Remembering Anthony Bourdain and his rocky relationship with Baltimore

Anthony Bourdain, the writer, chef and TV personality who died Friday, first encountered Baltimore during the fall of 1983.

He was an outsider charged with leading Gianni’s Italian restaurant in the brand new Harborplace. The previous chef had split, and Tony, as he was called, came in with expectations as high as the New York skyscrapers he had just left, according to Nancy Longo, who worked with him briefly during the time.

Longo, then 21, was a culinary student excited to land a job as a line cook at Gianni’s. But she didn’t stay long — the kitchen was the untamed free-for-all Bourdain would later refer to as “Gino’s” in his memoir, “Kitchen Confidential.”

Longo said the Bourdain she remembers was a perfectionist — different from the man who would charm television audiences almost 20 years later, first as the host of the Travel Channel’sNo Reservations” and later on CNN’s “Parts Unknown.”

“He was very intimidating, throwing plates around, screaming — not all day, just during service.” she said. “It was pretty clear he cared about his craft and was fighting a lot of demons at the time.”

Indeed, Bourdain admitted inKitchen Confidential,” released in 2000, that his time in Baltimore was riddled with drugs and debauchery — both in the kitchen and at the house where he stayed with other employees in Otterbein.

Bourdain didn’t stay long, either, later writing that he couldn’t find good drugs in Baltimore. His impression of the city remained soured by the experience, said Nathan Stambaugh who considers himself a close acquaintance of Bourdain.

Stambaugh, a Monkton resident who works in the beef industry, met the chef in 2010 at a pool party in Miami. The pair spent half an hour talking about life and business. They would continue to catch up at food and wine festivals around the country.

“I had always heard that he didn’t like Baltimore, so I asked him about it,” said Stambaugh, who grew up in the Baltimore area.

Stambaugh said that Bourdain told him traveling and television had changed his perspective.

“He said ‘I look at things a lot different now than when I worked there.’ ” Stambaugh said. “ ‘Baltimore has some of the nicest people I ever met and the realest people I ever met.’ ”

Stambaugh said he was shocked when he heard the news of Bourdain’s passing. He described Bourdain’s personality as “fiercely loyal” and “very raw” but said whatever may have been haunting him never came to the surface.

“I can’t say I saw the ups and downs,” Stambaugh said. “He was always very upbeat.”

There’s a reccuring theme among the Baltimore-area chefs reflecting on Bourdain’s passing: The restaurant industry is a cruel world in need of repair.

“Maybe this is going to open up the gates to help a lot of other people,” said Cyrus Keefer, the chef de cuisine at Cunningham’s in Towson.

Keefer said he was inspired when Bourdain visited his Philadelphia culinary school in the early 2000s.

The hospitality industry is often powered by people who are depressed, overworked and who spend little time with family or friends, Keefer said.

Substance abuse is common, said Longo, who is approaching 30 years as the chef and owner of Pierpoint in Fells Point. She was happy to see Bourdain back on his feet and enjoyed watching his show.

“He looked healthier, he looked at peace, he looked like he was doing what he wanted to do — talk to people about food from all over the world.”

During his show “No Reservations,” Bourdain returned to Baltimore, again causing friction when he highlighted pit beef and lake trout as opposed to other Baltimore specialties, like crab cakes.

When he spoke at the Hippodrome in 2010 and 2012, he defended his portrayal of Baltimore as the essence of his program: forgoing flashy dishes in favor of hidden staples.

“I'm sorry some of you didn't like it. Yes, it wasn't fair. Yes, it wasn't a good representation. Yeah, all of those things are true, but you know, I had a really great time, and I'd do it again,” he said at the time.

On Twitter, author and Baltimorean Laura Lippman reminisced about Bourdain’s candor and charm.

Bourdain wrote for “Treme,” the HBO series developed by Lippman’s husband, David Simon, creator of “The Wire.”

In an email to The Baltimore Sun, Lippman said that she didn't have much to add to her tweets since she "knew [Bourdain] so slightly." Simon initially expressed his grief in a blog post.

“I am trying to find words for my friend,” he wrote. “I will post something here later if they ever come. For now, just know how much Tony Bourdain — for all his wit and sharp edges, for all his grandiose and larger-than-life persona — was a genuinely good man and careful colleague. And that doesn’t begin to express how empty the world feels this morning.”

In another blog post, titled “Tony,” Simon later detailed his friendship with Bourdain, from the first time he binge-watched Bourdain’s show “No Reservations” and got the urge to meet him, to his first dinner meeting with the chef, in which Simon unknowingly poured sake into his soy sauce cup. Bourdain said nothing, but later joked that he was “a complete barbarian,” and that had the chef come to the table, he would have had to disavow all of Simon’s works publicly.

“He was always that funny – either dry in his rhetorical savagery, or over-the-top hyperbolic in his foaming rage at vegetarians or micro-beer experts or elitist social or political orders,” wrote Simon, who also praised Bourdain’s intelligence and curiosity.

During his Hippodrome appearance in 2012, Bourdain credited Simon for his view of Baltimore.

"I love Baltimore. I don't love it for the reasons you want me to love Baltimore. I happen to love Baltimore because David Simon taught me to love Baltimore," Bourdain said on stage.

On Twitter, other Baltimore residents expressed sadness and gratitude for the man who learned to love their city.

amuckerman@baltsun.com

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