Bad Tony

Last Thursday, I trundled up to Syracuse with my friend Julie. Or my “partner in crime,” as her husband puts it. The reason for our little excursion – a pilgrimage of sorts, really – to see Anthony Bourdain live at the State Theatre.

Foodies and travel enthusiasts will recognize this name, for Tony has made quite the name for himself as a chef, writer, traveler, and host of the Travel Channel original series “No Reservations.” And he’s basically my personal hero.

Which is why I felt compelled to pay what I considered a fairly hefty ticket price – with which I could have purchased at least three of his books in trade paperback (if I didn’t already own them) – when I could catch his Travel Channel show absolutely free. Ditto his entertaining online blog. (Which is up for a Webby, by the way.)

For me, it was worth the ticket price. (Which ended up being about $60 once Ticket Master got their money-grubbing, usurious little hands on it.) Because it gave me the opportunity to pay homage to a man who has given me so much.

Tony and I go way back.

I was living in Western Colorado – Grand Junction, to be exact – the first time we “met.” Roughly 2,000 miles from everything I knew and loved, I was beyond homesick. Then one night, as I sat curled up in front of the TV flipping channels with my cat Pepe (may she rest in peace), I stumbled upon the premier episode of a new travel show. The host was a tall, wiry guy, whose darkly bitter outlook and acerbic wit struck a chord with me.

This man is a New Yorker, I thought. Heck, we could have been separated at birth. I promptly turned up the volume and settled in to watch this abrasive guy explore one of my favorite stomping grounds: Paris.

Although I should like to state for the record that, unlike Tony’s visit, my time in the City of Lights did not include absinthe, staying in the hotel room where Oscar Wilde breathed his last, nor, regrettably, a tour of the catacombs. But it didn’t matter. I was hooked.

I couldn’t wait for the next episode to air to get my next Bad Tony fix. So I went out and bought “Kitchen Confidential,” the book which helped make his name outside of the kitchen. I picked up “Cooks Tour,” as well, which was the precursor to the show. And figuring why the heck not, I threw in one of his works of fiction as well. Bamboo something, if I remember correctly.

I devoured them all as one would their favorite comfort food.

As it turns out, Tony isn’t a native New Yorker, although he might as well be. He hails from New Jersey, but has spent much of his professional career cooking in Manhattan. Pre-Travel Channel, anyway. Now he’s a globe trotter, making the rounds of countries around the world sampling their native cuisine and bonding with the locals.

As you can probably already surmise (if you haven’t had the chance to see it), “No Reservations” is not your average travel show. Tony is the anti-Samantha Brown. Just as, when it comes to food, he’s the anti-Rachel Ray, the anti-Sandra Lee ... well, you get the picture.

When he travels, he eschews the 5-star eateries which feature so prominently in guide books, preferring instead to partake of street food, visiting back-alley watering holes and sampling indigenous dishes as they have been prepared for generations. Sometimes while sitting on the floor of his hosts’ humble abode. Sure, he’s ornery at times, but he is always gracious to the people he encounters and respectful of the cultures he experiences. His palate is what I would call “adventurous.”

And while there is no way on God’s green Earth that I would put half of the stuff he consumes into my own mouth, watching him eat his way across cultures has lead me to be a little more adventurous as well. In fact, if I had never “met” Tony, I probably would have starved when I traveled to China a few years ago for work. (This was in a previous career, obviously, one in which I traveled further afield than just to school board meetings.)

The first stop on the trip was Sanya, a city on the island of Hainan in the South China Sea. We arrived in the early hours of the morning – after a two-day layover in San Francisco to sort out some visa issues, the 13 or 14 hour flight to Shanghai and then a 2 or 3 hour flight on a domestic Chinese airline to the island locale. I’m not sure what time my body thought it was, but shortly after we arrived at our hotel, a resort frequented by Russian tourists, it began demanding sustenance.

Unfortunately, none was to be had. The hotel’s restaurants were all closed, as were the little shops which lined the surrounding side streets. There was however a group of rather rowdy locals chatting it up on a street corner next to a large, open grill. Next to them was a folding table filled with Tupperware (or the Chinese equivalent), each with a different type of fish or crustacean obviously fresh from the neighboring sea.

I was horrified at the very thought of partaking of this fare. But I was hungry. So I asked myself, What Would Tony Do?

I’m not sure what I selected, but can honestly say it was some of the best food ever to pass my lips.

Thanks, Tony. For opening my eyes, and my taste buds. You’ll always have a special place in my heart.

See you on the Travel Channel.

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