From a larger-than-life Parts Unknown poster above the mantle, Tony stared down at me through thick black Persols. I was struggling to write about having had the best job in the world, more than a decade of eating, drinking, and traveling with Anthony Bourdain. Also, the part about Tony killing himself.
Fresh out of school, I’d got a job logging tapes on Tony’s first show, A Cook’s Tour. Back then, nobody knew who he was. But season after season, the shows, the adventures, the stakes, and Tony’s fame had all grown exponentially.
By the end, we’d filmed with President Obama at a noodle shop in Vietnam and Tony had practically been ordained a saint. He’d inspired people he never met to be curious and expand their world. For me, Tony hadn’t been just a role model—he’d been my life’s work.
Suddenly rudderless, I embarked on a two-year-long downward spiral, solo day drinking while wallowing in a state of pathetic self-pity. I desperately needed to do something. But I couldn’t go back to TV—Tony wouldn’t be there. There had to be another option.
Most people who set out to write a memoir aren’t afforded a recording of the key moments in their lives, but I had countless hours of raw footage from my 80 trips with Tony, which informed my book In the Weeds.
What went on behind the scenes was far more screwed up, magnificent, and absurd than the edited-for-TV version. While the pandemic raged outside, I sat, blinds drawn. My bloodshot eyes glued to the TV, I watched Tony play back in real time.
Memories and emotions I’d been trying to avoid flickered on-screen and into the otherwise darkened room. Tony was complicated, hard to be around, and painful to be away from.
Intellectually stimulating beyond compare, he was also frustrating, difficult, and even terrifying at times. But being pulled along in Tony’s unpredictable wake meant everything in life was heightened. Even colors were brighter. As fall turned to winter, I’d continued far enough down the rabbit hole that it was starting to feel like Tony was in the room with me.
“It’s not all champagne and little feet walking on your back,” Tony complained at a backyard barbecue. The 12-year-old he was talking to responded by crossing her arms.
To be fair, the production enjoyed a generous amount of champagne as well as the occasional ashiatsu massage—among other perks—but working on the show was far from an all-expenses-paid vacation. “You gotta make sacrifices to do this,” Tony said, taking a drag of his cigarette.
Knowing how it all ended up, his words took on new meaning. I’d torched friends, relationships, and most of my 20s and 30s to work alongside Tony.
Then again, it was also one hell of an adrenaline high. Time code reflected off my pupils as I relived getting caught in a sandstorm on my birthday, winning Emmy Awards, and smuggling suitcases full of cash.
“Painful is funny, one of the essential rules of comedy,” Tony said, reclined on a couch. We were supposed to be filming a mock therapy scene, but, to my surprise, Tony was genuinely opening up. “The shit that really hurts, your greatest humiliations, they’re funny, you know?”
“If you can’t laugh,” Tony used to say, “there’s nothing left to do but cry.”
Tom Vitale’s In the Weeds: Around the World and Behind the Scenes with Anthony Bourdain is out now from Hachette Books