My story with Anthony Bourdain actually started almost two decades ago.
I, like millions of others, bought the book and fell in love with it and him. I was a bartender in the French Quarter who dreamed of being one of the many chefs I served but it wasn’t in the cards for me. So, I lapped up all the tales of kitchen antics from their night as I served them drinks. It was a time before chefs and cooks were rock stars and there was still an underbelly of the culinary world. Bourdain reminded me of these guys - not the well-groomed head chef but the motley crew behind him. There they sat, a beer in one hand and cigarette in the other. Burns and tattoos covering their arms and hands. Always clad in a half-opened chef coat and chef pants that had seen better days. The joke used to be, “If you didn’t want to get mugged, walk around in your black & whites.” Cook's clothes was a sure fire sign you didn’t have any money. What money they had quickly passed over the bar to me. They cussed, drank, took any drugs offered and had these bonds with each other that I was eternally jealous of. He let us into their small world and we liked it. We couldn’t get enough of it. Everybody loves a bad boy right?
I followed Bourdain's career over the years. As I had children and stopped going out, I got pulled into watching his shows. I became one of those tired Moms that sought the escape of watching him do the things you wish you had done. Strangely enough, Bourdain without knowing it would have a huge effect on my life very soon.
"I got robbed in a Winn-Dixie parking lot at 9 am with my kids in tow."
It was August in Louisiana and I was over nine months pregnant with my third girl. Along with dealing with the side effects of living in a permanent sauna while creating another human life, I had two other children to care for. I was covered in a rash from my neck to my now non-visible toes, I was in a terrible marriage with no co-parent to be had, I was living in a city that was not very forgiving and especially hard to live in with three kids and a strict budget. I had become a hermit, only venturing out into the cruel humidity to retrieve supplies to keep us alive. Even this I re-considered doing when I got robbed in a Winn-Dixie parking lot at 9 am with my kids in tow. It was all too much and I didn’t know what to do. I felt trapped. Literally, I felt like a beached whale that an occasional wave splashing on me was keeping me alive.
After a long, torturous, wait, the baby was evicted from my womb and given the harsh reality what the outside world has to offer. I get it, I would have hung on for dear life too in order to stay in that warm cozy place. After all the boxes were checked and toes counted we were home. Exhausted and frustrated I flopped on the couch to escape my life for a minute. I had gotten my tiny hooligans and husband to bed. I sat there with this tiny thing attached to my chest as the sounds of drunken snoring came from one room and little girl's giggles came from the other. Then it all hit me. What was I doing? I can’t do this much longer. I have to change something for me and my children. How do I get out though? I have three children. One of which is still in grub worm stage. I lean back and turn on the T.V. As luck would have it, "No Reservations" was on. I casually watched until I heard it - the fiddle. I knew that sound. "He’s in Cajun country!" I had been away from home for awhile so I didn’t recognize the individuals but I recognized my people and my culture. It hit me like a ton of bricks. This is it. I need to go home. I can’t explain the feeling but I just knew in my gut if I could just get back home it would be okay. The next day I announced I wanted to move out of New Orleans and it was an easy sell to my ex-husband. Lafayette had better schools, a cheaper cost of living, low crime and with him still working in New Orleans, the promise of even more time to spend in the bar and away from the family. He was all in.
We found the perfect house in the perfect neighborhood in a great school district. It was all falling into place. And it has been great. Over the years I lost the husband, kept the house, started a new career and found myself. I didn’t realize how much of myself I had lost until I found her again. There she was, hiding in a corner just waiting for me to go home where she felt safe again.
Anthony Bourdain gave me back to me. He got me home and in turn, gave my children better lives. He got me to start the painful and scary process of ending a toxic relationship and believing in myself again. I did the legwork to get here but he inspired the bravery to do it. I wish I had thanked him for that, the day I met him but there never seemed to be a chance. I would never know 7 years ago that the mom overwhelmed with the feeling of hopelessness would one-day sit across from the man that inspired her to make a choice that would change her entire life for the better. Thank you.
The Night I Fed Anthony Bourdain In A Mud Pit
I had planned on writing a post about my appearance on “Parts Unknown." It was to be a funny and quirky write-up. I had planned on writing about how he was exactly as I expected. He was a little grumpy with an incredibly quick sarcastic wit - throwing out quotes that flew right over my head. But after June 8th, that plan changed.
"It takes a kind soul to not succumb to his emotions and make sure to not disappoint people expectations"
When he showed up I was in the kitchen looking through the window over the stove. I looked up and there he was like live stream TV. I knew immediately something was wrong. I had this perfect framed window of his emotions rolling out. He was clearly not happy and not the "I woke up on the wrong side of the bed" or "that 10th whiskey was a bad idea grumpy." His entire physical being changed. Strangely enough I knew exactly why. I had had the exact same reaction moments earlier. See, I left my nice comfy and empty kitchen and stepped outside on the porch and there they were hundreds of people, or what seemed like hundreds. I immediately cowered down and retreated into my kitchen hoping I hadn’t been seen. Luckily this was an option for me, even though I had a retreat I started wondering - when are they coming, how many useless conversations will I have to have, how long will I have to wear my true self cloak of invisibility? I knew that look on his face. The dread of what's to come. The desire to run away but you can’t. I saw him straighten himself and mentally prepare himself for this crowd of people he was not expecting. He made the rounds going to each food station and tasting and chit chatting. It takes a kind soul to not succumb to his emotions and make sure to not disappoint people expectations. His crew was another sign of the man he was. They were kind but not fake. Professional but not stuffy. I assumed that they would be judgmental of these people from small-town U.S.A. I was wrong. They truly listened and genuinely cared that you were comfortable and at ease. It let me know that a great man would require that only great people work with him.
All day, I remained in my hobbit hole, just cooking away. I wanted to meet him but nothing in this world other than to save one of my children would have gotten me to go into a tent full of hundreds of people all talking and tromping around in ankle deep mud. Besides, what was I going to say? "Hey, mister famous chef and author man I write a blog, you know, just another quirky middle-aged mom writing about crawfish and craziness. I have read all your books and articles, seen all your shows." I am sure he has never heard that before. Or, let me join in with the other hundred people shoving their products in your face or trying to be witty in order to show you how alike we are or another aspiring chef saying how much you inspired them. I am not trying to be mean here but imagine how much this must happen to him. He once could go have a meal in peace, walk around in a crowd and only be noticed if he nicked someone with his cigarette. Add to that he’s working a rigorous work schedule, not expecting an extra 100 people to be there, and a giant downpour turned this empty field into a giant, uncomfortable mud pit - that's a pretty huge surprise for someone who isn’t really known for being a shiny, happy person. If he possessed any of the same anxiety and neurotic thoughts I have I can't imagine how he did it. I saw his producers rush up and do damage control and whisk him away I just put my head down and did what I do best - hide in the kitchen and cook.
As I chopped and stirred I couldn’t help but think, is he wishing this is what he could be doing? Just puttering around in a country kitchen cooking a simple home cooked meal?
I had been told that I was cooking lunch for him so I wasn’t really expecting to be on T.V. but as the day went on things kept changing. I was never quite sure what was going to happen. Under the belief that I was the lunch lady, I just kept plucking along. Out of nowhere my fiancé runs in and says, "go sit on the porch" and starts pushing me toward the front door. I immediately dig my heels in thinking he’s making me go out there into that insanity. He leans over and says, “Go, I promise you need to go." I walk out and the porch seems empty. Ah... I can breathe again and then I turn to the right and there he is sitting in one of matching rocking chairs - Anthony Bourdain. Just him and I, it was fucking surreal. I make myself awkwardly sit in the empty rocking chair. Of course, I only made quick eye contact and immediately turned my head and stared into the distance. I knew I had to say something. But what? I had already gone through all the things I shouldn’t say, I never considered thinking about what I should say. I spent so much time being a judgmental ass I painted myself in a corner. What did I come up with?
I broke the awkward silence by forcibly shooting my hand out to him and saying way to loud “Hi, I am Jolie. I am cooking for you so you're going to have to meet me either way.” He looks at me like the lunatic I currently am and gently shakes my hand. At this point, I pull my hand away and go back to my forward-facing position while exclaiming “Well that’s done.” Why? Why would I not say that in my head? Why? Did I just say that aloud? Did I just use the same phrase I would use after getting a shot in my ass for meeting one of my favorite culinary influences? Yes! Yes I did!
“You going to kiss my ass too?"
The awkward moment was broken up by, well... by a whole lot asses. All of sudden there was a line of asses in my face. Like animals stalking their prey, they had surrounded him. I did not exist anymore, too anybody. I was fine with that. I kind of felt bad that I got to get up and walk away and he didn’t. He was trapped and surrounded. Possibly one of the worst feelings I can think of. I head back to my kitchen and something horrible had happened. They had come. They had found my sanctuary. They were everywhere. People reaching into my pots and blocking my oven. I put my poor fiancé guarding my pots. I’ll will be damned if a bunch of drunk fools was going to ruin me feeding Anthony Bourdain.
See, to them, this was a party, for me it was a huge moment. I had lost all my chances to go into the culinary world professionally, life just didn’t work out for me that way. My dream had been put on permanent hold by responsibilities that had to come first. This was it - my only chance to do something in the world I longed to belong too. Even if it was just lunch, it was something.
I ran back out to catch my breath. I stood on the porch trying to plan all my possible escape routes. I turned my head, I am sure making my best, “I smell poo face” and muttered to myself “y'all leave that man alone - it's just gross... a bunch of ass in faces.” At that moment, we locked eyes. I guess he heard what I was saying and he got this tiny grin on his face,.I being the mature grown up I am proceeded to say, "Oh shit,” and run into the house. It reminded of the moment my old boss at Molly’s asked me, “You going to kiss my ass too?" To which I quickly responded, “I don’t like lines.” My boss also let go a super tiny smile. That smile of appreciating a fellow smart ass.
The day turned into night and still, my food was bubbling on the stove. Then all of sudden a producer runs in and says, “When can your food be ready?” Being a doomsday neurotic type I had over-prepared. Spent hours coming up with every possible disaster that could happen. Made recipes 100’s of times repeatedly for days to make sure I didn’t skip anything. I wrote those recipes down and read them over and over so they were burned in my brain. I didn’t just bring back-ups. I brought back-ups for my back-ups. I was ready. I had been ready for hours. “5 minutes," I said. He looked at me in disbelief. “Really,” he said? “Yes, Really," I replied.
"...drop that pot and you might as well go with it."
“You guys are going to carry pots to the tent." Wait, what? The huge tent jam packed full of people, in which the only access was a path of 10-inch deep mud? It all happened so fast. There I was wearing my fiancé's oversized duck boots, holding a heavy cast iron pot full of shrimp stew, staring into the lights, cameras, and people. I turned to my now barefoot fiance for reassurance and shot him a glare that said, drop that pot and you might as well go with it. We started tromping through the mud, one laborious step at a time holding our precious cargo. We finally get to the tent and they say turn around and do it again. Is this a sick joke? Do it again? Do you have any idea what its like to walk through a bog that's trying to swallow you an inch at a time while holding a giant pot full of boiling liquid? But we did it again and we made it.
We gently placed the pots of Shrimp Stew and Catfish Courtbouillion in the middle of a long table. They point me to my chair and as I sit down and wait for my chair to find some solid ground to settle on I noticed that the chair across from me was empty. The producer heads over and tells the table, “Okay, when Tony sits down these are the following things he would like to discuss ….” What do you mean Tony? As in Anthony Bourdain? Like he is going to sit directly across from me? I am having a conversation with him? Wait - I haven’t reviewed all the stupid shit not to say. I need time to make sure I don’t offend anybody. How do I make a plan? Why is there no wine?
“...wait they put the strange lady who yells at people one minute and mutters to herself the next, across from me?”
I grab the producer and fumble out the words, “I cuss you know. Like way too much. Like I use the f-word like a comma when I talk.” He lets out a little chuckle and says, “Tony loves people who cuss, so cuss away. We have a button for that” As I take a giant sigh of relief, I use my last few seconds to beg for a glass of wine. They happily oblige. Before I realized, I drank the whole thing in seconds. As I am thinking, what have I just done, I haven’t eaten all day and chugged a giant glass of wine, I might as well just ordered a big helping of stupid juice, there he is standing right in front of me. I wonder if he was thinking, “wait they put the strange lady who yells at people one minute and mutters to herself the next, across from me?” As my nerves started to kick in and my brain starts to melt like a Peep in the microwave, he sits down. His eyes get slightly wider as he starts sinking down in the mud. He is now waiting and praying that he hits solid ground soon.
We settle in and start discussing the points they want to hit. Plates of food were being passed around. I am surviving. Thinking, I might make it through this only looking slightly like an ass. Bourdain finishes his shrimp stew and then looks at me. I'm thinking, what are you looking at man? Are you going to talk to me? Are you sure this is a good idea? There isn’t a crazy neurotic Cajun lady translator available. And here is how the conversation went:
AB - “This has such a rich seafood taste. What gives it that deep flavor?”
Me - “Shrimp.”
He cocks an eyebrow as if to say, “really... that’s all you got? Shrimp.”
He tries again,
“It’s such a dark color. What gives it that dark brown color?”
Me- “Roux.” cue crickets here.
Once again, he looks at me like, "come on lady, I am trying here, help me help you. Something about that look. It was just like my best friend Robin, looks at me when I say something stupid. That, “Come on, you can do better than this. I raised you better than this” look. All of sudden he wasn’t this ominous figure he was a fellow smart ass (albeit a much more intelligent one). He really wanted to know about the dish. He wasn’t putting on act. It clicked. I can do this. I can talk about food, I can always talk about food. The conversation became easier. I of course still had diarrhea of the mouth but at least I had gotten past one-word answers.
We talked about food, the Cajun culture, music and my favorite part, our kids. We both had 11-year-old daughters - a true common ground. I could see the difference in his face when he talked about her and we laughed over their strange obsession with YouTube videos. It seems both our girls had a love of strange surgery videos. It was all so wonderfully normal - two parents of strong-willed girls with minds of their own. Both making light of the annoyances all the while beaming with pride.
Just like that, it was over and he was gone. Now, I was just standing in the middle of a crowd of people grabbing at the leftovers. He retreated from the crowd and was standing in the corner, observing the insanity of a bunch of Cajuns dancing in a giant mud pit while Lost Bayou Ramblers played the Mardi Gras Song. I watched him for a little bit (just under stalker level.) He was leaning against a truck in an odd moment of solitude, with the faint look of sadness on his face. He looked tired. Not physically tired but mentally exhausted. As if he had put it all on the table and now had nothing left.
I felt a strange kinship. I know this feeling. That exhausted feeling of thoughts constantly streaming through your head all day while trying to maintain a semblance of normality. The constant fight against the demons in your head. Spending every minute fighting them back, telling them they aren’t going to win. The inability to stop and enjoy a moment because you can’t help thinking of everything that can go wrong. The fear of stopping because then they will overtake you.
I can’t say what was in his mind the day he took his life. I can only venture to understand through my own experiences. Maybe the exhaustion just became too much? Maybe the demons just got too strong? Maybe it was a moment that they overpowered him and he forgot all the good stuff? I don’t judge him for what he did. I know the daily fight to resist the overwhelming thoughts. To tell your self every morning, “You just have to make it through today. Today, they won’t win." When part of your routine is to put on a mask, hiding what you're really feeling. The need to put on a good face for everyone else. The feeling that this character you play is bigger than you and now it seems impossible to remove. Every time I watched the movie "The Mask" I couldn’t help feeling it was written by a kindred spirit. Someone who takes all the pain and ugly stuff and makes it funny. The addiction to hiding yourself for so long that you don’t know how to free yourself anymore.
I know many of us thought, how could he do this to his daughter. We talked about our daughters and I saw the love in his eyes with every word he spoke. He perked up when he talked about her. I hope she realizes that her Dad fought the hardest fight and he just couldn’t do it anymore. If he had realized that instead of freeing him and his loved ones from his demons he was just making new ones for them, I don’t think we would be here now. We will never know what his last thoughts were. We can only be grateful for all the thoughts before that, which he shared with us.
We can’t all win this fight, we can only hope the ones who lose make us a little bit stronger and help us to fight a little bit harder. We must all believe that one day we will beat them we will learn to let go of the pain that tries to destroy us. If not for us then for the people who love us and our demons.
Shrimp Stew Recipe:
2lbs medium shrimp, shells, and heads on
4 whole boiled eggs
8 cups water
Scraps from the onion, bell pepper, and celery
2 bay leaves
1⁄2 cup vegetable oil
1⁄2 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup chopped yellow onion
1⁄2 cup chopped green bell pepper
1⁄2 cup chopped celery
1/2 to 1 tablespoon Cajun seasoning (I love salty and spicy so I go all in but you may want to start with 1/2 and add a little at a time till it reaches your taste preferences)
4 tablespoons of chopped green onions for garnish
1. Put the water and scraps in a stockpot
2. Peel the shrimp and put the shells and heads in the stockpot.
3. Refrigerate the shrimp and put the shells and heads in a stockpot
4. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to medium and simmer, uncovered, for 30 minutes.
5. While the stock heats heat up the oil over medium heat once oil is heated add flour.
6. Continuously stir the roux till it's between a peanut butter and dark chocolate color (your preference, my preferred stirring tool is a whisk)
7. Add your veggies and cook stirring often till wilted. Turn off heat
8. When the stock is done strain and bring 6 cups to a gentle boil
9. One the stock is boiling add your Roux by spoonfuls and stir after each addition till completely dissolved.
10. Add Cajun seasoning and salt.
11. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer, uncovered, for 1 1/2 hours.
12. Once the stew is done and has thickened add the shrimp and boiled eggs. Cook for 5-10 minutes till shrimp are just cooked.
13. Taste for seasoning, a lot of times I add a little more salt and black pepper.
Note: The stew is usually served over white rice.