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I met Tony at dinner, a long time ago, the late nineties, probably with the food critic A. A. [Adrian] Gill, in London. He didn’t frighten me at first, but I found him daunting, because he was quite manic. He had his silver thumb ring, and [was] wearing black leather.

I didn’t feel we got to know each other very much, but he was very much being Tony, many stories. From that dinner, he told everyone that I’d eaten aborted lamb, which is an embellished story. I was saying there were practices in France where they take the lamb out before it’s born and eat it. So he embellished that into a story about how that’s what I had done. I can’t tell you what trouble that got me into.

***

I really got to know Tony while doing The Taste. Such an unlikely program for him to be involved in. … Knowing that he was doing it, as far as I was concerned, guaranteed that it would have integrity.

I wasn’t particularly comfortable doing it, but I loved doing it, because I liked hanging out with Tony and Ludo [Lefebvre]. We’d often go out eating in between times, but Tony really needed to be alone and in his trailer a lot. … You’d be filming and there’d be a relight, and he’d be editing a book or finishing something, writing something. He didn’t give himself that much time off, on purpose.

He was a very introverted person, which people misunderstood in a way, because of his facility with people, but he was always a slightly detached presence. Enormously friendly; he would look at you in a terribly warm way. And when he needed to pull back, I just felt there was something, like many introverts, he just needed a bit of space around him. He was such a strange mixture between an extraordinarily measured person and sort of a manically obsessive person. I think that’s why he was always so fascinating. I always used to describe him [as] something like Gary Cooper mixed with Keith Richards.

I loved being in his company. When you’re young, what you want of people is that they’re funny and clever. And then as you get older, you realize kindness is important. But it’s not often that you meet people who are funny, clever, and kind. And he was.

We talked a lot about things other than ourselves. We’d talk about books. And he always wanted to add things to his life. He was never closed off to the recommendation of a book or a film.

He—as I did—liked being in the Chateau Marmont [hotel, in Los Angeles, where The Taste was filmed] for a month. I think it gave him a certain sense of stillness, but he was busy all the time; we had very early starts. I love being busy and not having time to think about myself or life. It’s actually quite rare that you can do it away from home, but in a fixed place, for a month. It was quite a treat.

***

Everyone felt they knew him. That’s what television does to you, and his particular form of television. I think it’s very difficult, because you’re dealing with a lot of people who need something from you, emotionally—they’re coming to hear him speak, and for someone who was quite turned in on himself, as an introvert, he was, more than a lot of men, quite porous in the sense of feeling people’s needs.

He wasn’t like that with producers; he was quite capable of cordoning himself off and not really troubling himself about displeasing. But in terms of people who looked up to him, the sort of people who might come and hear him speak, I think he was very acutely sensitive to what

they needed, and what he was going to give, which is why he always gave such a dazzling performance, with moments of showing vulnerability to people. That’s why I think people responded to him.

***

I’ve experienced living through people’s illness, and then dying, and it takes you a long time afterward to remember them not ill. And when you remember [them] at last as not ill, you feel something’s been given to you. And I find it hard now to think of Tony in a way that isn’t really very focused on the end. I feel the shock has slightly taken the other pictures away.

 

The excerpt is from Bourdain in Stories by Laurie Woolever 

 

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