guests were talking among themselves, we shared the better part of a bottle of wine and an hour of conversation.
We talked about everything. His heavy drug use during his youth and the perils that still haunted him to that day. Which chefs were his friends before he became a celebrity, and those who were fair weather. His fascination with Japanese millennials’ excessive use of technology. Who has slept with who on the Food Network. How the arrival of his new daughter Ariane was finally what convinced him to, at least that day, stop smoking. “I mean what am I going to do, go in the next f*#@ing room to smoke a cigarette? You bring a new life into the world, and you change yours.” I’ll never forget that statement.
Before we concluded our evening, I had to ask, “So were you expecting ‘Kitchen Confidential’ to take the nation by storm the way it did?”
“Seriously man,” he said, “I figured, how cool would it be if I had this whole group of chefs and cooks in lower Manhattan all read it and know I was the guy who wrote it. No man, I never saw all this coming.” I will never forget those words.
As I write this, I periodically look up on my office wall, to my picture with Chef Bourdain from 2007, and it occurs to me that if Feb. 3, 1959 was the day the music died, then June 7, 2018 was the day a real chef died.
Scott Mechura has spent a life in the hospitality industry. He is a former certified beer judge and currently the Executive Chef at Buck’s T-4 Lodge in Big Sky.