The Ultimate Destination

Life is a one-way road, and there’s a stop sign at the end. Enjoy the ride.

It’s the season of toddlers dressed like skeletons, falling leaves, and day-of-the-dead skulls japing out at us from parts unknown.

I’m using the title of Anthony Bourdain’s last show advisedly; he died, by his own hand, in 2018 — transformed into another kind of antic death mask that makes us question the meaning of life itself.

But there he was, his commentary as lively as ever, in the New Yorker a couple of weeks ago, as part of an archival deep dive into the magazine’s food writing. Bourdain’s essay “Don’t Eat Before Reading This” was first published in 1999, and it was the first step on his own road to elsewhere. Next, a hop to his bestseller Kitchen Confidential, and then a skip and jump to a couple decades of gourmandizing around the globe, in his drool-inducing television series. He was a huge success, and killed himself anyway.

Before he went, Bourdain changed my life.

Though much in “Don’t Eat Before Reading This” was indeed stomach churning, this passage instantly made me a happier, and better, cook. “In the world of chefs…butter is in everything,” Bourdain wrote. “Even non-French restaurants — the Northern Italian; the new American, the ones where the chef brags about how he’s ‘getting away from butter and cream’ — throw butter around like crazy. In almost every restaurant worth patronizing, sauces are enriched with mellowing, emulsifying butter. Pastas are tightened with it. Meat and fish are seared with a mixture of butter and oil. Shallots and chicken are caramelized with butter. It’s the first and last thing in almost every pan: the final hit is called ‘monter au beurre.’ In a good restaurant, what this all adds up to is that you could be putting away almost a stick of butter with every meal.”

In my sauté pans, butter became a secret agent: I sneaked it in everywhere. I even began carrying it in my backpack: Butter is fuel, butter is delicious, and butter travels well. Butter makes life better.

Thanks for that, Tony.

Today I happened to hear from my friend, and Bourdain’s collaborator, Matt Goulding, which is another reason the late chef/badboy was on my mind. Matt is a renowned travel and food writer in his own right, author of a triumvirate of delicious titles: Pasta Pane Vino, Rice Noodle Fish, and Grape Olive Pig, recounting his own eating adventures in Italy, Japan, and Spain.

After Bourdain’ death three years ago, Goulding spoke with a writer from Market Watch, reflecting on all that his friend had meant to him, and to the millions of people who ate their way around the world with him. “Everyone felt like they knew Tony,” Goulding said, “because over the years we’ve shared hundreds of meals with him. One of the most intimate acts we can do is break bread together. It made people who didn’t know him on a personal level feel very, very touched by his passing. The world is processing with that type of connection, which is a rare one these days.”

Bourdain’s advice to my friend, about his writing projects: “Tony always said, ‘Never ask yourself, “Who is this for?” The second that you ask yourself “Who is this for?” — whether you’re writing or creating anything — you’ve already lost. You make something the way you want to make it, and if that world wants it they’ll take it. He’s one of the few people out there who made a career out of that philosophy.”

And yet, it was a career cut short, in mid-stride.

“Dude, this is a crazy thing to ask,” says the infamous A.I. version of Bourdain’s voice, from the recent documentary Roadrunner, “. . . and my life is sort of shit now. You are successful, and I am successful, and I’m wondering: Are you happy?”

And after that, the dark.

Meanwhile, I’m still generous with the butter, which some nutritionists call a dietary death wish. But I say: Better to be happy in the time we have, and butter is a part of that.

Care for another pat?

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