Wednesday, October 4, 2023

Wilmington chefs remember Anthony Bourdain

The influence of the chef, author and travel host can be felt in many Wilmington kitchens.

News that Anthony Bourdain had committed suicide is still reverberating through the culinary world. Wilmington chefs who met him only once -- or knew him only from his television shows - reflected on his impact and legacy. (Port City Daily photo | File)
News that Anthony Bourdain had committed suicide is still reverberating through the culinary world. Wilmington chefs, whether they cooked for him, met him only once, or knew him only from his television shows, reflected on his impact and legacy. (Port City Daily photo | File)

WILMNGTON—Whether they cooked for him or grew up watching him on TV, Wilmington’s culinary community took the apparent suicide of Anthony Bourdain hard.

Chef Keith Rhodes, Catch

Wilmington Chef Keith Rhodes talked about Anthony Bourdain's television shows, his influence and his legacy. (Port City Daily photo | Courtesy Keith Rhodes)
Wilmington Chef Keith Rhodes talked about Anthony Bourdain’s television shows, his influence and his legacy. (Port City Daily photo | Courtesy Keith Rhodes)

Chef Keith Rhodes, owner and chef of Wilmington’s Catch restaurant, reflected on Bourdain’s impact on cooks in particular, and on American culture in general.

“From him coming up, especially for a person like me who started from the bottom, I think he just really resonated with a lot of professional cooks and people in hospitality,” Rhodes said. “How awesome was it for him to evolve from a line cook to a food host – with integrity – so I think people kind of respected that.”

“As a nation, he opened our eyes to a lot of things – it was just awesome. With culture and history changing, especially when it comes to today, I mean, what’s going on today, his medium was a really great historical document for us to be able to reflect on food culture throughout the world,” Rhodes said. “Those documents are going to live on forever, and keep educating and inspiring people.”

Rhodes said he also got to see another side of Bourdain – the firebrand chef with a serious “beef” with the industry he had worked in.

“I had the opportunity to meet him several times at some symposiums he hosted – him and Eric Ripert – and he was a little bit different. Meeting him, as opposed to the television personality that we all know. For me, I got to know him from the shows, like ‘No Reservations’ and all that,” Rhodes said.

Bourdain could be cantankerous, even outright hostile, and didn’t pull punches. To Rhodes, that was just another part of him.

“I will tell you, he is no Andrew Zimmerman, not personality-wise or anything like that. When I met him, he was really cocky and arrogant. When I heard him talk, it was a little bit of an industry beat-down, and I was like, ‘I don’t care about that, tell me about what you ate in Turkey, what was the stimuli that got you motivated in Thailand, and all that.’ That was the money side of it, the industry side. But that doesn’t take away from what he was, or the awesome work he did. It was just another side of him, another aspect of who he was that we got to see. It doesn’t take anything away from the reverence I have for him and what he did.”

Rhodes said Bourdain’s death hit hard, especially as the food host seemed to be increasingly reaching for political relevance.

“That’s part of what we lost. His shows had gotten increasingly political – I mean, how many times can you rewrite ‘Top Chef,’ you gotta do something different. You know what I mean? And what he was doing, it was awesome,” Rhodes said.

Beyond being a chef, Rhodes remembered just being a fan of the shows.

“I’ve been a little landlocked, I can’t travel like I used to when I was young. So, you could travel with him and escape with him. You could see what was going on in Schezhuan province. What are they eating in Northern China? That was really cool – I think he inspired a lot of folks. I think it was awesome, he was an awesome dude,” Rhodes said.

So, what would Rhodes cook in Bourdain’s honor?

“Coq au vin. Yeah man, it has to be like a coq au vin. I’ve got his cookbooks and all that. You know his base was strong French cooking,” Rhodes said. “(This week) we’re gonna make a country pate. Because it’s simple, and it’s good, he’d like that – so yeah, you can come by the restaurant (this week) and get that.”

Chef Micah Edelstein, Rolled and Baked

You don’t have to ask Chef Micah Edelstein what she would cook for Bourdain, she’s already done it.

Edelstein, who’s Wilmington restaurant Rolled and Baked is set to open this month, got to – or had to, depending on how you see it – cook for Bourdain back in 2007, on the third season of Bravo’s “Top Chef.”

Edelstein remembers Bourdain as physically imposing, but not intimidating.

“He made me feel small in stature because he was so bloody tall, but not small as a chef,” she said.”

Edelstein faced the challenge of coming up with a meal that Bourdain had not already tried in his extensive travels.

“I had to cook him an exotic surf and turf,” Edelstein recalled. “But I wondered how do you cook exotic for a man who travels the world eating everything? So, I made him monkfish liver pate and kangaroo carpaccio because, I figured, he had never had that before.”

Bourdain had not had the dish before, a rarity in his career.

Chef Brian Di Giorgi, Crust

Wilmington chef Brian Di Giorgi (third from right) after cooking dinner for Anthony Bourdain's wrap party for 'No Reservations.' (Port City Daily photo | Courtesy Brian Di Giorgi)
Wilmington chef Brian Di Giorgi (third from right) after cooking dinner for Anthony Bourdain’s wrap party for ‘No Reservations.’ (Port City Daily photo | Courtesy Brian Di Giorgi)

Chef Brian Di Giorgi is preparing to open his new restaurant Crust this June in downtown Wilmington, but he spent his formative years in New York City kitchens. Like many New York cooks, Di Giorgi worked in Bourdain’s long culinary shadow.

But when Di Giorgi got to meet Bourdain, after cooking for the wrap party of the Travel Channel’s “No Reservations,” he said the chef was nothing but humble and engaging.

When Di Giorgi heard the news that Bourdain had committed suicide, he was working a catering gig on a deep sea fishing boat. A friend called him.

“The first thing I heard is, ‘what the (expletive)? Bourdain killed himself?” (My friend) and I had come up in the culinary world of NYC, so needless to say this man was our hero. I hung up the phone and tried to continue cooking in a small galley on the boat with the fakest (expletive) smile I have ever mustered. The few moments I had for myself I stood and cried on the side of the boat.”

When Di Giorgi made it ashore, he caught up with former co-workers to commiserate.

“We kitchen kids and (Front of House) peeps lost our biggest champion,” Di Giorgi said. “The quote of his that always gets me is, ‘In America, the professional kitchen is the last refuge of the misfit. It’s a place for people with bad pasts to find a new family.’ He made it feel like it was okay to be us.”

Bourdain was the line cook’s chef, Di Giorgi said. Capable of cooking and appreciating haute cuisine, Bourdain was also “down for a cheap beer and street food, anytime, anyplace.”

“He was no tweezer chef, he was a punk rock chef. If it tasted good it didn’t matter if it was all brown type of guy,” Di Giorgi said.

Di Giorgi said he’s planning a grilled cheese sandwich on Crust’s menu in Bourdain’s honor; it’s that spirit Di Giorgi hopes to capture: a chef who could execute high-end French dishes and then, after work, binge on hotdogs and PBR.

Di Giorgi also reflected on Bourdain’s increasingly political and socio-cultural awareness.

“A staunch fighter for immigration reform and the importance of the Latino workforce in our industry. A man who stepped back and had the courage and humility to admit that maybe he and our industry was terrible and at times downright detrimental to the progression of women in our field,” Di Giorgi said.

In part, because the professional kitchen is a refuge for so-called “misfits,” it’s not uncommon to find people there struggling with mental health, addiction, and other issues. While Di Giorgi said he and many others in the industry were devastated by Bourdain’s suicide, he hoped it would inspire cooks, servers, bartenders, and others to reach out to each other.

“He had everything. I have ever wanted. And it still wasn’t enough. External luxuries and fame and all the friends in the world cannot take you in any capacity away from the deepest, darkest corners of your mind. Chefs, call your buddy tonight that used to work for you. Call your old dishwasher. Bussers, call your chef. People, call your people. Nothing is forever. Take the time to reach out,” Di Giorgi said.

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline provides 24/7, free and confidential support for people in distress, prevention and crisis resources for you or your loved ones, and best practices for professionals. Call 1-800-273-8255 or click here to chat online.

Send comments and tips to Benjamin Schachtman at, @pcdben on Twitter, and (910) 538-2001.

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