I was at my desk at work, engulfed in one thing or another, when my phone lit up with a new Google Hangouts notification. It was from my husband.
“Hey, sweetest heart. I have a challenge for you, if you’d like to try it.”
I was intrigued. My husband is unpredictable when it comes to these types of things. “Could you do me a favor?” could be followed up by something as run-of-the-mill as calling the bank to inquire about the intricacies of making a principal-only payment on our mortgage, or something a little more off-beat, like suggesting I take our power drill and un-screw the wooden boards our old neighbor drilled into our fence (another story for another day). God only knew what “challenge” he had in store for me. I took the bait.
“What is it?”
“I’d like for you to learn how to cool a proper Boeuf Bourguignon. And I want to taste it.”
I smiled. My husband, who is a whiz in the kitchen by the way, has been trying to improve my cooking skills since the day we met. Where he has the ability to take some flour, eggs, an onion, and some leftover ground beef and make an amazing four-course meal, I’m lucky if I manage to not burn the eggs I’m trying to fry. When we started dating, I was balls deep in a one-pot meal obsession, because those dishes required minimal clean-up and only the cooking skills of a middle-schooler to execute. You just dumped some shit into a pot, let it cook for a period of time, and voilà! A ready-to-eat meal right at your fingertips! T is a different sort of cook. A self-taught home chef, he wields a pretty extensive knowledge of food science, and enjoys a good meal that requires a full day spent in the kitchen, making sure the meat is cooked exactly to temp, and acids and spices are coming together in nothing short of perfect harmony. For as long as we’ve been together, he’s been trying to get me up to his level, always via gentle suggestions and recommendations, like loaning me certain books on food science, or encouraging me to master cooking certain dishes or foods (like the aforementioned eggs). It’s been a long journey.
“Got you a little gift to help you on your way,” he continued, then shot me an Amazon link to Anthony Bourdain’s Les Halles Cookbook.
I’ve never been a die-hard Anthony Bourdain fan. Sure, I enjoyed the occasional episode of The Layover or Parts Unknown. Kitchen Confidential has been on my “to read” list for years. But that was about the extent of my dalliances. While I enjoy eating food, I’m not a foodie to the point of researching the cooking techniques, philosophies, and careers of popular influential chefs (one-pot wonder over here, remember?), so I didn’t even really know much about the guy other than a) he was a chef and b) he hosted travel/food shows on television. When my husband told me he bought Bourdain’s cookbook for me, it didn’t really affect me one way or the other. I just thought it was a sweet gesture.
It is at this point I should mention that I have a tendency to appreciate icons and cultural influencers after it’s too late: Prince. The music of Michael Jackson. And now, Anthony Bourdain.
When Bourdain died last summer, I did what I always do whenever I hear about a celebrity death: read a little about it, think about what a shame it was he or she passed, and then go on my merry little way. It’s not that I’m cold-hearted; I just don’t have the capacity to grieve over someone who I didn’t personally know. A celebrity death is not the same as the gut-wrenching loss the passing of a close loved one provokes. But for some reason, as I attempted his Boeuf Bourguignon recipe earlier today, I felt a little twinge of sadness. While I cooked, I grew to appreciate the simplicity of the recipe, and for Bourdain’s passion and love for food and cooking, which came through so clearly in his writing. Reading through the recipe, it was as if he was standing right next to me in the kitchen, guiding me through everything. Although not my intention when I accepted my husband’s challenge, this feeble attempt at following Bourdain’s recipe felt like I was paying a little homage. I found myself wondering if he would be pleased with this attempt, or if he would scoff at the crude way in which I prepared the food.
I ended up finding the answer when I started reading the introduction to the book: “This book aims to be a field manual to strategy and tactics, which means that in the following pages, I will take you by the hand and walk you through the process in much the same way – and in the same caring, sensitive, diplomatic tone – as I would a new recruit in my restaurant kitchen.” Bourdain then goes on to assure the reader that one doesn’t need any fancy formal training to master the art of French cooking; indeed, the classic French dishes were actually created by poor folks using the only resources available to them at the time. Bourdain’s tutorage is judgement-free; your awkwardness in the kitchen isn’t a big deal, so long as you can wield a knife with some degree of competence and have the desire to learn. He might as well have written the book for me.
What makes me sad is this: I finally understand why Anthony Bourdain was so beloved. I get it. And he’s no longer around to write more cookbooks. To tell amazing travel and food stories. To encourage us amateurs that we do, in fact, have what it takes to create amazing meals. That cooking well isn’t reserved only for those who can afford to pay the pricey tuition of the well-known culinary institutions. The life of one of the most influential chefs of the 21st century was tragically cut short by his own hand, creating a void that will be felt for decades.
I can’t change what happened. But what I can do is continue my small part to honor Bourdain’s memory: cook. Stumble my way through recipes, curse when I overcook the meat, and hopefully learn from my mistakes and continue to improve my skill set. I think that’s what he would have wanted.
“I’ll tell you what I tell every rookie cook in my kitchen, after he ruins a perfectly good consommé: ‘Throw it out. Start over. Do you understand what you did wrong? Good. Now don’t do it again.'”
My Boeuf Bourguignon turned out okay, if a little bland. I wasn’t as generous with the salt and pepper as I thought. I also used a little too much water, and the meat chunks were smaller than they should have been. So I’ll try it once more. I know what I did wrong – and I won’t it again.