I met Tony Bourdain ages ago, over dinner at Da Silvano, in 1999, and his shyness was the most striking thing about him that night. He handed his menu to his publicist and said, “Please order for me, maybe a steak.”
He was soft spoken throughout the evening, more interested in listening than talking, which is the hallmark of a great storyteller, ironically, which he was then and remained throughout his very remarkable life.
He was adept at getting out of the way of a story, and despite all the bombastic, eye-catching comments, his ability and willingness to accept and celebrate vulnerability were a stunning counterbalance.
Like A.J. Liebling, his writing about food was attentive, muscular, and alert to what bounty and deprivation, taste and sensuality, providers and consumers are about.
His generosity is also a big part of who he was.
When I interviewed him for a story I did for The Boston Globe, many years back, about the awfulness of restaurants in Boston, he said, thoughtfully and with an eye toward making things better: “I think they’re charging high prices because they can – serving food to people who are grateful to have what they consider big city food. I think what’s going on in Boston is a classic example of chefs working in a place that’s not yet a national restaurant city, not by a stretch. It’s a period of insecurity. And I can really understand why the chefs are charging so much: If prices come down, they lose their mystique as chefs. They’re reluctant to abandon their pomposity, expense, and pretense.”
His honesty and presence are missed, and it’s only been less than a day.