If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, call the The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, (800) 273-8255 (TALK) 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, or text TALK to 741741.
Anthony Bourdain wanted to know whose name he should write in the book.
“Can you make it ‘To Matthew’?” I asked. “Our son. He’s six months old.”
The popular chef, author and television show host looked up at me from the table outside the main stage at McCarter Theatre, where he had spent an hour telling stories about his career in cooking and travel, followed by a fun Q & A. Afterward, if you wanted, you could meet Bourdain, have him sign something. It was Oct. 24, 2011 and my wife’s and my first grown-ups’ night out since our son had been born.
The look on his face was hard to describe. Maybe it was the face you make when you’re thinking, you want me to inscribe this to a baby?
“I don’t know — ask him to make us all the recipes in the book,” I said.
So with that look still on his face, he did as I asked, more or less. “TO MATTHEW please make your parents some of recipes,” reads our copy of Anthony Bourdain’s Les Halles Cookbook, now and forever.
He stood. He was holding a bottle of beer. We were last in line. “I just want to say how much we love your show and your books,” my wife, Amy, told him. “We’ve seen almost every one, some of them several times.” She told a brief story about one episode that she had particularly enjoyed.
“That’s really great, thank you,” he said. “Thanks for coming, I hope you had a good time.” He looked at me.
While we had waited to meet him, I had been thinking of how this would go. After all, once he was done with us, he was finished for the night. Maybe he would ask us where a good place was to hang out and have a beer. Maybe I should ask him if he wanted to join us for a beer. These were the thoughts that I’d had.
“Well, bye,” I said, although I think it came out garbled. “Thanks!”
I’m not usually one to get starstruck. I don’t interview a lot of celebrities, but I’ve met enough that I should be fully in control should I find myself in a room with one. Some are aloof, but many are happy to talk, to unwind. They enjoy being treated like normal people.
On this occasion, however, I sort of lost my mind. Later when I heard where someone had taken him afterward — I don’t remember where — I felt a stab of regret. I could have done better! Although who really wanted the pressure of taking Tony Bourdain somewhere to eat or drink? When we had watched him on television eating and drinking in some of the coolest places in the world?
Driving to work on June 8, I got a news alert on my phone. I only saw “Anthony Bourdain” before the screen went dark again, but I knew a news alert regarding Anthony Bourdain wouldn’t be about a particularly good episode of his CNN show, Parts Unknown, or a sick burn he’d laid on someone on Twitter. Once I reached the office I learned what most of the world now knows, that he had died by suicide, gone at the age of 61.
It took me the better part of a week to really process. Then a day came where I heard myself telling someone in a conversation that if I thought about it, I would probably conclude that Anthony Bourdain had been one of the most influential people in my life.
* * * * *
Bourdain was a guest on Marc Maron’s popular WTF podcast back in 2011, the year my wife and I saw him on stage. At that point he was traveling for a living, making 15 or 20 episodes a year of his Emmy-winning show on the Travel Channel, Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations. He would leave Travel Channel for CNN at the end of 2012.
He told Maron then that out of everything he did — the bestselling memoirs, the magazine articles, the TV shows — the thing that put the most money in his pocket were those live performances. He was famous more than he was rich; hosting a cable TV show isn’t as lucrative as it sounds, or at least, it wasn’t at the time.
He never seemed to take his celebrity for granted. “I’m still thinking a deep-fryer awaits at any moment,” he told Maron. “I’m feeling pretty lucky and like it could all evaporate at any minute.”
Quite simply, Anthony Bourdain showed me a different way of looking at the world. He would have done anything rather than to be the Ugly American abroad. I didn’t know Bourdain, only the person he portrayed himself to be on TV. But that person was remarkably empathetic, socially conscious and accepting, always striving to see the world as much as possible the way the world saw itself.
Because of him, I learned about Ghana and Colombia and Laos, Mongolia and Panama and the northern reaches of Quebec, China and India and Beirut and Haiti. Places that no one on TV had ever bothered to take me, and here he was just a middling, burned-out chef from Jersey. He used food to try to understand.
More than anyone else, he got me to see the world without imagining the U.S.A. as the center of it. He sought to overcome stereotypes and bust myths. He was at his best when he was among the common people. The respect he showed for their culture and traditions was enormously powerful. His visit to Haiti a year after the 2011 earthquake was possibly the most haunting and affecting hour of TV I have ever seen.
When he was first on TV, he was prone to go on rants about vegetarians or about any opinion or lifestyle choice, really. That tendency lessened over the years. He saw so much poverty and injustice on his travels, met so many people who had lived lives so profoundly different from his own. We watched him change as a person over the years, and as fans, we also felt it as those changes changed us. That is the best way that I can put it right now.
* * * * *
Bourdain visited Vietnam for all three of his shows, including A Cook’s Tour, which originally aired on the Food Network back in 2000. On No Reservations, he called Vietnam “mysterious. It’s beautiful. It’s unknowable. It’s one of my favorite places on earth.”
When I think of Bourdain, I think of him sitting on a street in Vietnam eating pho (“fuh”), a dish of rice noodles in beef broth, usually with meat and herbs. “A good bowl of pho will always make me happy,” he said on the show, “take me to that special place where everything is beautiful and nothing hurts.”
So to honor him in my own way, I went to the only Vietnamese restaurant in the area, Pho Friendly across the street from Fuld Medical Center in Trenton, to have my first bowl. Pho Friendly opened in 2016, replacing Pho Tan, which had opened in 2014 in the same location. Which is to say, when Bourdain visited 7 years ago, we did not even have a Vietnamese restaurant in the area. It is a modest, functional little spot, not the only place in the area where you can order pho, but the only one where it is the main feature on the menu.
On my first visit, I ordered pho dac biet ($9.50), an enormous bowl of broth with generous portions of thinly sliced eye round and brisket, plus a sliced beef meatball and beef tendon. Onions, scallions and cilantro leaves floated in the liquid, and a nest of rice noodles lurked at the bottom of the bowl. It came garnished with bean sprouts, Thai basil, jalapeño slices and a lime wedge. Also on the table were chili sauce, chili paste, sriracha, hoisin sauce and soy sauce.
I was excited to personalize my lunch with the garnishes and condiments, but first I wanted to taste it as it came. One sip of the steaming fragrant broth and I was hooked. It exploded with flavor. I detected ginger, coriander seed and a licorice flavor that could have come from star anise or fennel seed. It was salty, clean and light.
I tore the basil leaves off the stems and added them to the pho along with the jalapeños and squirted lime juice into the broth. Thai basil kicks up the licorice factor in addition to infusing the soup with basil flavor. I added a spoonful of oily, spicy chili sauce and spread it around. Later, I would add a second spoonful. Two gave the pho the right amount of spice heat for me.
The idea is to use the spoon and chopsticks to slurp soup along with the noodles. It’s OK, correct even, to be noisy. The brisket was very tender, the eye round a bit chewier but not fatty or gristly at all. The meatball reminded me oddly of bologna. The tendon was fatty and gelatinous, more pleasing perhaps in smaller pieces than the huge chunk that came with mine. I ate all I could and took the rest home. The leftovers filled a 32-ounce container to the top.
On a return visit I opted for pho nam ($8.50), which has brisket as its only meat. I was somewhat surprised to find that the broth had something of a different flavor: less citrusy coriander, more warming spices like maybe clove, allspice and cinnamon. Both were good, although I preferred the flavor of the first bowl. A few of the brisket slices this time were fatty, requiring careful chewing, but they were still tasty. I can take or leave the bean sprouts, personally, but everything else I added in, same as the first time.
It’s easy to see why pho appealed to Bourdain so much. A humble dish made entirely out of inexpensive ingredients that delivers as much flavor as any dish can. The sodium level was definitely off the charts, so those with high blood pressure (like me) might have to pick their spots. But when the occasion is remembering a hero of mine, sacrifices can be made.
Pho Friendly, 729 Brunswick Ave., Trenton. Open Monday-Saturday 11 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. (maybe; call  599-8727 to be absolutely sure). Cash only.