My Brush with Anthony Bourdain

Christen O'Brien
4 min readAug 27, 2021

“Tony wears fucking espadrilles now!”, she said to me as the three of us huddled together at the after-party, her voice laden with humor and frustration, and sadness. Lydia Tenaglia and Chris Collins were the ones who put Anthony Bourdain on television. They were the ones who brought “No Reservations” to our living rooms, and who alongside him turned a show that initially looked to be a total disaster into a heart-bending masterpiece of travel, humanism, and hope. A show that indelibly changed how we understand our place in this world.

But at that moment, they were just two people helplessly watching their friend slip away.

I laughed at the thought of Bourdain, the contrarian, the no-bullshit truth spewer, the gritty and grounded chef-turned-explorer who refused to sugar-coat anything, wearing espadrilles in the Hamptons.

But I knew, as well as they did, it wasn’t actually comical. Humor is medicine for absurdity. And there are fewer things more absurd than not being able to reach a friend who cannot, who will not, see themselves any longer.

Especially when your friend is Anthony Bourdain, and the rest of the world has no clue who he really is.

A waiter came over and refilled our champagne glasses. We were sitting on designer couches in a Brownstone in the Upper East Side owned by one of the world’s most famous tech Billionaires. There was a tree growing through the center of the home. The entrance was decorated with rare, antique pinball machines. Expensive sculptures lined the walls. Though I’d been the one who invited them to this party that my company was hosting, the three of us seemed similarly in awe of, and uncomfortable with, the lavishness of the place.

“So how do you know this guy?”, Lydia asked me.

“Oh, he’s an investor in our company”, I told them.

I probably shouldn’t have been as surprised as I was that ZPZ, their production company, was making a documentary series about our company. The thought of being a sister TV show to “Parts Unknown”, their latest series with Bourdain on CNN, felt surreal. But like Bourdain, we straddled disparate worlds.

We were the rabble rousers of Silicon Valley, a team of misfits who never blended with the status quo and never believed that was a good idea, anyway. The status quo in venture capital was mostly male and white and elite. But the future, the one we believed in, was so much more. It was also female. And international. It often had an accent, and was brown or black. While Bourdain was traveling the world in search of connection through food, we were doing the same through entrepreneurship. Through Brazil, India, Russia, China, Jordan, Japan…wherever geeks could be found, our plane was headed.

Like Bourdain, we could jive with the powerful and famous, but when we went back to our hotels at night after meeting Presidents and business leaders and celebrities, after press interviews and television programs, we wondered how a group of nobodies like us got here. It’s like we somehow snuck into a club through a back entrance, and no one stopped us.

The real story, the one you rarely hear, is that sometimes people who are that hungry to change the world are starving to change themselves. They have been hurt, they are bruised, and in an act of love and hope, they dedicate their fight to others.

But eventually, the fight inside resurfaces.

The other real story that is rarely told is the one of the “cofounders” — before it was a “show” or a “business”. Friends thrown together by luck and chance, on a crazy journey with no bounds and no reservations.

That night, Lydia and Chris told me their startup story — how they met Tony, how it all began, that they were still shocked by their own success, and the ways in which the show changed all their lives for better and worse.

I never told them, but I understood what they were actually saying. The bittersweet truth of success. Reaching that level of impact is a shared experience that is astoundingly rare and invisibly maddening.

Because sometimes, it’s not enough to save your friend.

“I write, I travel, I eat… and I’m hungry… FOR MORE”, Bourdain’s voice booms at the start of every episode.

In Roadrunner, the Netflix documentary about Bourdain’s life and death, Chris talks about what made Bourdain so sublime — his ability to let stories end without a happy ending, to point out unfairness without pointing to an answer, to remain in the ambiguous, however hard that may be.

But watching their grief at the end of Roadrunner, and the guilt they and Tony’s other friends felt for not being able to save their friend, I was transported back to that night at the party, sitting across from them. To those espadrilles Tony was wearing in the Hamptons, and the trivial but no-so-trivial ways they were watching him begin to dissipate.

Our show with ZPZ never got picked up. And like Tony, Lydia and Chris, my co-founders and I achieved more than we ever imagined.

But I couldn’t help but feel a deep, lasting pain for Lydia and Chris. I knew what it was to change the world, even in small ways, alongside a group of friends. And I knew the heartbreaking helplessness they must have felt watching Tony slip away.

There was nothing they could have done, and I hope everyday they know that they made his life better.

But maybe just as he saw the world, the only way to understand Bourdain’s death is to let it be ambiguous. To not need an answer, or a happy ending to the story.

To point out the unfairness without having to understand why.

However hard that may be.

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Christen O'Brien

Writer & Collector of life stories. Work featured on The Today Show, NYT, CNN, MSNBC, Medium. Documentary coming out 2022. (