You and I met once in Charleston in April of 2015. I didn't know it at the time but you were wrapping up what became a favorite episode that had a great mix of historical exploration and hilarious conversation. You dove into the history of the south, the controversy, the flavors and its resurgence. And you and Sean Brock drank and ate a whole lot along the way. The episode brought me to tears and made me grin from ear-to-ear.
Despite having met once briefly, that cannot begin to define the impact you've had on my life.
You came into mine around 2012, shortly after I'd regrettably moved back from Malaysia. I was adrift emotionally and physically. A long-term relationship had come to an end and so had the international living opportunity that came with it. I went from halfway around the world in a highrise to my parent's spare bedroom. It is a raw chapter in my history. But not too long after settling back in, one thing or another lead me to find you, moving across the globe, helping me feel some level of connection to the international world that felt taken from me, while offering poetic reflections on who you met and what you saw. It nourished me and kept me on track.
You ran a great balancing act of relentless curiosity and humility against an openness to tying one on and having a good time. You once said, “Context and memory play powerful roles in all the truly great meals in one’s life.” You were adept at reading the context of a situation and playing the part. You were incredibly respectful when called for and outlandish in others. Stoic and reflective one moment. Bombastic and crude the next.
Your conversation in Vietnam with President Obama over a cheap dinner of Bún Chả is important for me too. If I am not careful, when I think of a faraway place, it can be easy to oversimplify it. I think of a place, a flavor, a climate, a building and leave it at that. What you described about Bún Chả is it being a local delicacy, its not the national heavy hitter. The same way we as Americans want to be known for more than burgers and hot dogs, Vietnamese cuisine is so much more than what we can make of it if we're not careful. The real magic might lie somewhere unexpected. Ingredients and meals are only as simple as we allow them to be. The deeper we dare to dive, the more we will find.
There was also a throwaway line in the Charleston episode, I will forever remember. You were sitting with Glenn Roberts of Anson Mills, a food company that brings back ingredients that were lost or deemed less interesting in the post Civil War economy that was being rapidly industrialized. You and Glenn spoke of the history of slavery in the south. That many of the foods we associate with southern or African American culture have many painful memories attached to them because of the circumstances and what was left for people to eat. You then said, "I'll give you that there is nothing more political than food." And how true this is. Whether its two people arguing about the right way to make a lasagna or the troubling past of an ingredient or dish. Food is wrapped up in all parts of our lives and thus the emotional current of it runs deep. You also pointed this out in many episodes when you talked about cooking employed in poorer communities. People had to work to find a way to make the seemingly less desirable parts of something - tripe, feet, head - delicious. These are the more flavorful parts of an animal, as you or Dan Barber would say, and yet we often resign ourselves to the easier to cook less flavorful parts of an animal.
You also helped me think about how often we dismiss people of differing views today. You remind me that, "You learn a lot about someone when you share a meal together." But go on to say that you don't have to agree with someone to like them. But you dare to have the conversation rather than shame them or shut it down. A senior executive at CNN said of you, "I learned as much about Israel and the Palestinians from Tony's hour on Jerusalem as I did from any reporting that I've seen." This is one of the ways in which you flexed the definition of journalism. You didn't just shove a microphone in someone's face seeking comment, you sat down with them over food that often has powerful memory in it and heard someone's story.
I wish I knew how to say goodbye. I grieve for your daughter and the friends you've left behind. But I am working hard to not pass judgement on your having taken your own life. For one thing I learned from you is that despite how much we all have in common, people and places are infinitely complex. Your life is no exception. Kitchen Confidential transformed your life by in part talking about decades of hard living. Now you are under the spotlight of celebrity, trying to find the balance between being a dad and TV personality. None of these things are simple.
What I want you to know is you forever changed how I think of myself and how I move through the world as a citizen. You enhanced my desire to engage and have my beliefs challenged while aspiring to laugh like hell over delicious food and drink along the way. “Travel changes you. As you move through this life and this world you change things slightly, you leave marks behind, however small. And in return, life - and travel - leaves marks on you. Most of the time, those marks - on your body or on your heart - are beautiful. Often, though, they hurt.”
You are unquestionably one of the people who lead me to want to embody the mantra I regularly invoke, "Go Forth Boldly". I am forever grateful.
If I believe anything, it's I am certain of nothing. It is my joy and my privilege to travel around the world being wrong about shit."