The first (and still only) movie I’ve seen in theaters since COVID took over our daily lives is Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain. Kirsten and I went on release night during our stay in Washington state. He’s been one of my core heroes since I saw Parts Unknown debut as a college Sophomore in 2013. The way he saw the world, spoke, wrote, and traveled was refreshing. He saw the world like a film or a great novel – like it was, should, and could be all at once. I’ve devoured his books, shows, recipes, and interviews numerous times.
I had a lot of emotions leaving the parking lot after Roadrunner. One of them was a problem with how the documentary’s narrative began. It presents Anthony Bourdain’s book deal for Kitchen Confidential like the beginning, but his story didn’t start in New York City at Brasserie Les Halles, it started some 3,500 miles away at a small bistro in France.
Kirsten and I arrived in Bordeaux, France on August 27. We caught an hour long bus to our Airbnb with the priority of getting proper hydration and downtime. When we arrived, our host Martine instead insisted on giving us the full rundown of what to see in her city. It was a very thorough list. My mind wandered freely after she pulled out the 8th tour brochure, but when she mentioned a day trip to Arcachon, it popped a flag in my mind. “Arcachon… Seems familiar… Wasn’t that where Bourdain went with his brother?”
In trip prep I had reread A Cook’s Tour, the accompanying book to Anthony Bourdain’s TV miniseries of the same name, in an effort to make me feel better about chronicling the journey. It was his first show, spring-boarded off the unexpected fame of Kitchen Confidential. A fully funded world trip, “in search of the perfect meal.” What a dream.
In Chapter 2, Back to the Beach, Bourdain links up with his younger brother Chris for a trip back in time. When Anthony was 12, he spent the summer with his father’s side of the family in his, “ancestral homeland,” of Arcachon. As a thriving resort town just a bay away from the Atlantic, Arcachon is landmark city and, as such, is used as the main location for the TV version. In the book and in real life, that summer and revisit was spent minutes away in La Teste-du-Buch, or just La Teste – a calmer, less touristy destination where Bourdain’s aunt and uncle lived. Over the course of the episode (available on YouTube and arguably better delivered in the novel), the brothers eat fish soup, play in the sand Dunes du Pilat, and visit their aunt’s old house for memories of their father and a place that changed their lives. If I had a chance to see where Anthony Bourdain had his first food experience, there’s no way I could miss it.
What will be left? Would anything be remotely the same as he saw it? It’s been 20 years since A Cook’s Tour and pushing 50 years since Bourdain spent his summers there. I’d already found one fiction. The brasserie visited in the episode’s opening minutes isn’t in Arcachon. It’s in Bordeaux. And since 2002, the restaurant has become less of what he called a, “French version of, you know, Joe’s Diner,” and more of an overpriced tourist trap. What else is different? Only one way to find out: we boarded a commuter train to La Teste.
45 minutes later, we were on the simple platform facing a small park as the train pulled away. We were where the Bourdain story started. It was a short walk from the station to the locations found in the show. The family-owned bakery where the Bourdains got their breakfasts of baguettes and raisin bread every morning moved across town years ago. The bakery that took over the space didn’t make it through COVID. Not a great start. Then around the corner, there it was – Le Bistrot du Centre, the restaurant where Anthony had his first food love, remains.
“I guess I was impressed by its relative complexity and strangeness. It was kind of exotic, yeah. It was murky. It was brown. It was scary looking. I really loved that stuff. As soon as I started cooking professionally, it was one of the first things I put my repertoire…Of course, I never got it to taste like it did here.”
– Anthony Bourdain, A Cook’s Tour Episode 9
And I didn’t get the fish soup. Go figure. They didn’t have it scrawled on the chalkboard menu of the day. We were also sitting outside in the south of France in August. But we did finally get some excellent, proper French food. I had a superb meal of duck gizzards and roast duck leg over greens, sausicce rougail, light sausages with a thick tomato sauce served over white rice, and a fraisier, a traditional French strawberry cake. Kirsten had fried and grilled calamari, salmon tagliatelle, and fresh fruit ice cream. All excellent and 30 euro total.
Very full, we rolled off the deck and down the street to #5 Rue de Jules Favre. It’s a quiet, ordinary suburban street. There’s no marker, no memorial. Why would there be? But the Bourdains’ house is still there. The aunt moved out long ago, per A Cook’s Tour, and the house isn’t visible from the road thanks to a very large hedge fence, also seen in the show. But it’s there and I got to stand where Anthony stood and feel a little closer to someone I’ll never meet but always admire. There was a silent moment, a picture was taken, and we left it behind.
“The whole concept of the ‘perfect meal’ is ludicrous. ‘Perfect,’ like ‘happy,’ tends to sneak up on you. Once you find it – like Thomas Keller says – it’s gone. It’s a fleeting thing, perfect.”
– Anthony Bourdain, A Cook’s Tour – Epilogue
To eat good food in France, in the late summer sunshine with someone I love, on an adventure; it was perfect.