I'd only just sat down at the table. Our waitress was upon us immediately advising me to order the veal cutlet.
I was meeting an old friend for lunch at one of the more venerable restaurants in the Northtowns. We hadn't really talked to each other in years and wanted to catch up. So, at his suggestion, we went to a hugely popular place my mother, among others, used to like -- as well as her two sisters, my aunts. All have been gone for decades. That's how long it had been since I ate there.
I wasn't hungry enough for the whole veal entree, so I thought it would be a good idea to just have the veal cutlet sandwich.
You need to understand I am a lifelong fan of waiters and waitresses. I've known many in my life. It's a hard job they do and they often take a lot of abuse for no good reason whatsoever. Accordingly, I always tip generously. Always, I try to avoid the ferocious grilling some of the older members of my family used to give them when I was a kid. (Usually they were imparting minute, detailed instructions on how their food should be prepared and served. You'd be amazed at how long it sometimes took to order a bagel and cream cheese.)
In his book "Kitchen Confidential," after all, Anthony Bourdain advised, "Be polite to your waiter; he could save your life with a raised eyebrow or a sigh."
I wondered, when my sandwich came, what Bourdain might have said. I'm guessing the great chef, food writer and cable-TV traveler, would have been severe, to put it mildly. I didn't have the heart to make a scene in a place that has always had such a grand reputation.
I only ate half. Every bite was a struggle. I undertook it only on the grounds that somewhere in what I was eating there was some protein. I took the other half home and sealed its ignominious fate. I tipped the waitress well. My old friend seemed to enjoy his lunch, although the food wasn't really why we were there. We just wanted to hang out a little and have a grand time, which we did.
But I kept thinking about Bourdain. Undoubtedly, a thorough study of "Kitchen Confidential" would have saved me from the veal cutlet sandwich from hell.
Bourdain, you remember, committed suicide in June. It was even more of a shocking death than Robin Williams' and Philip Seymour Hoffman's.
What I have increasingly felt over the past year is how much I've missed Bourdain as an influence in American life. Remember that in Bourdain's televised searches, Buffalo musician Nelson Starr brought him to Buffalo to glory in Rust Belt life and cuisine. Bourdain had good things to day about Starr's music and the liver-dumpling soup at Ulrich's. When it came time to have a beef on weck, national television viewers were treated to a mouth-watering closeup of roast beef being sliced just so.
"Walk in someone else's shoes" was his cardinal ethic. "Or at least eat their food." He seemed to have the inside track on how to be, at the same time, a committed populist and completely civilized.
His CNN travel series "Parts Unknown" was absolutely superb. Even in an era booming with new travel and food series on television, Bourdain's CNN series rejoiced in the huge variety of the way people lived and ate around the globe.
That was the marvel of him eventually being featured in prime time on CNN. They'd realized he wasn't just a food commentator, he was a social and moral force. He was everywhere. Publishers published new books under his imprint. His message was to search and explore, and relish what you find. He was devoted to life's joy, however far-flung or modest.
It was also impossible for some of us to forget how he became famous telling all the nasty secrets about the restaurants we all loved so much.
That, for instance, the best day to eat in a restaurant is Tuesday. The staff is back after the weekend and the food is likely to be fresh -- as opposed to Monday where the food is likely to have been hanging around.
He was a pitiless truth-teller along with being an explorer devoted to great underdogs. I don't know about anyone else, but to me, it was news -- and depressing news, at that -- that "bacteria love Hollandaise" sauce. "Hollandaise is a veritable petri dish of biohazards."
How dearly I've missed Bourdain's voice and moral force. In our new 21st century, outright lying to millions of people seems to be commonplace from every direction, and so does absurd overstatement. It seems to have become respectable in some quarters to castigate people just for being poor and lacking privilege in a "(blank)-hole" country. To Bourdain, the most civilized thing to do, by far, was to extend privilege and to appreciate how miraculous creative life can be among those who lack wealth and privilege completely.
Yes, I know we're going to have a heck of a time finding anyone to take Bourdain's place, but I can't think of another American moment after this one where we more desperately need people to try.