The world via the dinner table
"Macau, for me, was always where fireworks came from. I vaguely knew that it was Chinese, and later I discovered that it was also Portuguese." That was how Anthony Bourdain addressed his lack of knowledge of Macau, in one of his opening comments in the "No Reservations" episode he filmed here in 2011.
Over the course of days spent running around the territory, he tasted Portuguese, Chinese and Macanese gastronomy, tried his luck in a casino, raced karts in Coloane and jumped from the top of Macau Tower, as he always liked to do something new.
Those who spent time with him remember a man with an enormous desire to know others, to know where they came from and where they were heading, as well as their history. He was a person who coined his own style of storytelling - because that's what his television shows were about - from around the globe, which he knew how to explore so well.
In Macau, he became acquainted with Macanese identity through João Jorge Magalhães and his mother, Cecília Jorge.
"He was an extremely open person, an intelligent, straightforward human being, very experienced, with an impressive sense of humour," recalls the author of Macanese cookbooks. It was on the couch in her living room that Cecília Jorge got to know the stranger who invaded her house with a film crew, and from the conversation that took place seven years ago, she remembered Bourdain's great interest in others.
"I had people hanging on my bookshelves, setting up lights at the last minute, and while they were doing that, I sat on the living room couch talking to him, and that's when I had the privilege of getting to know him. He was interested in things, he asked questions, he wanted to know more, he talked and I remember sharing thoughts on the difficulties of a chef’s life."
At the time, Bourdain was travelling around the world for his program "No Reservations", winner of two Emmys. The channel that hosted the program for seven years, the Travel Channel, lamented the loss of the "global ambassador of the world" in a statement: "He was an incredible talent that showed us beautiful, dark, complicated and delicious places in every corner of the world."
And CNN, the channel where the current program, "Parts Unknown" is being aired, communicated "with extreme sadness the death of Anthony Bourdain". "His love of great adventures, new friends, good food and drink, and the world's remarkable stories, made him a unique storyteller," CNN wrote when announcing the death of Bourdain, by suicide, at the age of 61 last Friday.
The French prosecutor later confirmed that the chef committed suicide by hanging himself in Hotel Le Chambard in the Alsace region where he was working on a program on Strasbourg.
VEGETABLES AS PORNOGRAPHY
He discovered the world through the most inhospitable taverns where food became a pretext for conversations about everything but gastronomy. It happened in Macau, with João Jorge Magalhães, and happened in the Vietnamese capital, with the then President of the United States of America, Barack Obama.
“‘Low plastic stool, cheap but delicious noodles, cold Hanoi beer. That’s how I’ll remember Tony. He taught us about food — but more importantly, about its ability to bring us together. To make us a little less afraid of the unknown. We’ll miss him,” Obama wrote on Twitter, where he shared a photograph of the two of them drinking beer at a table full of food.
With João Jorge Magalhães, Vietnamese beer was replaced by Chinese beer, while chu chan fen (steamed rice rolls), replaced noodles.
"The places I showed him were as if I were with a friend of a friend who came to Macau and had asked me to take him to some taverns or restaurants in Macau," he explained. "I took him to the little shops and places I knew in Macau. We sat in a tavern drinking Tsingtao and eating chu chan fen," he says, recalling one of the scenes that featured in the episode about Macau.
And what impression does João think he got from the food he tried?
"He did not like vegetables, he liked meat, especially pork, so as Chinese cuisine is very rich in pork, he liked it immensely. Taipa's ‘chu pa bao’ was a ‘must’ for him”, he says, referring to the bifana devoured by Bourdain or, as he himself called it, "a distinct Macanese creation that will survive through history."
Cecilia Jorge also recalls the aversion the presenter had to vegetables. When talking about making "minchi with mouse ears", the chef was told by the production team that Bourdain detested vegetables. "He considers vegetables pornography," they told her. "I told him a lot of Macau stories about the origin of some recipes and I told him the spinach story, which we in Macau call mata-moça. He thought the story was so funny that I managed to convince him to try the spinach and his team was very shocked," she recounts, laughing.
THE ENDLESS THIRST OF THE ABYSS
Bourdain experienced Chinese food in a variety of locations: from a tavern in Almeida Ribeiro to the Michelin starred restaurant "The 8", from Macanese cuisine in the APOMAC (The Retired and Pensioners Association of Macau) canteen to the kitchen of Cecília Jorge and Portuguese cuisine at Fernando’s. Over clams and sausages in the restaurant at Hac Sá, he discussed the future of the Portuguese presence and language in Macau, already classified as a "platform", and its political role. Fernando Gomes, the owner of the restaurant, recalls the humorous stories that Bourdain shared with him about two decades in kitchens, which illustrated his irreverence and the immense respect he had for traditions he considered untouchable.
But Fernando’s was not the TV presenter's only stop in Coloane. In the old fisherman's village, Bourdain also visited Lord Stow's bakery, where he was welcomed by Eileen Stow, sister of the founder, and the current director of the company, who gave him a taste of their egg tarts.
"I was very nervous because, for someone like him, taste is not something to be discussed, you either like it or you don’t. He took a bite and said that it was better than anything he had tried in Portugal," Stow recalls, with modest laughter, at the memory from seven years ago. "Everything I do is about Andrew’s [her brother] legacy, so for someone of that stature to have liked something that Andrew produced, was rather humbling".
When he heard that Macau has the highest bungee jump in the world, Bourdain couldn’t resist. The presenter went up the 61 stories of Macau Tower, around 233 meters, to jump headlong into nothing. From that event one particular comment by the celebrity chef lingers: “You drop face forward through space and for six long seconds - strangely not long enough - you’re swimming through air and life doesn’t hurt anymore“.
Chef Graham Elliot: “Mental health still seems to be a topic nobody wants to discuss”
Speaking to CLOSER, the American celebrity chef Graham Elliot expressed his sadness on Anthony Bourdain’s passing and recalled an encounter both had a decade ago.
“I had the pleasure of meeting Anthony about ten years ago at an event and thanked him for everything he’d done to help educate people about the world through food,” recalled Chef Graham. “I was very saddened to hear of his passing and send my love, thoughts and prayers to his family and friends,” the chef added.
Elliot, whose restaurant in Chicago received two Michelin stars, hopes that Bourdain’s death by suicide will shine a new light on the pressure chefs around the world have to face on a daily basis.
“I feel it’s time the chef world begins a dialogue on how to best ease the day to day stress of the restaurant business, as mental health still seems to be a topic nobody wants to discuss”, Elliot lamented.