‘He Always Understood That He Was Blessed’

Writing books, and building a legacy, with Anthony Bourdain.

Anthony Bourdain and Ecco publisher Daniel Halpern. Photo: Courtesy of Daniel Halpern
Anthony Bourdain and Ecco publisher Daniel Halpern. Photo: Courtesy of Daniel Halpern
Anthony Bourdain and Ecco publisher Daniel Halpern. Photo: Courtesy of Daniel Halpern

Since publishing the paperback edition of Kitchen Confidential in 2000, Anthony Bourdain and Daniel Halpern, the publisher of HarperCollins imprint Ecco, spent nearly two decades as both colleagues (Ecco launched its own Bourdain imprint in 2011) and friends. Next month, Ecco will publish Anthony Bourdain Remembered, a photo-heavy collection of memories that was originally created by CNN for Bourdain’s daughter and will now see a wide release at Halpern’s urging (and with the blessing of Bourdain’s estate). Grub Street talked to Halpern about the project, about their friendship, and what it was like to work on Bourdain’s best sellers.

Can you explain the idea behind the new book, for people who are unfamiliar?
Many photos, of course. Along with quotes from various people in Tony’s life. Little things. But it’s really about the photographs. CNN did an amazing job. You’ve probably seen the Obama photograph, right? And the cover photograph — which is beautiful — of Tony walking in Cuba. But they’re all good, they’re all different. Looking through the book an odd thing happens, you think you know what your response will be looking at a book of photographs of Anthony Bourdain. But after you’ve gone through them, it turns out to be a very intense and very moving experience. I guess the reason why is obvious: missing his presence in the world.

The news of his death was easily one of the biggest stories of 2018. It’s been almost a year, and that interest still hasn’t softened — which speaks to the significance that Bourdain had in people’s lives.
Wherever I went, everyone I saw who remembered that I knew Tony, that’s all they wanted to talk about. How much he meant to them, and suffered over how it must’ve been for the people closest to him, especially his family, especially his daughter. It was a horrible shock and caught people off guard. It’s hard to imagine anyone with a better life than Tony’s, unless you didn’t like planes, boats, and trains. He touched so many people. People who actually would say, “I never even saw his shows, I didn’t know anything about him, but somehow his passing truly got to me.” I don’t know, that was his magic.

Does the book capture that?
It definitely does. I mean, you see a man that was completely at ease in most ways — or appeared to be, until he wasn’t. He was especially at ease with every kind of person.

The thing about Tony that was always remarkable to me is that if he was talking to you — whether you were were a celebrity or just a person on the street who wanted a photograph — he looked at you in exactly the same way. Equal. There was no ranking, there was no hierarchy. We were in a hot dog place once, and the guys came out of the back and wanted to take selfies with him. As always, he seemed elated to be asked. Of course, he loved kitchen staff. He made it a priority to celebrate every part of the kitchen.

That said, there was a part of him that was kind of removed from the world, in subtle ways. I don’t know how to describe it, but if you we were with him, he was sometimes there and sometimes not there. Not that he wasn’t completely focused or engaged with whatever you were talking about, but there was an element that  seemed, at least to me, kind of private and slightly elusive. For all his amazing presence, he was a very shy man.

Was that something you recognized early on in your relationship with him?
Yeah, from the very beginning. There was some part of him that he kept to himself, and I don’t know who got to see that. The few who were closest to him, I guess. I met him before his book came out, when he was completely unknown, and very, very modest, and at the end of his life, still very modest. He never played the “I’m Anthony Bourdain” card. At least, I never saw it.

Are there any specific memories that seeing this new book brought back?
Oh, just the way that he was. I felt he always knew what he was doing. He had a very good sense of what he wanted to do, what he wanted to stand for, what he wouldn’t stand for. He was very particular in every way: the way he operated in the world, the way he remained true to himself. Always beyond the brand of himself. Always extremely moral and incredibly loyal.

You mentioned he was always happy to interact with fans, but what were his more personal relationships like?
I don’t know how wide a group of friends he had. Like I said, he was incredibly private. I think if you asked Eric Ripert or Kim Witherspoon, two of the people he was most comfortable with, they would have more to say about that side of Tony.

I think my daughter has a picture of Tony on Instagram. She met him when she was 7 or 8, because he agreed to do a benefit dinner with me at our house in Princeton for her grammar school. She posted a really sweet note with the photo: “Here’s a guy who could do anything, be doing anything, going anywhere, be going to big parties or whatever but he always had time to come out and do a dinner or benefit for my school.” Again, the generosity and lack of arrogance would be at the top of my list of ways to describe him.

What was it like working with him?
He would turn in chapters and we would talk about how to structure the book. What should come out, what was repetitive. He always had time for that, he always really thought deeply about his writing. He was a great partner — as a publisher of his imprint and an author.

So, I loved the guy, and I thought about him often, because we were always doing books or talking about book ideas that he wanted to pursue. He would weigh in all aspects of the publishing process, from editorial to design to marketing. You know the Appetites cover? That was something that all of our sales force said, “No, no, no, no, we’ve got to have Tony on the cover.” And I said, “Well, he is kind of on the cover, but he will agree only to this particular incarnation as imagined by his friend, the artist Ralph Steadman.”

This was his vision for the book. The artist didn’t want to do it at first. I think I said to him, “Just do a few pencil sketches to see what happens.” So he did, and I showed them to Tony, and Tony of course loved it. So I said, “Do another, just add onto this.” It went on for six months and pretty soon it was getting to be a kind of hilarious experience, because Ralph kept deepening his portrait and adding colors to it and changing.

There’s a surprising contrast, because his appeal as an author and host is that he could make people feel an incredible closeness.
I think I believed the more you knew him, the more you understood you didn’t know him. I’ve thought about this a lot since he died. Maybe this was because a lot of it had to do with that space that was so private, and so protected. And that removed him, slightly, from parts of his life. And I guess, ultimately, that space is partly responsible for what killed him. It was something you were aware of if you spent time with him. It was disquieting.

He was just an incredibly private man. What was in that  private quiet — what those devils dwelled there, if they were that — remained a mystery, at least to me. I don’t know if anybody really knew.

Anthony Bourdain with Daniel Halpern’s daughter, Lily. Photo: Courtesy of Daniel Halpern

This is something you hear about people like him: Other people look to them for help, but they’re still dealing with their own demons.
He certainly had them, but he didn’t wear them on his sleeve, and he didn’t impose them on anyone else. You just sensed that there was a part of him that was happy being alone in his own internal world, and that he protected the landscape and kept it intact. I don’t know if other people who knew him would agree with this, but it was very definite in my relationship with him.

But he loved what he did, and he loved the entire publishing process and was a great partner, because he was wide ranging and passionate about the books, especially those he took on. I mean, it was an amazing partnership and I’m devastated that it’s over.

One of the things that struck me about him was that he wasn’t afraid to criticize himself.
Not at all. He was as much as a target — or perhaps more of a target — as anyone or anything else.

I thought during the beginning of the #MeToo movement, he addressed very directly the male attitude that was prevalent when he was writing Kitchen Confidential. He was clear about the ways in which he despised kitchen behavior, and wanted to see it rectified. Again, that goes back to his moral character.

People saw his honesty as a big part of his appeal. What did you make of it?
A remarkable man — whether he was talking to you in a bar or walking down the street or writing an essay or giving a talk in front of a group of people, it was always that particular voice, that humor, that self-deprecating way of presenting himself. Especially at the end, when he became so famous and so recognizable — which CNN got, they saw that he was a huge star — I think people fell in love with Tony because he would tell you exactly what was on his mind, and he would tell you in every kind of language. But in a language for you. And yes, he was always unpredictable, but unrelenting.

Are there any other specific memories that stand out?
There were many times that were just kind of fun, and you felt like you were doing something you would not have done if you weren’t with him. I remember we were going to this bar that he loved, in the 40s on the West Side, and they loved him there. We’d go in, and everybody came around. There were taxi cab drivers, prostitutes, this incredible crowd. All of them completely got Tony, and he got them. I just remember watching him among this disparate group of people, and how comfortable he really was in that kind of situation. He loved people in such nonjudgmental ways.

Maybe that’s why writers made him nervous, because he admired them so much. Given his shyness and modesty, the typical thing he would say is, “I don’t deserve to be sitting here among all these writers.” He didn’t say it for effect. He meant it. I think he felt the same way when he was taken up by Eric Ripert, because he knew he was never a chef on that level. And the fact that Eric, whom he admired probably more than any other chef in America, liked him meant a huge amount.

A lot of what you’ve said speaks to a sadness there seemed to be in him.
That’s part of what got to people. You sensed that something deep in there was not altogether cheerful, buoyant, joyful. I think that came across in very subtle ways. But that did not alter the way he dealt with every group of people, everywhere in the world, with whom he came in contact. He never did not respond with the Bourdain curiosity, warmth, humor, intelligence, and sense he was, if only momentarily, part of their world. Whether they were a governor, prince, celebrity, or farmer. He was always the same Tony Bourdain.

That has a way of making you feel special, even though you’re not being treated as special.
If you were talking to him, he was talking to you. And that’s not the case with celebrities. When you’re talking to most celebrities, they’re talking to themselves. But talking to Tony, whoever you were, wherever you were, if you were standing in front of him, you were his focus. That’s a gift. That’s a gift that derives from modesty and probably self-doubt as well. But he never took for granted his fame or his position in the world. He always understood that he was blessed to have become Anthony Bourdain.

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