By Elise Mackanych
If you’re a chef, you love him. If you’re a celebrity chef, you’ve been dissed by him. If you’re a vegetarian, you hate him. If you’re anything other than a meat-eating, burn-scars-from-the-oven, knife-sharpening omnivore, well, he probably felt the same about you. Anthony Bourdain was a man with opinions — ones that weren’t always the easiest to hear.
As a seasoned chef, author, and celebrity, Bourdain was known to tell it like it is, and that’s just what he did on his shows and in his interactions with people. But underneath this banter he carried throughout his life, Bourdain, who passed away in 2018, was a man of grit, honesty, and someone who sat with people who were often overlooked.
Because his celebrity identity was centered around eating new food and exploring bizarre places, cities boast of his recommendations and fans love eating where he ate. It’s difficult to discover a place he hasn’t been. However, among his many destinations, there is one that is often forgotten: Lake Tahoe.
In October of 2010, Bourdain finally made a trip to the Lake of the Sky, where Harrah’s Lake Tahoe used to hold the annual South Lake Tahoe Food & Wine Festival. Here, he didn’t make his usual TV dining appearance. Instead, he performed.
“It was extemporaneous, the whole thing,” said John Packer, the former entertainment director for Harrah’s. “Everybody was familiar with his shows, like No Reservations, so everyone knew he was quite the raconteur. And that’s what he proceeded to do: tell stories, discuss what he thought about celebrity chefs, and talk about different adventures and foods that he had.”
Bourdain wanted something to eat on the property and was directed to the steakhouse at the casino. Instead, he sought out the coffee shop. Packer remembers Bourdain being pleasant, quiet, and low maintenance off-stage.
When asked if he’d like a podium, Bourdain declined, then later accepted and said it might be nice just to brush his elbows on. Packer recalls asking about his notes, to see that he only had three note cards with just a few words written on each.
“It’s a one-man thing. There are no bands. No audio-visual aides. No props,” the Tahoe Daily Tribune quoted Bourdain. “I just walk out on stage and start talking, and at some point I’ll open it up for questions or comments from the crowd, and hopefully they’ll be provocative or even crazed questions. Anything can happen.”
This performance was similar to the dynamic of his television shows, where he cracked jokes and poked fun with the crowd. Dan Thomas, who attended Bourdain’s show in South Lake, told the Tahoe Daily Tribune that “he seemed as proficient with a mic as with a chef’s knife … [He flashed] his sharp wit without the impediment of network censors bleeping out all the nasty bits.”
His performance at Harrah’s only lasted about 30 minutes.
“He did a Q&A with the audience, which went on for another hour and a half. It was just hilarious,” Packer recalled. “It was in the evening on the big day of all the different events at the food and wine festival, so I’m sure people were feeling no pain. The crowd was a little boisterous but not rude. Somebody would say something a little out of the way, and he would just throw it right back at them. He threw a few f-bombs around, which to him was nothing. You don’t even think of it as being vulgar. It’s just conversational.”
Bourdain touched on many of his classic punchlines, including fellow chefs and vegetarians. He didn’t spare the audience any mercy, as he also made fun of them for thirsting for signatures rather than picking his brain about the food industry. However, a more insightful question from the audience asked Bourdain how he quit smoking.
In one of the few videos capturing Bourdain’s performance in Tahoe, the YouTube channel ToneJabrone shows him telling the audience that he stopped smoking shortly after the birth of his daughter in 2007. This news came as much of a surprise, for a cigarette had always accompanied Bourdain. This footage shows Bourdain responding quickly, saying that he used a specific medication, but to be careful because “it makes some people stabby, so you really have to watch it. Like, don’t kill the neighbor’s cat.”
Ultimately, “Bourdain left the crowd roaring with laughter and cheers,” Thomas told the Tribune.
Years later, over drinks at Bemelmans Bar in New York City, Bourdain was being interviewed by writer and director Elvis Mitchell. Mitchell asked Bourdain how he would find himself in random towns all over the world.
“I do come to your hometown. I end up in really bizarre places,” Bourdain told Mitchell in an interview documented at the end of Bourdain’s book, Medium Raw. “I found myself playing the Shore Room at the Harrah’s Casino in Lake Tahoe, Nevada. There I am, looking up at the wall, and I realize I’m following Shecky Greene, Frankie, Dino, Totie Fields. And there I am, I’m telling dick jokes in front of an audience of hooting, drunken gamblers in the late afternoon.”
In that Tahoe showroom, Bourdain recognized the scale of the footsteps he was following and the impression he had.
In the final episode of No Reservations, Bourdain concludes with a perfect summary of his savoir-vivre: “If I’m an advocate for anything, it’s to move. As far as you can, as much as you can. Across the ocean, or simply across the river. The extent to which you can walk in someone else’s shoes or at least eat their food, it’s a plus for everybody. Open your mind, get up off the couch, move.”
Constantly supporting an open-minded perspective, Bourdain strongly believed that new, uncomfortable, and worldly experiences did good for one’s psyche. While he joked with the Tahoe audience as he would an old friend, his motivation was clear. He strived to meet new people, make others laugh, and experience the diversity of life. At the South Lake Tahoe Food & Wine Festival, Bourdain fulfilled such a legacy.