the devils you know

A book I enjoyed recently was Michael Ruhlman’s THE REACH OF A CHEF* and I was chuckling over this description of Anthony Bourdain, who seems to charm and exasperate Ruhlman in equal measure:

….I’d traveled to Baltimore to be part of a three-person writers’ panel at the annual International Association of Culinary Professionals (IACP) conference. Bourdain was also on this panel…It’s part of his evil nature that he is enormously charming in person and somehow convinces you that it’s not only OK but, in fact, a great opportunity to take up smoking again, and to stay out til dawn pounding beers with grizzled Vietnam vets who insist on buying the celebrity yet another round, the night before our eight A.M. panel discussion. Just when you’re certain the guy’s a deceptive scoundrel who cannot be trusted, is bad for your physical health and Midwestern integrity, he undoes you with an incredibly generous blurb for your cookbook.

Chuckling in part because my life contains its own version of Bourdain: a tall rangy very bright New Yorker named A who is part sweet old-fashioned Italian boy, part devil. I remember once, still only halfway through a visit with him and already suffering the consequences, teaming up with his girlfriend-at-the-time in order to resist “being sucked into the vortex of A!”**. Now, years later, the man is like a brother to me — the brother I never had and didn’t particularly want — but I still remember the heights, or depths, of my experiences with him, such as the time a small group of us were in England for a friend’s birthday party. Somehow, instead of getting on the plane back to San Francisco, I ended up having a highly surrealistic afternoon in a park in Amsterdam — my clearest memory is A telling me, sympathetically, “Are people turning into trolls? Yeah, sometimes they do that” — and then having a pleasant chat with a busty blonde from the American midwest in an elite Dutch brothel not far from our hotel, which A of course had directed us to because he thought it would be a good experience for me as a writer to have (and who was I to argue in the face of such infallible logic?). Seen from the street, the place looked like an elegant restaurant — A knew to recognize it by its green awning — but the suave and elegant ‘maitre d’ made it very clear what the place actually was — a place which charged $150 American dollars just for the privilege of stepping into the wildly gilded, art-deco interior, sitting at the little tables and couches, talking to these bored-looking women from various countries (it was a slow night for them) and drinking way too much overpriced champagne.

And of course there was the night in Vegas — which really will stay in Vegas — and although A and another person in our party generously financed it, I think my jaw literally dropped when the final bill came and I realized what the night’s tally added up to. As I reeled out through a parking lot somehow made bright with daylight (how did that happen?). I was still reeling hours later, in the airport, trying to get myself home while suffering through the worst hangover of my life and wishing I knew a dozen different languages so I could curse A in every single one of them. It’s not just that the man is charming and hilarious and great fun to be around, he somehow convinces you without even trying that giving into your vices is not just a great idea in general, but a splendid opportunity for personal growth, so who are you to let the moment pass? The fact that A himself has the stamina to enjoy the kind of night that would easily kill a lesser man — or woman — and the fact that you are, indeed, the much, much lesser woman, doesn’t enter into your calculations until it’s too late.

So naturally, after finishing Ruhlman’s book — which I appreciated partly for its chapter dedicated to the gifted and unique chef Masa, whose restaurant I had the chance to visit twice when he was still in Beverly Hills, and who gave me — personally handing me each dish from behind the sushi bar in the austere little room overlooking the strange fairyland-commercial bustle that is Rodeo Drive — two of the greatest meals of my life — I immediately had to pick up Bourdain’s latest, THE NASTY BITS.

A, you’re only slightly less evil now — as entrepreneur, husband and father — but I still adore you.

*also author of the excellent THE SOUL OF A CHEF, in which he describes the process by which a series of professional cooks attempt to attain Master Chef certification at the Culinary Institute of America — many try, startlingly few succeed — gripping stuff.

** He was trying to get us to go out to this one club in particular. We successfully resisted, and now I look back on that night and that place and, all pain forgotten, think, “We were such wusses! Why didn’t we just go?” See? I am older and wiser and know exactly how that night would have concluded — and yet still regret acting in the best interests of my own mental and physical health.


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