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  • Writer's pictureMarielle Songy

Gambit New Orleans: A New Orleans mourning of Anthony Bourdain

It’s an odd feeling to mourn someone that you didn’t know — though, maybe in this case, “mourn” is the wrong word. It’s an odd feeling knowing that someone with whom you have become so familiar has left you with nothing more than a few memories. 

I have been a fan of Anthony Bourdain’s since before I was even really trying different types of food and learning which kinds I really liked. I first saw Bourdain on a long-forgotten show called “A Cook’s Tour,” which aired on the Food Network in 2002, and I liked that he was a no-nonsense kind of guy who bopped around from place to place trying different food and meeting people. He was gritty and didn’t have the typical “fake” exterior like other people on travel shows; there was an honesty about him that I appreciated, even at 20 years old.

When Bourdain’s show “No Reservations” debuted on The Travel Channel in 2005, I became a huge fan and I never missed an episode. I imagined a life where I got to travel the world trying any kind of food I could imagine (and even some I couldn’t) and write about it and share it on a weekly TV show. What a dream job! Yeah, I wasn’t considering how much work it was and how isolating a job like that can actually be, but I, like many others, was encouraged to explore my own food limits.

Because of Bourdain, I was open to trying new types of food and expanding my culinary palate outside of the chain food of the New Orleans suburbs on which I had been raised.

Another reason I was so drawn to Bourdain was his love of New Orleans. I was so delighted that this man who had traveled to all ends of the earth loved my city enough to return time and time again and feature my big small town on his shows. Sure, other people have revered New Orleans as one of the best food cities in the United States, but here is a man that had cooked in kitchens in New York and eaten some of the most exotic food in the world, and he liked New Orleans! Like … really liked New Orleans.

In a 2013 interview with CNN, Bourdain said of the city, "In America, there might be better gastronomic destinations than New Orleans, but there is no place more uniquely wonderful. ... With the best restaurants in New York, you'll find something similar to it in Paris or Copenhagen or Chicago. But there is no place like New Orleans. So it's a must-see city because there's no explaining it, no describing it. You can't compare it to anything. So, far and away New Orleans."

As much as Bourdain loved New Orleans, we certainly loved him back. Being able to say that Anthony Bourdain had occupied a table at your restaurant became a bragging right. No matter what, he never forgot about us, and we appreciated it. What I loved most is that when he came he visited places like Pho Tau Bay and Cochon, but he also didn’t shy away from places like Snake and Jake’s and Vic’s Kangaroo Cafe. He could sip a fancy cocktail at the Sazerac Bar, but nothing stopped him from standing on a street corner munching on Mexican food from the Taceaux Loceaux food truck. Just seeing Bourdain visit such places as Domilise's and Antoine's made me realize there was an entire culinary world in my own backyard that I had yet to explore.

This year, in celebration of the man that so many of us admired, longtime friends and chefs Jose Andres and Eric Ripert declared June 25 — what would have been Bourdain’s 63rd birthday — to be Bourdain Day. They asked we celebrate however we see fit, remember what the man gave us and wish him peace and love. I thought this was a brilliant idea and I loved the sentiment of taking a moment to celebrate someone that I admired so much.

I thought it would be appropriate to visit one of the restaurants that Bourdain visited on one of his many stops in New Orleans — Willie Mae’s Scotch House. Bourdain visited this place for his show "No Reservations" in 2011 and I thought it would be appropriate to stop in, have some chicken and pay my respects. Hey, respects are always better with a side of fried chicken.

I don’t like lines, and one thing for which Willie Mae’s is known for is its line. It’s summer, it’s hot, it’s a Tuesday, but I didn’t want to take my chances. I was there right when the staff opened the doors and I had fried chicken for breakfast. (There was zero line at 10 a.m.; if you want to try Willie Mae's, 10 a.m. in the middle of June on a Tuesday is a great time.) I knew what I was going to get before I walked in the door — a plate of Willie Mae's legendary fried chicken with a side of red beans and cornbread.

The chicken came out fried to golden perfection with a delicious, thick crust on it. It’s juicy, it’s full of flavor, it’s almost life changing. Although I usually reach for a bottle of hot sauce when eating fried chicken, Willie Mae’s chicken doesn’t need it. It’s seasoned perfectly and better than any other fried chicken you have had in recent memory. (Anthony, you were right, this chicken is indeed legendary.) I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention how amazing their red beans and rice is, as well. I did add hot sauce to the red beans, but that’s only because I add hot sauce to all red beans. The red beans and rice is vegan here, but it’s still flavorful and you don’t miss the meat. This was certainly a meal for the heart and the soul.

I consider the first ever Bourdain Day a success, as far as my small celebration went. I ate delicious food that I know Bourdain enjoyed and I reflected not only on what he gave us but what small places like Willie Mae’s mean to our community. Willie Mae’s is a family-owned spot with a long history that dates back to 1957. It’s known all over the country, thanks to Bourdain and others, which is why tourists and locals alike flock here to enjoy the food. The people working here are friendly and the neighbors surrounding the restaurant are as well. It didn’t set out to be a tourist destination; it just became a tourist destination. I guess a visit from former President Barack Obama will do that for you.

On my walk to the restaurant, one of the neighbors was loading groceries off of his bike when his cat greeted him. “Come on, Stumpy. Let’s go,” he encouraged, as the cat happily bounced behind him. It was a sweet moment, a reminder that life goes on and it’s important to appreciate the small seconds with those we care about, no matter who it is.

I took a moment today to remember not only a person who contributed so much to the culinary tapestry of our lives, but those that I’ve known and loved and lost. If there’s one thing I took away from Bourdain Day, it’s that we should make a point to visit the small mom-and-pop places that make our neighborhoods great and take the time to tell those who are most important in our lives what they mean to us. The joy of life is right in front of us. We just have to look for it.

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