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It’s Been Good to Know You

I met Tony Bourdain in 1995, about nine months after my bookstore opened. I pulled the galley of his first novel, Bone In the Throat, off the slush pile, and quickly realized two things: It was really, really good, and the author was a chef in New York. So the odds were that he knew other chefs in New York, and could maybe get them to donate food for a launch party, for which we could maybe get some press.

I called the publicist for the book, who was dubious. Chefs? Donating food? Never been done. But Tony was on board, so I started calling Florence Fabricant, who at the time ran a very widely read page in the Wednesday New York Times, devoted to upcoming food events. I think I called her about six times a day. Finally she agreed to run an announcement of the launch party, and the names of the chefs who were donating food, in the paper.

400 people showed up.

I really loved the book, and I had also realized that I liked organizing oddball marketing events, so the next thing I did was hit up the Union Square Greenmarket, by far the largest farmers' market in New York. They had only rarely done book events, and never for a novel ("It has a recipe in it!" I said), but.....but I'm good at nudging. So they agreed to give us a table and a tent on a Saturday in late June. I called Tony and told him he'd need to bring food to hand out to The People while I sold books.

Two days ahead of time, I called to set things up, and asked what food he was bringing. He said he was planning to make scallops ceviche. I said "Hunh. You do realize that we will be sitting outdoors -- no air-conditioning, no refrigeration -- for many hours, right? In late June? I'm thinking raw seafood might not be the best way to go here."

He wound up making gazpacho.

And that's how we became pals. He would drop by the store when I was working, sometimes with his wife, Nancy, and sometimes on his own, and he'd help me close up and we'd go for a drink. Or he'd just hang around the register. He was really, really broke. But I remember when the New Yorker bought the article that would eventually get turned into the book Kitchen Confidential. He came to the store with a bottle of champagne, and we drank, he said, to the fact that "There are TOO second acts in American lives."

And I remember when he came to tell me that he'd gotten this TV gig, and they were going to send him to Viet Nam, and there was a club he'd read about where you could rent AK-47s and rocket launchers and just unbelievable kinds of ordinance, and he was going to spend New Year's Eve blowing stuff up. He was thrilled about this, and I was.....rather disapproving, I'm afraid. I think that may in fact have been the first episode of his first TV show, the one on the Food Network.

He launched all his novels at my store. After the third one, The Bobby Gold Stories, I overheard him talking to some flack from a big publisher. The flack asked why Tony did the launch party at my dinky little store; by that point he was a big star and could have drawn hundreds and hundreds of people to an event at Barnes & Noble, or --even better -- at some....restaurant, some food hall. He said we were the first people who treated him like a real writer, who took him seriously as a writer, and that loyalty was an important virtue in his book.

In 2004 we celebrated our 10th birthday, with a big party. And Tony showed up. Characteristically, he was massively uncomfortable until he started working with the food; he helped me arrange trays full of hors d'oeuvres, and then he worked the crowd, passing the canapés, intoning "My name is Trevor and I'll be your server this evening." And all the little old ladies were whispering to each other "You see over there, that's Anthony Bourdain, from the television. In the black leather jacket. He looks like such a bad character but really, he's SUCH A NICE BOY."

And he was.

 

Drawing of Anthony Bourdain courtesy of the artist Jonathan Santlofer

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