25 Nov My Quest to Experience Heaven on Earth, in Honor of Anthony Bourdain
LEANING UP AGAINST THE TILE WALL on my kitchen counter, Anthony Bourdain stares at me from the worn-in cover of Kitchen Confidential holding two massive knives.
The book is significant to me; it’s a special edition that celebrates Bourdain’s life with his handwritten notes over the original copy, and an introduction by his great friend and chef, Eric Ripert.
Bourdain’s love of adventure and all kinds of food made him my childhood hero. When I glance at the book, I turn up the music, I smile, and I become a chef.
His spirit continues to shine through his words just as much now as they did back in 2000, when the book was released and sent controversial waves through the culinary world.
As a kid, Anthony Bourdain’s show Parts Unknown instilled in me an appreciation for a different type of travel, one that seeks out the boisterous essence and the genuine character of the ancient cities, rural landscapes, and quirky towns we call home. But it isn’t all about the action.
He showed me that the best way to see a city might be sitting on a park bench on an autumn day, lulling away the afternoon rather than hopping from site to site. There’s a great deal to be learned about a foreign place by simply staying in one location and observing.
Bourdain loved it all, and all seemed to love him when they met him. Along with an entire population inspired by this man, I wondered what could have caused him to take his life in 2018. We never know what others are going through, even when they seem to be on top of the world.
I strive to honor him by following my dream of exploring the world with a full heart and by being grateful for every day, every second, and every experience of this gift we call life.
With Bourdain in mind as I travel, there are no setbacks, only experiences; no bad meals, only the next one; and no time wasted if spent watching the world unfold from morning until night, when a city truly comes alive.
The sky was a celebration of color, rain, and light, as a rainbow wove through the clouds above Dublin’s Glasnevin Cemetery. Water fell softly and gave the grass a slick, enlivened sheen. I strolled through its grounds after traversing from the city center, noting the old-fashioned names and the variety of tombs.
I enjoy exploring cemeteries in foreign cities. The legacies of the bodies buried beneath the earth tell much about the place and its past. As I read inscriptions on the tombstones, I found that the Irish have always been good-humored about what we can’t control in life — death, and the weather.
Glasnevin sits on a rolling hill in the outskirts of the city. Some tombs are marble and ornately decorated; some bear the Celtic Cross; other gravestones lay against the cold earth like a decrepit pile of bones.
This array of tombstones gives the cemetery a distinct character that is nothing short of beautiful when covered in the rain. But I wasn’t there to see any specific graves. I was here for the pub next door.
John Kavanagh “The Gravediggers” Pub has the feel of an established local watering hole where the regulars get there at 3 pm and already have their pint waiting.
It’s quite different from the staple pubs in the Temple Bar district, where one can hear live music and the sound of dancing feet reverberating through the cobblestone streets until the wee hours of the morning.
The Gravediggers sits on a grey, windswept square, where one would not likely make the trip up the hill without a good reason. I had precisely that.
“Heaven looks just like this,” wrote Anthony Bourdain on a note to the owners of The Gravediggers after trying their signature pig’s feet dish, undoubtedly paired with a few pints of the black gold.
That quote was enough for me to trek through the Dublin streets in honor of my childhood hero on a quiet and drizzly afternoon.
The sunlight and rain continued to compete and created a haze over the cemetery. I stopped to take in the fresh winter breeze. It awakened my spirit as I explored the hilly outskirts of the ancient capital.
“Can I lend you a hand?” I heard from the path behind me in a thick Irish accent. I spun around and was greeted by a stout gentleman with a cheerful little white and brown dog. The dog jumped around the man’s feet and bobbed between the graves without a leash.
“I’m just wandering around, actually,” I tentatively replied; I guess I looked lost.
“Come with me. I’ll give you the tour! I’m Sean, and this is Scrooge.” It didn’t sound like I had much choice.
“Sounds good; my name’s Vinny — do you live around here?” I asked, still unsure if he worked there.
“I do, right around the corner. I walk the pup around here every day. It’ll take about twenty minutes.” He didn’t stop to talk; he just kept walking, and I was either on the tour or off. I smiled and joined him.
Scrooge was free to roam; this was clearly his playground.
Sean began rattling off names of buried American Civil War veterans and Irish folk heroes, tales of graverobbers and long forgotten literary giants. We then arrived at a large flagpole protruding from a gravestone, the resting place of Thomas Francis Meagher, the Irish flag’s creator.
“Orange for Protestants, green for Catholics, and white for the hope of peace between them,” Sean remarked.
“And you know how that went.” He snorted at his sarcastic comment.
“How do you know all this stuff?” I asked, assuming he may actually have been a guide and was humoring me.
“Eh, well, I have a book at home.”
Now I understood. I looked like the perfect target to bestow his arbitrary knowledge. I laughed, enjoying the entertaining conversation and the company of Scrooge.
With the tour over and my time in the cemetery just about spent, it was time for a pint. As I suspected it might happen, several gentlemen huddled by the bar turned to me without a smile when I creaked open the heavy wooden door of The Gravediggers.
The place was dead besides these gents — I sauntered up to the bar and ordered a Guinness.
“Cash only,” the bartender told me after pouring a deliciously foamy looking pint. Damn.
“Anywhere I can get cash around here?” I said as I realized I only had a card. I wasn’t leaving this place without taking a seat and having a drink in honor of Bourdain.
“Yes, just out the door to the left,” he said, motioning back outside. “The other room is a restaurant and they’ll give you cash.”
The other room was an entirely different world. Shirts donned the wall with Bourdain’s quote, the tables were full and rowdy, and two jovial women poured up frothy pints at the bar.
I went back to the other room to grab my drink. I hung around and savored the Guinness. In a somber kind of way, it was a bit like heaven.
Bourdain had seen many walks of life from his experience growing up and as a chef. He didn’t care where you come from, what you looked like, or what you sounded like. If you could cook and contribute to the kitchen’s common goal, you were okay with him.
On his show, he treated everybody with respect because he’d learned that we all have a story to tell. He didn’t care for seeing the sites of a great city. After a while, he even stopped describing food on his show. He’d done it all; what was another five-star meal?
He wanted to know the fascinating people that call our planet home, people who know their city like nobody else and live to share their joy, people like Sean.
To treat everybody equally is to recognize the human spirit within all of us, and this, Bourdain tried to do.
He wrote in the intro to Kitchen Confidential:
Looking back, re-reading this, it seems that no matter what i thought I knew at any given moment in my life, I never knew shit about shit. Not about the important things, anyway. That’s still very much a work in progress, figuring out the important stuff. One of the comforts of cooking professionally is that you end up knowing some things absolutely. You know that plates go into the dishwashing machine dirty and tend to come out clean. You know how best to cook an omelet. When risotto is done right and when it’s done wrong. You know that showing up on time is an absolute virtue and that being late is always, always bad. In an imperfect and ever changing world where few things are for certain, that’s pretty satisfying still — to know that something is for sure.
Even in our ever-changing world, there are things we can count on, like the sun rising in the morning. But there’s nothing we can take for granted — not the nourishing rain, not a decent meal or the company of a stranger, nor our breath.
In honor of Anthony Bourdain.
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