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The Inspiration of Anthony Bourdain

What the chef taught me about living life with no reservations

Christine Byrne
Jun 8, 2018 · 7 min read
Photo: Brice Bowman-Laberge

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One of my first great food memories comes from a trip my family took to Normandy when I was six years old. We hadn’t been sitting for two minutes when I announced to my parents, “I want the escargot.”

Dad: “You know that’s snails?”

Six-year-old me: “Yes! We just learned about them in French class, and I want the escargot!”

My parents went along, although I’m sure they expected I’d take a few bites out of stubbornness, then subtly push the dish of garlic and butter and earthy mollusk aside, hoping no one would call out my misplaced courage.

Actually, though, I ate every snail, then mopped up every bit of briny, herby garlic butter left behind. I still think about those snails and about how excited and proud I was to love them so much.

A decade after those snails, I sat on the living room couch with my dad and watched an episode of No Reservations, Anthony Bourdain’s first food travel show. I, like millions of others, was drawn to the irreverent reverence with which he seemed to approach every food he tried, to his eagerness to try anything, and to his ability to narrate the stories of different foods, cooks, and cultures in an unpretentious way that let them mostly speak for themselves. Until then, I had thought of food and travel writing and television as more marketing than storytelling, but watching No Reservations made it clear that, actually, food was not only a story in and of itself, but also a great way to anchor other stories in something tangible and universally understood. Bourdain wasn’t out to sell an experience or show how good something could be — every episode was about telling the story of things exactly as they are.

Bourdain wasn’t the first to talk about food this way, but he was the first to make me feel like maybe I could talk about food that way, too. Food was an important part of my life growing up, but not in a particularly extraordinary way that I felt would resonate. We lived abroad and traveled often, so I was massively privileged in that there was always something new to eat. I remember eating pâté for the first time on a pebble beach in Cornwall while watching my dad (try to) learn to windsurf. I remember tearing apart a slick piece of roti prata and dipping it into a Styrofoam container of curry sauce on a plastic picnic table in Mersing, Malaysia, before getting on a bum boat to an island where I’d go to summer camp for the first time. I remember my first drink: a Tiger beer at Newton Circus, another hawker center, after the closing night of our high school production of South Pacific. I remember, every year when we’d fly home to New Jersey, eating baked ziti and supermarket sheet cake at Fourth of July barbecues, both or which were exciting and special for me because I only ate them once a year. I remember the first time I ate lunch at a New York City deli and was awed by the enormity of both the sandwiches and the Snapple selection. None of this seemed like a story, though, because I wasn’t sure why anyone else would care.

Years later, as a rising college senior, I spent the summer working as a publishing intern in New York. Weeks in, I realized that my longtime goal of being a book editor was actually, definitely, not what I wanted. To keep the “I graduate in a year and now have no plan” anxiety at bay, I read more books that summer than I ever have. One of them was Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential.

Bourdain’s 2000 memoir, as you may know, gets so much of its magic from the sense you get while reading that every story is true. I figured it would fall into the “I never want to go there, but that sure made me think and was fun to watch” category that some of the No Reservations episodes did, and that the stories about hypermasculine kitchen culture and the people who somehow ended up in it would make me laugh, think, and then move on to whatever book was next.

That’s not what happened. The first story the book tells is one of Bourdain as a fourth-grader on a European cruise with his family. He tries vichyssoise, a potato-based French soup, and is taken aback by the fact that it’s cold. “I’d eaten in restaurants before, sure,” he says, “but this was the first food I really noticed. It was the first food I enjoyed and, more important, remembered enjoying.” Reading it made me think of my snails, how adventurous they made me feel, and how they established food as something important and worth discovering. It’s a good, tame story that I could easily relate to, and I bet most people felt the same when reading it.

The thing is, the relatability of the book started and ended with that cold potato soup. The rest of the book — about restaurant kitchens and all the crass, stressful, macho, bonkers shit that happened inside them — took place in a world very, very different from mine. Even coming from Bourdain, whose stories had been making me feel welcome since I first watched him walk around Paris unironically wearing cowboy boots in the first episode of No Reservations, the book felt like something I was looking in on from the outside. Reading it piqued my curiosity in restaurant cooking but made it clear that it wasn’t something for me. The longer the stories sat with me, though, the more they started to feel like a sort of…dare.

I graduated soon after, six months earlier than planned. I was still put off by my intern experience in publishing and totally uninspired by every job option presented to me by career counselors and all the well-meaning adults in my life. (Although it was 2010 and the height of a recession, so calling them “options” is maybe a stretch.) Food writing had crossed my mind, but I didn’t figure it was something I could just jump into. I can’t really explain my sudden decision to go to culinary school — a mix of desperation, an interest in food, a burning need to be interesting and different, and a nagging curiosity about Kitchen Confidential, if I had to put it into words — but in 2010, I moved to New York and spent 10 months at the French Culinary Institute learning how to cook. It remains the most impulsive thing I’ve ever done—and the most significant.

The following two and a half years spent cooking in NYC restaurant kitchens taught me things that culinary school never could have—about cooking, stress, being a woman in a room of mostly men, and how to deal with constantly being under fire without falling apart. It’s hard to explain what it was like to walk into a restaurant kitchen, and I honestly don’t remember it clearly, but I do remember that everything I did was wrong, everywhere I was was in the way, and every time someone said something to me, I had to ask them to explain what they were talking about. It was the most underqualified and out of place I’d ever felt, even though I knew in theory that’s exactly what I was signing up for. (I’d read the book! I intentionally jumped out of my comfort zone!) It wasn’t the useless, undervalued feeling that comes with an entry-level office job; it was the feeling that I needed to apologize for even being there, for being the alien who disrupted a system that everyone else knew how to work in. Weeks went by before I was able to walk into that kitchen without absolute fear; months went by before I was able to actually contribute.

Was restaurant cooking the way Bourdain described? Not really. It was vaguely the same, sure: late nights, weekends, burn scars, characters, industry bars, some yelling, ticket boards that inexplicably but reliably went from empty to full in a matter of minutes every single night.

The actual experience of it was very different from what I’d read, though. Because it wasn’t his experience—it was mine. I was the one cramming four hours’ worth of food prep into two and a half every afternoon. I was the one at the stove, firing seven dishes from three different orders at the same time, in exactly the right order, totally on instinct. I was the one who stayed at the bar three hours too long on a Tuesday and somehow always managed to find my way on the L train. I was the one who felt disconnected from one world but totally plugged into another.

Which made me realize: A great storyteller is one who makes you want to experience stories for yourself. A great story is one that makes you think, “I wonder what it would be like to do that.” I’m not much of a storyteller these days, nor am I still a restaurant cook. I write recipes, and I write stories about how and why people should cook them, but I do so in a way that’s shaped by what I’ve learned: Recipes are like stories, kind of, and the best recipes are ones that people will actually cook. Getting someone to cook a recipe isn’t about presenting them with something they’re already familiar with, necessarily, but about making them think, “I wonder what it would be like to do that.”

It’s no secret that Anthony Bourdain was a great storyteller. I’ll miss following along with his unending curiosity about food and how it shapes us, and the world will miss the way he was able to share that curiosity in a way that was welcoming and inclusive. What I’m most grateful for, though, is that he showed me the inside of a world I’d never given a second thought to—restaurants—and painted a picture that, even though it was totally unrelatable to me, was interesting enough that I felt compelled to experience if for myself. Not many storytellers do their job so well that, after reading their stories, you actually feel moved to go out and live them.

“Food, for me, has always been an adventure,” Bourdain writes in the preface of Kitchen Confidential. For me, too, Chef. Thanks for teaching me that food is something worth exploring and that the exploration is something worth writing about.

Writer, recipe developer, work in progress.

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