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Chef Edward Lee: Bourdain changed my life

Anthony Bourdain was universally adored for his writing, his wit and swagger, his bitter intelligence, his sarcasm an...

Posted: Jun 10, 2018 1:05 PM
Updated: Jun 10, 2018 1:05 PM

Anthony Bourdain was universally adored for his writing, his wit and swagger, his bitter intelligence, his sarcasm and his refreshingly honest vision of the world. It was as nuanced and tender as it was grim and sardonic. Tony gave us a world that we didn't know we needed. He gave us stories of people we didn't know we loved. He gave us the meat and the juice and never spared us the gristle, the cartilage and blood. He gave us his time and energy and thoughtfulness. He gave us a humanity we sometimes didn't deserve.

When I was a virtual nobody, he helped me -- with books, with TV, with advice, with a food documentary which, to this day, is the work I am most proud of. He was a complex person and the public will remember him in many varied ways. I will remember him as a kind man who wanted to help bring others into the light. A young chef, a struggling business, a food hawker, a musician, an activist or even a homeless person -- Tony's broad vision of humanity included them all. His influence was, and is, staggering.

I remember the first time I met him. My agent, Kim Witherspoon, called me to come to a charity function he was hosting, for The Bronx Letters Foundation (where Kim is on the board). It is a charity that provides financial support for extracurricular programming like a school newspaper, literary magazine, college visits and more for the Bronx Academy of Letters.

It was very dear to Tony. As soon as Kim introduced us, she got an emergency call and had to run out. Left alone with a star, I was nervous -- and whenever I get nervous, I start to prattle on with a story that goes on forever. The emcee called Tony to the stage to make a speech while I was still talking. He looked at me with his piercing eyes and said, "Hold that thought." I stood there, in jeans and a T-shirt amidst a crowd of tuxedos and gowns, for an eternity.

When the auction began later on, Tony was standing next to me. The first item up for bid was a scholarship for a young student in the Bronx trying to study in London. No one bid on it. The auctioneer started to beg. Tony stood there, vibrating with anger and cursing under his breadth at the "f*****g cheapskates."

No one else could hear him, but I could. He wasn't aiming his ire at me but I couldn't stand it anymore. I raised my hand. I think it was $5,000, or at least that's what I remember. I know I didn't have the money to spare. Tony looked at me with equal parts confusion and rage. He rushed back to the stage, ripped the mic out of the auctioneer's hand and yelled at the crowd for not opening their wallets when "this chef from Kentucky who clearly does not make a lot of money," just did.

I believe they raised a bunch of money that night. I never did get to finish that story I was telling Tony. I never did get to thank him for everything he has done for me and for the world -- for all of us who are curious and hungry and adventurous and wanting more out of this life than our day-to-day routine can provide. He gave that to us in spades.

In a distant future, when we look back at this era, at all its chatter and noise, we will dust off the infinite clutter of nonsense, and we will truly see Anthony Bourdain for what he was: a muse who showed us the best of what humankind can be.

In his honor, I will be making a charitable donation to The Bronx Letters Foundation. We will miss you dearly, Mr. Bourdain.

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