Remembering Anthony Bourdain Before He Was Famous
On the second anniversary of Anthony Bourdain’s untimely death, Earl Geer remembers their time running Sullivan’s Restaurant together.
Anthony Bourdain became an instant hero to all of us in the restaurant industry with the publication of his memoir Kitchen Confidential back in 2000. The rest of his life, as they say, is history. Anthony’s legacy is strong and safe two years after his death and will endure for generations to come.
I met him in 1996, before a fraction of his success and fame would have seemed remotely plausible. In fact, it was before he was even Anthony Bourdain; at the time he was just Tony. As luck and timing would have it, we crossed paths at low points in both of our lives. But despite that it was almost 24 years ago, I remember our initial encounter vividly.
Before I get to Tony, let me set the stage. I had been on a bit of a roll as a young restaurateur and entrepreneur, coming out of nowhere to launch two Hi-Life restaurants in New York that were almost embarrassingly successful given my lack of industry experience. As a result, CBS had selected me from a long list of contenders to develop and operate a restaurant inside the fabled Ed Sullivan Theater, which had recently become the home of The Late Show when David Letterman defected from NBC after losing the Tonight Show to Jay Leno.
Sullivan’s Restaurant & Broadcast Lounge was sure to be a “really big shoe” as Ed Sullivan used to say to begin his broadcast every night from this sacred piece of Midtown Manhattan real estate.
To put a cherry on top, I flew out to L.A. to meet Paul Shaffer’s agent, and subsequently was approved to meet Paul. After a few Radeberger Pilsners and dinner at Paul’s favorite neighborhood restaurant, we agreed that he would act as Sullivan’s musical director; while he wouldn’t perform (although he occasionally did generously join our house band) his role was to curate our live music program. We both felt the perfect soundtrack for Sullivan’s was classic R&B and we had a beautiful stage that boasted a Steinway grand piano that Paul arranged for our use. Our epic opening party, which included appearances by Richie Havens, The Rascals, The Four Tops and Noel Redding of the Jimi Hendrix Experience, set the vibe for Sullivan’s.
My plan, and my pitch to CBS and investors, was to differentiate ourselves from the throng of nearby theme restaurants: Hard Rock Cafe, Planet Hollywood, Motown Café, Fashion Café… etc. We would establish a restaurant and nightclub with excellent food and atmosphere that would celebrate the kind of place Ed Sullivan and Jackie Gleason might have frequented in the 1950 and ’60s. (For years, Gleason had hosted his own TV show just a few blocks away on Sixth Avenue.) To bring this plan to fruition, I recruited the highly regarded and up-and-coming chef Neil Murphy. Neil was a real talent and did his part by earning Sullivan’s a coveted two stars from the New York Times food critic Ruth Reichl and three stars from Crain’s Business Magazine’s restaurant critic Bob Lape.
But the writing was on the wall early on for Sullivan’s demise—even before we opened. When only a few years before two inches of ink in New York magazine announcing my David Rockwell designed Hi-Life Restaurant & Lounge had produced almost uncontrollable crowds and the need for two bouncers to organize patrons willing to wait for a table or bar stool, now full-page spreads in various New York and Westchester newspapers prepping readers for Sullivan’s imminent opening seemed to go unnoticed. So quiet were our phones that a few days before our scheduled opening day, I asked my father to test our phone system and place a call from my parent’s house in Connecticut. Unfortunately, the phone did ring, and my Dad’s voice came in load and clear. What was also load and clear was that something was really off at Sullivan’s.
Now, more than 20 years later, I continue to conduct a postmortem on Sullivan’s in my unconscious nearly every day: Was it the location? Was the strategy to emphasize quality rather than embracing the theme restaurant trend misguided? Did a project of this magnitude expose a weakness in my managerial and decision-making skills? Probably all of the above were factors, but I was no longer living the Hi-Life and it was time to learn how to survive the low life.
Regardless of what caused Sullivan’s lack of popularity, shortly after the New York Times review failed to provide us the bump in sales we desperately needed, Neil let me know he had received another better offer and was giving me his two weeks notice. Losing your chef and his entire team of line cooks would be devastating in any era, but remember in 1996 the internet wasn’t that much help.
In those days, the only way to recruit quality restaurant workers was by placing a help wanted ad in the New York Times Wednesday restaurant section, so without time to cry, mope and moan, I placed my 30-word ad for an executive chef by the Tuesday deadline after receiving Neil’s announcement on Monday. I received 20 or so reasonably worthy resumes and began to call each of them to set up interviews as soon as possible. One of my interviews was with Tony Bourdain, who had most recently been the chef at a fairly well-known Italian bistro/trattoria in the Theater District not too far from Sullivan’s.
When we met, I was numb, discouraged and scared, but rallied to present some confidence and not betray the desperation of my situation. I didn’t realize it then, but looking back Tony was in exactly the same boat. We had both just turned 40 and things were not going as planned for either of us. I was experiencing real business failure for the first time and on a high-profile stage, and Tony’s trials and tribulations are well-documented.
But after only a short talk and with numerous interviews still scheduled, I offered Tony the job on the spot. I was impressed by his polite charm and confidence that was both reassuring while also modest. My only request was that he cook me a few things at one of my Hi-Life locations. I had become leery of chefs that never actually cooked and wanted to do the tasting not only for the obvious reason, but also to use the time to establish my expectations for the job with him. He cooked me a steak au poivre, chicken piccata, and something else I can’t remember now—all were delicious and Sullivan’s had a new chef just in time.
And as a chef, Tony was a real pro. He populated each of the stations with the marauding apostles you would expect to see after reading his books. As a team they produced an excellent product. He was organized, always on time or early, and as funny and charming then as he would later be as a TV host. He never did get behind the line and cook as was our agreement, but it was immediately evident to me that he was a force of nature and was to be given his space. Tony never pushed for anything and his only request was that we include his delicious version of Osso Buco on our menu, which I happily agreed to.
In the year or so we worked side by side, Tony and I never became really close. At the time our relationship felt appropriate. In retrospect, I regret this as much as anything that went wrong at Sullivan’s, but I was shell-shocked, watching my dream go up in smoke, and in no mood to get cozy with anyone. Tony was also guarded as I represented to him just another struggling owner who would leave him holding the bag and on the streets yet again, hat and resume in hand. We both knew how things were likely to end. For Tony, Sullivan’s was one more insurmountable opportunity, and at best a stepping stone to a better situation. But perhaps worst of all for Tony was our live music program. This was a pet peeve for him, since he despised live music in a restaurant. To him it sent confusing and desperate signals. I agree with that assessment in most situations, but at Sullivan’s the music was our biggest drawing card and produced some magical moments. For instance, on Friday nights we’d feature the Harlem All-Stars, which was a group made up of the remaining members of Count Basie’s Orchestra, Frank Sinatra’s backup singer (who was pushing 90 and still in sequins), Billie Holiday’s bandmates and other amazingly talented musicians. But in the end, Tony may have been right, as usual, on this point as even these accolades and great press didn’t produce reservations for us.
We plodded along for a year or more with Tony at the helm, always hoping that a press release or a miracle would save us, but eventually it was clear that the end was coming soon–like Kurtz waiting in the jungle for his inevitable execution, we collectively waited for the axe to strike.
The day we closed Tony came in to clean out his desk and shake my hand. We exchanged pleasantries and I offered my sincere regrets for how things had turned out for all of us. When the New York Times wrote about the closing of the restaurant Tony told them: “We were a bit of a mystery, and people want to know what to expect.” Even then he had the perfect quote.
After that day, I only saw Tony a couple of times; he stopped by Hi-Life for a beer once or twice, and also showed his trademark loyalty by vouching for a former colleague seeking employment at one of my establishments. I hired his friend Rob on the spot, partly because I may have needed a manager at the time, but also for the same reasons I had hired Tony in the first place—knowing innately that with Tony only good things can happen.
I ran into Tony just once more and by then he was Anthony Bourdain. I found him walking almost aimlessly on the Upper West Side, somewhere between my apartment and his. I congratulated him as a conquering hero, and marveled out loud at what he had accomplished and how happy I was to see how he had risen like a phoenix from the ashes of our shared Sullivan’s experience to reach such heights. After saying goodbye, I had a nagging feeling that something was wrong and that Tony was in pain. This was puzzling at first, given his success, but based on the timing and location of that last meeting, I later concluded that Tony was agonizing over the breakup of his marriage.
I am proud to have known Tony, and while it’s cool to rub elbows with the rich and famous, by sharing those dark days at Sullivan’s I can say, perhaps better than many, that while he was not perfect, his character and sensitivity were unimpeachable. For him, living the hi-life was not enough if he was in any way responsible for the pain of a loved one. What has been characterized as the mysterious death of a man who had everything, and had accomplished more than even he could have dreamed, I believe was at least in part caused by some of the qualities that made him so special.