- Anthony Bourdain completely understood Waffle House — on first sight, drunk off his ass, and shoveling hash browns and a pecan waffle into his mouth at some ungodly hour of the morning. He’s there with Sean Brock, and it looks a lot like any other Waffle House I’ve ever eaten at. The lights are just bright enough in the way every Waffle House looks — like some engineer fresh out of Georgia Tech was tasked with creating the exact level of brightness in order to keep people awake, but also not to antagonize the eyes of the hungover. The grill is smoking away, and the coffee pouring into the pot from the coffeemaker looks somewhere just shy of plasma-hot. He called it “An irony-free zone where everything is beautiful, and nothing hurts.” He said it was better than the French Laundry. He was obviously, blissfully overserved.
- It would be easy to say that Anthony Bourdain “got” places, but I hate that term. I kind of hate the term “understood”, too, because the word implies a kind of authority. “Understood” can make experience a mandatory training webinar to be completed, with certificates, stages, merit badges, and flair earned along the way. To the observer who gets and understands and frames places, there is only acquisition, and process, and then a new target.
- That’s not what Bourdain’s work felt like, in the places I knew. His assessment of Waffle House — right down to the loving shots of a glassed-in calorie box floating in a spectral fog — is absolutely accurate, and loving in exactly the right measure. His Houston episode captured precisely what the experience of Houston in the 21st century can be: Confusing, hot, incredibly diverse, chaotic, ugly, and stuffed to the gills with gut-building calories at every turn. When Bourdain went to Nashville, he ate hot chicken at Bolton’s, not Hattie B’s or Prince’s. He went to places in the South and took them as they were, not as what he might thought they would or should be. He did all of this at great speed, and yet with great care.
- To wit: People from West Virginia think he did them right, and no one from West Virginia thinks they have been portrayed fairly ever, not even at the hands of other West Virginians. (They’re all correct.) When he got it wrong — and he did — he went back and did it again, when he could. That Waffle House paean came on Bourdain’s second trip to Charleston, the one after his disastrous first visit with the civil war re-enactments and locally inexcusable restaurant choices.
- And amidst all this, he never failed to try and put other people on the come-up. Remember the Bronx episode of Parts Unknown? He had Desus on TV before Vice did, and Das Racist, and a slew of young chefs and restaurant owners along the way.
- There exists a global microeconomy of places Bourdain put on the map. The Lunch Lady in Saigon had to hang an English sign on her stall for tourists looking for the lady who made the soups Bourdain spent half of an episode obsessing over. I couldn’t even go all the way to Durumzade, an un-fancy kebab place in Istanbul on the other side of the damn world, without seeing his face in a photo on the wall, posing with the kind of reluctant look that said it all at once: I kind of hate this, but I also know this will make you, a person whose food I love, more money. After all, we were there because of him, right? He got us there in the first place.
- There were no half-measures for him. Bourdain dove in face-first. Go look at the pain on his face in the episode of No Reservations where he goes to Au Pied Du Cochon in Montreal, where red-toqued chefs try to kill him with a 384 course Norman meal. He looks like a man on the verge of a core breach, but he keeps going because that — all of it — was the experience. He didn’t appreciate vegetarianism or veganism, but after slaughtering an animal for the first time — a horrible experience, in Bourdain’s case — he at least respected it. The experience would have to pass through him in order to pass through to you — even if the toll was obvious, and the morning after nigh unbearable. And usually filmed.
- That passing through might have been his greatest advantage as a writer. His career path was unconventional: Bourdain came out of a kitchen into writing, and then from there into television. Along the way, he changed. He started off as a Hunter S. Thompson-quoting dude who might have tried a little too hard to show you his cigarette, the scotch in his hand, and his punk rock roots, all maybe compensating a little too much for a childhood that included trips to France to eat at La Pyramide, and an education that took him to Vassar. He ended up somewhere else completely: As a truly conscientious traveler, as one of the only men to really publicly examine his role in encouraging terrible behavior in the restaurant industry, as someone who began to understand that the truths of his stories were at best partial and happily highlighted the fakery of storytelling while still trying to expand its possibilities. To believe in it, and in the end tell a story that was human, and at its best, humane.
- He was a medium, and all gifted mediums have a generosity to them: That they not only channel something in their words, but over time take dictation and provide timely edits. Don’t tell anyone that it’s magic, and requires a temple. Anthony Bourdain became one of those in the cheap, easily accessible alleys of basic cable, one under-budgeted, cheapass SD video episode of No Reservations at a time. It started late for him, and took forever, and when he was done there was less of him in the show, and yet more of what he loved, all put into the words and images others might know, but either did not have the platform for, or could not articulate themselves.
- Anthony Bourdain didn’t make Waffle House a place “where everything is beautiful, and nothing hurts.” He told you what you already felt, in better, more gorgeous, and simpler words than any you could summon. My heart hurts today for the loss of someone who could recognize the ragged, gorgeous divinity of a Waffle House at three a.m., and make it more luminous while telling not one single lie.
- That’s the real and miraculous here. There are people who can see the world in all its poverty and sorrow. But there are so few who recognize themselves in it and of it, and fewer still who invite it in to sit down, to eat, and to have a few minutes of peace and appreciation at the eternal, drunken forgiving present of a dinner table. Anthony Bourdain did — and most generously, tried to show everyone else how to do it, too.
LET’S TALK ABOUT SOMEONE WHO COULD APPRECIATE A WAFFLE HOUSE