“Fucking raw fish,” I remember you saying that in response to my question, shaking your head in bemusement hundreds of feet away atop a stage next to Andrew. I could barely make out your features but to a young college student who so badly wanted to be in the food industry, and used food to separate himself from the ill-fitting suit-wearing, resume-wringing rabble of the Accounting world, you seemed too…crass. Your answers were irreverent and simple, lacking the wordy intellect of Alton Brown or the endearing affability of Andrew Zimmern. I had watched a few episodes of “No Reservations” years ago after stumbling on them as I flipped through channels on rainy Philippine nights. Mostly in passing, and never (de)volving into binging. I had also read “Kitchen Confidential” after buying the book on discount at some corner shop in college and apart from a few stories (both Tyrone the Broiler Man and the Coliseum of Seafood Blanquette come to mind) and tips (no Seafood on Mondays, no Hollandaise at Brunch) I don’t remember much. I suppose I bought that book mostly in passing as well, never having gotten lost in the depths it contained. You just didn’t jive with my idea of a lover of food; you and your torn jeans, raw attitude, and rawer confessions like wanting simple, borderline criminal (read: dirty water hotdog) food when you ate at home. Suffice it to say this post won’t be about what your shows or books meant to me seeing as I barely even knew you. Instead, this is about that singular answer you had given to a question I still grapple with today.
Truth be told, I wasn’t really expecting a deep answer from you when I asked my query in a shaky voice that cracked amidst a sea of adoring fans in that cavernous theater in Minnesota. The space seemed more fitting for a smartly dressed Opera Chorus than two traveling diners who spent more time on TV in loose shirts and dust-covered jeans than suits.
“You are fortunate enough to travel and try these exotic dishes and ingredients that are in fact, not that exotic at all to the local population. I wish I could too or at least get friends to try as many new things as they can here in Minnesota. What then is your advice for how I can get picky eaters to try something new right here and now?” I stood alone in that aisle (the “Minnesota Nice” probably preventing the audience from mobbing the mics), palms starting to sweat as you both thought for a moment.
Zimmern – who I once had the pleasure of glimpsing in this office after recording a voice over for a Philippine episode of Bizarre Foods – extolled the virtues of travel, waxing poetic about the exquisite flavors of some animal in some farflung locale who’s fried skin and belly put the run-of-the-mill pork belly to shame. It was the type of answer I expected and loved: eloquent, noble, peppered with ingredients most people haven’t heard of, and highlighting the need to travel. It was an answer that spoke of a love of ingredients, pure and mouthwatering without too much of the complexity of humans getting in the way. Yours on the other hand, was anything but:
“It all comes down to Peer Pressure and making it sound sexy. I mean…who knew that us Americans would ever end up going crazy over Sushi? I mean, it’s raw fish on rice for crying out loud. Fucking raw fish!“
Wait…that’s it? Peer Pressure? All I’d have to do is find some popular kids, wrap my thoughts in flashy packaging, and…that’s it? I have to say I was a bit confused. Our answer to expanding boundaries, tearing down walls, and getting picky eaters to at least try the kimchi/natto/[insert “ethnic” food here] was to goad them into it? It didn’t sound right to me considering the fickleness of human tastes and irrationality of our emotions. It took me many years to find the depth and complexity of your answer and to realize that one can’t really move people with food without considering the…you know…people. That breaking boundaries didn’t just involve building bridges between people but having those first brave souls cajole the rest into seeing that the other side isn’t so dangerous at all. In fact, it’s often delicious!
My first forays into cooking, writing, and speaking food as a language were cerebral: I read scholarly articles, approached menus as a theoretical exercise by cramming as many ingredients that seemed to make sense together on the same plate, and listed out facts as to why pasture-raised is categorically better than conventional. Needless to say it hardly worked and I still remember the disastrous dinner where a salad with an ingredient list longer than a McDonald’s Chicken Nugget delayed our main course by almost an hour. Looking back, what did work weren’t the dozens of articles I had clipped and annotated, ready at a moment’s notice to argue for our need to cook. What did work was talking about my love for ingredients that brought tears to a diner’s eyes, the stories we weaved behind a menu that cause another to proclaim that we’ve helped “decolonize his palate”, it was talking not just of the food I tasted on my travels but the very thing you also sought to cover in yours: the People. The People in all our messy, irrational, hopeful, crazed glory. Peer Pressure it seems, is far harder to accomplish than I thought, requiring hearts to be broken open without the safety of facts and figures. I wonder if that’s why you left.
When I heard you had gone to cleaner kitchens, it was through an Instagram message late at night. I was of course shocked, the death of a singular person we somewhat know far more visceral than the unnamed thousands that suffer in the lands you’ve seen. Still, it didn’t really hit me until the ticket to that distant talk fell out of my box of collected restaurant business cards. I remember feeling a strong grip around my chest and tears welling up for someone I barely knew. I remember not a sadness of loss for myself or even for those you’ve left behind, but a fear of what we stand to lose without your voice amongst us. I remembered wondering not why it happened but whether it could happen again: if someone so loved and adored by many could move on like you did, would all the love in the world still be insufficient to save us from ourselves?
As days passed I began to wonder what it was you saw and thought over these years as you left a piece of yourself all over the world just as the world left its flavors within you. I wondered whether, upon seeing the struggles and joys of so many, the world began to feel more absurd in its fascination with the nonsensical; warring tribes who cared more about their Geode Cakes and #foodporn-friendly Shakes. I wondered whether you saw what it took to heal a divided world and despaired at how far we have yet to go. I wondered whether you found your accolades hollow, preferring the hug of a kitchen table conversation, the kiss of that third bottle of wine, the rawness of a meal without pretense nor presentation.
Perhaps none of these thoughts ever entered your mind. I’m well aware that the little I know of you forces me to confront them in the presence of your absence. And yet I find myself not asking “Why?” you had left than “What?” you had left behind: a world continuing to tear itself at its seams or one just groaning through growing pains as borders become increasingly archaic things? None of it makes much sense to me and I never had another chance since that night to ask you for the wisdom you shared so generously with your peers and followers, Instagram littered with mini-eulogies in your wake. I still believe Food can solve the World’s Problems and that it underpins our relationships to ourselves and each other, though the “how” is still a mystery to me.
The other day, after being poked fun at for my supposedly risky habit of eating things dated far beyond their “Sell By” date, I instinctively responded with a quote of yours that’s become my go-to retort for all things questionably gustatory: “My Body is not a Temple, it’s an Amusement Park”. It was a lot more bittersweet saying it this time. I imagined you on a rollercoaster, a Pastrami sandwich in hand, hurling obscenities and laughing all the way through. I’ll miss you Tony. May we all find the courage to ride this ride all the way through. Together.