A few days before Christmas 2016, former MUNCHIES Editor-in-Chief Helen Hollyman and I shared the experience of interviewing Anthony Bourdain at Bemelmans Bar here in New York City. We recorded for nearly four hours, then rushed to pare that tape down into a 30-minute podcast which would air as our holiday special. It was just extraordinary—not only were we able to sit down with a hero of ours, but he provided us the kind of content I dream about as a producer. Helen asked all the right questions, and Tony was remarkably candid and generous, much more so than I’d been anticipating. Basically overnight, it became our most-listened-to episode.
When I heard the devastating news of his death last Friday, my impulse was to go back to that tape. I suppose I was looking for a bit of solace, wanting to cement some of my own best memories. Ultimately, I rediscovered something I’d like to share:
Bemelmans is a small piano bar nestled within the Upper East Side’s rich-and-famous Carlyle Hotel. On a weekday at 2 PM, we’re the only guests, and it’s perfectly quiet for recording. A red-jacketed barman and white-jacketed server are waiting for us to want something.
It’s certainly possible that Bemelmans does, in fact, make any and all variety of cocktails. But for Anthony Bourdain, a gin Martini was protocol here. Tony called his with Bombay Sapphire—that blue jewel of the not-so-distant past—and an extra olive. One of my favorite moments in the interview is when he explains, “I’m not ordinarily a martini drinker. A martini is a bad lifestyle choice; it's not my drink of choice. But this is the sort of place that demands a martini. They make a very good one, a very large one, and I plan on a long nap after this, so there’s little chance of bad decision-making.”
To hear Tony tell it, Bemelmans is a place where you could disappear, if only briefly. Whatever scheme you were prepared to hatch, whatever careful conversation you wanted to whisper, whatever reality you needed to escape—this remnant of old New York could be your harbor. “I don’t really know who comes here,” he said. “And I don’t want to know, because it’s the opposite of see-and-be-seen. And you know that bartender can keep a secret.” And so it remains: discreet, sepia-toned, perfectly Bourdanian. He assured us that this was not a bar where he’d regularly hang out, but there was no question he loved being here as he allowed himself to sink deeply into the bolstered leather banquette.
One of the many things to celebrate about the Martini service at Bemelmans is that your cocktail comes paired with a sidecar, which takes the form of a small carafe on ice—an extra serving that waits at your leisure. So one martini becomes two and, in our case, three became six. You can listen for that moment when our last round hits the table, when Helen’s questions shift from the general to things more personal.
One of Bourdain’s greatest strengths as a storyteller has always been his ability to locate beauty in those most unexpected places, activating and elevating the lost and the hidden through language. And we find that here, as Tony waxes poetic about many of the things in life he cherished. Being the holidays, that most self-reflective time of the year, he offered some advice as we were parting ways. It felt significant then, and it’s heartbreakingly prescient now. I certainly don’t expect you to listen to the entire podcast, but please do read these words he left us with that day, and consider carrying them in your heart:
Look, as dim a view as I have of the future right now, and it's pretty goddamn grim…
And it's not just exclusively an American problem, we're seeing the rise of authoritarianism and strongman leaders everywhere…
Don't be a hashtag activist.
Change is going to take some fucking time.
Dig in for the long haul.
Spend some time with the enemy.
Walk around in some other people’s shoes.
Try to get your priorities reasonable.
A little love.
Some good pasta.
Nice spicy noodles.