By Matt Pitarresi of Rise Sports
Buffalo’s “Seedy Underbelly” Celebrates The Late Anthony Bourdain
Anthony Bourdain was everyone’s outsider. At once a classically trained chef, deviant, profoundly insightful writer, and travel documentarian, Bourdain used food to bring both the beauty and issues of the world into our homes, all while suffering from addiction. The reluctant poster boy for an entire subculture of cooks and service industry workers, Bourdain “was a symphony”, in the words of friend and fellow chef Adam Zimmern. When he took his own life on June 8 at age 61 while on location in France for his iconic travel show No Reservations, Bourdain brought us together one last time in a way that only he could.
Whether you had the privilege to know him or just lived vicariously through his work, Bourdain’s uncompromising joie de vivre for food, life, and truth fostered a connections with, well, all of us really that felt impossibly personal. For me, whose first (and favorite) job was in a kitchen, the delinquency, camaraderie, and self-discovery of Kitchen Confidential was, without exaggeration, life changing. I am far from alone.
On Monday, the Buffalo culinary community, spearheaded by Jill Gedra of Lait Cru on Connecticut St., along with fans and foodies, gathered at Kleinhans to celebrate Bourdain’s birthday and life the only way that would’ve made sense to him: eat, drink, and connect with your fellow human being. That sense of personal connection to the late chef was thick as greibenshmalz. It didn’t matter if you were a chef, restaurant industry lifer, or merely a “civilian”, as he not so lovingly referred, in his best-selling Kitchen Confidential, to the guests that dined outside the kitchens where he felt most at home. Everyone in the room felt a connection with Bourdain, and were eager, as they wolfed down their polenta and pork belly, to share their Bourdain story.
For Dave and Nikki, a couple from North Buffalo, Bourdain’s status as cultural ambassador was unrivaled. His travels not only inspired holiday gifts, like the year Nikki bought everyone in her family a porron after watching Bourdain party like a Spaniard in Barcelona, but also broke down familial culinary boundaries; Dave keeps horse meat (not just for Dothraki!) in his freezer and has made it a staple at family barbecues.
That theme of breaking taboo, of pushing people just past the edges of their comfort zone in search of deeper understanding and connection, is one that Casa Azul’s Zina Lapi took to heart. After culinary school and previous stints in Miami and Providence, Lapi has approached her homecoming at Casa Azul in this way. With “little hints of accessible culture” thoughtfully layered into the menu at Casa Azul, she hopes to push Buffalonians just bit beyond their notion of Mexican food and culture. For the event, it was Ceviche Acapulco with worm salt. Based on the lines waiting to give it a try, it seems a lesson well learned.
For Lloyd/Churn chef Pete Cimino, Bourdain’s lasting impact was that great food does not require pretention. Particularly in a city like Buffalo, blue collar through and through, keeping food approachable yet fun makes sense. Mix in a bit of nostalgia, be that through regional and cultural ingredients, or even with aesthetic, and you’ve got a…wait for it…recipe for success.
Bourdain’s legacy (yes, with a guy like him it seems wholly appropriate to use that word) also extends beyond the food. A big part of the reason Kitchen Confidential flew off shelves, and earned Bourdain free meals all over world, was the voice and validation it gave to an entire subculture of kitchen workers. As part of that “seedy underbelly,” Jim Guarino, chef and owner of Shango, feels it legitimized the profession.
“It gave a voice to those in the industry” he tells me, as he fries up another batch of pork belly for the tacos he serving. In his 13 years at Shango, he’s worked with people from all over; from local kids to Burmese and Congolese refugees. The beauty of the kitchen, he says, is that race, creed, or sexual orientation matters not at all. Work hard, be a good teammate, and you’ll be rewarded. It’s a big part of why Bourdain felt so at home in that element.
The vibe of Monday’s event was overwhelmingly celebratory; it would’ve been impossible not to be when honoring a man with such a sincere lust for life and people. Buffalo’s chefs rose to the occasion with some truly spectacular dishes, local bands provided a lively soundtrack, and drinks flowed freely. Yet, reminders of why we gathered in the first place abound. All the proceeds from the event were donated to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, and local organizations Compeer Buffalo and Crisis Services were on hand to discuss services related to good mental health. As the event wound down, I posted up at a table with Mark, who was attending with some restaurant friends. New(ish) to Buffalo but not Bourdain or the service industry, Mark provided a fitting human component to the awareness. “I’d say if I was splitting things into thirds”, he notes, “the first third of why I’m here is the awareness and mental health aspect.”
The combination of celebration and awareness felt perfectly appropriate in honoring a man whose life was never defined by any single one of the many paths he walked. It captured the soul of a chef, a writer, a bon vivant, and in doing so brought us together in that signature Bourdain style one last time.