What Tony taught me, where he took me and how he made me the man I am today
My name is Steve Minegar. I’m a budding travel blogger and podcaster, Spanish and Brazilian Portuguese speaker and co-host of Radio GDR, a history podcast dedicated to understanding the life and times of East Germany. Anthony Bourdain made me who I am today, equipping me via his writing and television shows with the indomitable courage to travel, eat, cook, and heck…talk about all that with you now.
I first saw Anthony Bourdain on television in my host mom’s guest room on a cold Santiago, Chile winter day in July 2007. There studying Spanish, my host mom luckily had great cable, enabling me to rest my foreign language-fatigued brain by watching American movies, and, well, Tony. “The man must have an iron stomach!” I thought. Yeah, he did, but what I discovered over the next 11 years was that he also had a way to make food and travel into an unrivaled work of art. Before any trip, I searched the net to see where Tony had eaten in that city, planning my itinerary in such a way that my legs would not give out en route to the restaurants, dive bars and holes-in-the-wall I starred on Google Maps. Tony Bourdain changed my life, and I know he changed yours, and since he left us, we’ve only come to realize that more every day.
Tony made food and travel less scary to the layman. Moreover, he gave us guides to fall in love with cities and restaurants all over America and the world. After his passing on what was my 33rd birthday in 2018, an awful day filled with smiles masking a broken heart, I and I’m sure many others struggled to watch his shows, read his books or cook his recipes lest the sadness and shock of his sudden absence in our lives return. I keep his autographed Appetites cookbook on a stand in my kitchen…it was not in its usual dignified place for about a month after that day.
As we approach three years since our collective loss, I want to take the time to chronicle how Tony inspired me to travel, eat and understand the world. Tony taught me never to be afraid of what’s on my plate. My language skills have only given me the ability to order even more exotic things like a completo in Chile, pão na chapa in Brazil or a currywurst in Germany, all things Tony brought into my life. Language may be no barrier to me in a place like South Carolina, but I’m glad Tony taught me that wild ingredients like mustard BBQ sauce on smoked pork at Sweatman’s BBQ, the best local BBQ you can get, taste delicious.
Tony also taught me about flavors and cooking. Treat your garlic with respect – slice it like they do in Goodfellas. Vietnamese pho comes with green onions, white onions, Thai basil (not to be confused with sweet basil), fresh Thai chili peppers, lemon or lime wedges, bean sprouts, and cilantro (coriander leaves) – put them ALL in the soup. The fancy restaurants have amazing food, but it was the food of the poor, like Brazil’s feijoada, consisting of leftover meat and beans used to feed slaves, that is often just as tasty and tells a more impactful story of a place. Don’t be afraid to cook – a basic knife will do, and even if you burn your foot while frying fish, which I did (laugh it up, fuzzball), get right back up and keep cooking. The fish was delicious, by the way, even with iced foot on the side.
Tony was a renaissance man I never met but got to know through travel across three continents via the authentically local places he recommended. You want the real deal? Follow Tony’s instincts. Skip Ocean Drive in Miami Beach and stick to Little Havana where you’ll find El Palacio de los Jugos. You’ll be better off meal-wise sounding stupid in Spanish than having some yucky hamburger while beachgoers loudly binge shots around you. Bourbon Street? Forget the Hand Grenades…go to Atchafalaya for some Andouille-Cornbread Stuffed Quail and a sophisticated cocktail. I am not a trained chef, but it honestly doesn’t take much effort to distinguish between great local cuisine crafted with love and something that doesn’t deserve to be on a plate.
While this is not an exhaustive list of places he took me, Tony influenced me the most on my trips to Cuba, New Orleans, Brazil, Colombia and Germany. Like a travel guide, feel free to jump to the destination that most interests you. Music always accompanies food on my journeys, so I’ve included a song that reminds me of each destination (listen as you read or after – I’m an eclectic guy, so you won’t be disappointed). Let’s dive into a few of the special things I found as I followed in Tony’s footsteps…
***WARNING FOR HUNGRY EYES***
***FOOD PORN AHEAD***
Coffee, Castro and Cuba – Meeting Florida’s long-lost Cousin
“There aren’t many places in the world that look like this. It is utterly enchanting. It’s very seductive.”Bourdain on Cuba
Chan Chan – Buena Vista Social Club
Growing up in Tampa, Florida, I ate Cuban food A LOT as a kid. Cuban sandwiches overflowing with pork, ham and mayonnaise between thick slices of crunchy bread. Black beans and yellow rice covered with onions. Ropa vieja, a beef stew in tomato sauce that melts in your mouth. Sweet plantains…oh, they’re better than candy. Cortadito and café con leche…honestly wayyyy better than American coffee, if you ask me. Cuban food is as much home cooking to me as meatloaf and mashed potatoes.
Despite growing up so close, Cuba remained an enigma, the appendage of the Evil Empire gripped in the throes of a Communist dictatorship…a “no man’s land” where goodhearted Americans dare not dream of going lest their patriotism be questioned. I studied Cuban history in high school and college, so I knew well that Castro’s alignment with the Soviet Union cost him dearly with the Tío Sam to the north. What I learned visiting Cuba, however, is that politics is only government-deep and that the Cuban people are kind and enormously resourceful.
In No Reservations and Parts Unknown, Tony revealed the mystery of Cuba to me – its ornate but crumbling architecture, classic cars and unique restaurant business make it a land where Tony says “the gears of the system are largely stuck in time.” Regarding the food scene, many of Cuba’s restaurants are known as paladares, which are small establishments run out of homes, staffed by family and only allowed to accommodate a certain number of people. Because access to ingredients is limited, creativity is valued, and the pork and seafood dishes, all of which come with black beans and rice (see below for a great picture of drying beans…love that shot) I had in the paladares were quite good. Can’t ignore the tropical fruits either.
Cuban coffee, which Tony referred to as “jet fuel” for its powerful punch of caffeine, is abundant. Our hostess made it for us each morning while she regaled us with stories of how she had gotten into a car accident that prompted her to write a letter to Fidel Castro asking for help with recouping resulting losses. My brain be cursed if I ever forget that tale.
Tony loved classic cars, which are just stunning in Cuba. Classic 1950’s American cars like Chevys and Oldsmobiles roam the streets and are joined by Eastern bloc cars like Soviet-era Ladas, which I think are just as cool. One evening when my friends went out, I decided to stay behind in our 8th story guesthouse in the middle of Havana just to listen to the sounds of this incredible fleet of cars. Every car in Cuba is a piece of history. Just watch out…your clothes will smell like exhaust fumes upon your return home.
Rabbit with Dumplings at Cochon chased by a Sazerac in New Orleans
“There is no other place on other even remotely like New Orleans. Don’t even try to compare it to anywhere else.”
See Me As I Am – Terence Blanchard Featuring The E-Collective
Damn straight, Tony. New Orleans is like NO OTHER place I have ever been…in the United States. As I walked down her streets, New Orleans SCREAMED Havana to me with its architecture. At a bookshop in Jackson Square, I made that very remark to the woman behind the desk only to have her excitedly shove a “Creole Architecture” book full of pictures comparing the local buildings to those in Latin America. Whoopee! I knew I was right…turns out Louisiana having once been Spanish and French territory left a mark. I bought the book, by the way :).
Tony Bourdain took me on an unforgettable culinary tour in New Orleans not just from the perspective of eating the food, but learning how it’s made, too. The best spot he went in No Reservations is Cochon and its accompanying sandwich shop Cochon Butcher. If you eat at Cochon, the dining room is wonderful, but ask to be seated at the bar overlooking the kitchen. Watch the line cooks operate like a military unit, slamming oysters with chili garlic butter into the wood-fired oven while carefully arranging plate after plate of mackerel, redfish, ribeye and other proteins thick enough to stop an artery in one gulp. “Order up!”
My personal Cochon favorite? The rabbit with dumplings. I first had rabbit at a Cuban restaurant as a kid, and oh boy is it tasty. This is southern goodness at its best – a surprisingly delicious protein new to many people in an unforgettable vegetable stew. Get it with the creamy grits. Some people don’t like grits, but I love them since my mom served them to me as a kid, especially cooked in milk or cream.
Once you’ve finished your meal at Cochon, follow Tony’s advice and go to the historic Sazerac Bar at the Roosevelt Hotel, voted the #1 Hotel Bar in the U.S. by USAToday and CNNTravel. Order, well, THE SAZERAC, a rye whiskey and cognac cocktail. Delicious. I once saw a man order a Bud Light in that bar…please, I beg of you, in the name of all that is good and true in this world, do NOT be that man!
***A final story about Cochon that contains a lesson about being yourself*** In Fort Myers, Florida where I live, I frequent the Fort Myers Brewery, an outstanding place. One evening as I prepared to leave for weekly trivia at FMB, I saw my Cochon Butcher t-shirt, which has a big pig on it, and hesitated to wear it lest people think I looked a little gluttonous. Well, I wore it, and as I walked into the brewery, I heard out of the corner of my ear someone say, “Wow, look at that guy…he’s wearing a Cochon Butcher shirt.” With reaction being the opposite of what I expected, I was a pig in mud the rest of the night… Always be yourself!
Mortadella at the Mercado Municipal, São Paulo, Brazil
“This view of the skyline doesn’t even begin to show the concrete vastness that is São Paulo.”
Terráqueo – Donati
I started learning Portuguese in college after meeting a Brazilian family and taking Latin American history courses at the University of Florida. While I sadly left my first Portuguese book on the bus, I have become fluent in the language, having traveled to Brazil five times and now working with Brazilian clients on a daily basis. Brazil is the purest form of poetry, a nation that, while saddled with slavery’s grim legacy and resulting social issues, is filled with natural beauty, wonderful people and delicious food.
For his 2007 episode of No Reservations in São Paulo, Tony Bourdain went to the Mercado Municipal, a large indoor market in the center of the city. Long on my list of places to visit in my what I consider my second homeland, I finally landed on the moon, visiting the market in November 2018. Conquering the mortadella sandwich, deemed the “best of São Paulo” by a young man in the episode, was my mission, and my friend Esther, a São Paulo native, or “paulista” in the local vernacular, helped me order one from a restaurant on the second floor.
The sandwich is absolutely incredible. Often bagged, I complain about bread in the United States – it lacks the smell and texture of what I find in Brazil, where bread is made fresh daily. The bread on this sandwich was, as I expected, exquisite: incredibly crunchy but moist, smelling like heaven, and the mortadella was salty and sweet. Well worth the 30-minute trek through the center of São Paulo to get it…although I recommend going with a native guide to get there.
The Mercado is a kaleidoscope of colors made up of exotic tropical fruits and vegetables and meats fit for a king. While there, look for places that also serve pão na chapa, or bread and butter on the grill, a “simple good thing” according to Tony, and dogão, a hot dog piled high with mashed and matchstick potatoes (see the last two pictures below). I discover something new in Brazil every time I go – every occasion I have to travel there is special, and because of Tony Bourdain, I go knowing I’ll eat well.
Altitude Sickness, Ajiaco and Airplanes in Bogotá, Colombia
“It’s ludicrous this place exists and everybody doesn’t want to live here.”Bourdain on Colombia
Volví a Nacer – Carlos Vives
The course was called Doing Business in Emerging Markets. “Sign me up!” I told my MBA Advisor at Rollins College in 2013, excited we would be going to Bogotá, Colombia to visit companies, learn from entrepreneurs, and of course, EAT. Located 8,600 feet/2,600 meters up in the Andes Mountains, Bogotá will leave you breathless…literally! The altitude will mess with you at first, making you dizzy, robbing you of sleep and, well, creating quite an appetite. Thank goodness Bogotá has some really good food.
Half a block from the Plaza de Bolívar, Bogotá’s city center, sits Colombia’s oldest restaurant, La Puerta Falsa, a two-storied time machine replete with delicious choices that Tony visited in 2013 for Parts Unknown. To warm up from the unpredictable weather that comes with high altitude, a “Bogotano’s” meal of choice is ajiaco, a hearty chicken stew with potatoes and corn on the cob. Seasoned with a Colombian herb called guascas, ajiaco is traditionally served with slices of avocado, capers and mild sour cream. Ajiaco is KILLER – a supremely tasty and filling meal that will set your oxygen-deprived brain right. Tony and I also ate the tamales made with chicken and pork belly, combined with vegetables, rice and masa, wrapped in a banana leaf and slow cooked for hours. My smile below reveals how I felt about eating in this gem of a restaurant – a gift from Tony, for sure.
If you’re even remotely still hungry after eating at La Puerta Falsa, follow Tony to the south of Bogotá to visit the Mercado de Paloquemao, an extraordinarily colorful indoor market filled with fresh fruits, vegetables, meats, poultry, and some really cool people! Being a diehard Gator fan, I was excited to spot the colors of my university on a ballcap sported by a butcher. He gave me the Gator Chomp, too – Go Gators!
Now, c’mon, Steve, Go Gators isn’t your sweetest memory of Colombia, let’s be honest. Travel gives us little moments we never forget that remind us how grateful we are for the amazing things we do but take for granted. Tony had those little moments on his journeys, and mine was waiting in line to enter Colombia’s Salt Cathedral in Zipaquirá north of Bogotá. When my friends and I struck up a conversation with a group of schoolboys, we asked them to practice their English by counting to ten, which they did with gusto. It was one sweet little question, though, that touched me – “Did you travel here by airplane?” Wow…of course, little fella. Plane travel, once a mundane exercise I engaged in since my boyhood was in that instant transformed into a grand adventure. How privileged I suddenly was to regularly partake in it and to have the language abilities to capture and respond to this question across the cultural gulf. Thank you for this memory, young man…I cherish it and hope you got to take a trip on an airplane.
Currywurst, the Cold War and a Beer at Konnopke’s Imbiss, Berlin, Germany
“’Berlin is never Berlin,’ they say. Pounded into rubble by Allied bombs and Russian artillery during World War II, surrounded and then hacked into during the Cold War, then reunited and reborn, Berlin is a city of ghosts, an ever-evolving space where memories and new ideas live side by side.”
Oh, Berlin, my beloved Berlin…it brings me to tears that you would be one of Tony’s last destinations via Parts Unknown. Oh city of ghosts, walls and redemption, you have taught me so much. I’m so lucky I get to tell your stories via our Radio GDR podcast.
Long interested in Berlin Wall and Cold War history, I was sleeplessly excited when I finally touched down at Berlin’s Tegel airport in September 2019. Armed with my trusty Berlin Wall app, I tracked along as the taxi to my hotel took me past what were once intimidating border checkpoints between East and West at Potsdamer Platz and Checkpoint Charlie.
I credit Tony with guiding me where to eat in my beloved Berlin, a city whose tumultuous 20th century history is not far below the surface of what has become a gleaming European capital. Alongside my itinerary full of World War 2 and East Germany sites was my list of places Tony had eaten in No Reservations and Parts Unknown, none more important than Konnopke’s Imbiss, a currywurst stand opened in 1930 in the eastern neighborhood of Prenzlauer Berg, Berliner Prater Garten, Berlin’s oldest and most beautiful beer garden also in Prenzlauer Berg, and Rogacki, a local favorite since 1928 in the western neighborhood of Charlottenburg.
Tony’s visit to Konnopke’s Imbiss of course included Berlin’s famous currywurst, a plate of pork sausage, curry ketchup and French fries smothered in mayonnaise. The dish is attributed to Herta Heuwer who, in 1949, supposedly obtained ketchup and curry powder from British soldiers and poured it over the sausage. Currywurst is just simple goodness…another one of Tony’s beloved tubes of meat slathered in sweet and spicy with a great story to tell. I lambasted French fries in mayonnaise the first time I heard of the concoction, but I swear, it balances the curry perfectly. Konnopke’s Imbiss even has a bit of Cold War intrigue, having been a site where East Germany’s secret police, the Stasi, kept watch over foreign visitors in East Berlin.
Located just a stone’s throw away, Berliner Prater Garten is the perfect salve to weary tourists who have just realized Berlin has too much to see for just one trip. I prefer the hefeweizen with Thüringer Rostbratwurst. To get to Prenzlauer Berg, you could drive an East German Trabant like Tony did below, but if you don’t want to inhale the smoke belched out of its two-stroke engine, just take the U-Bahn U2 line to Eberswalder Strasse for these local favorites or more exotic cuisines like Russian, Georgian or Nepalese.
When you get back on the U-Bahn and head west via the U2 line toward Rogacki at Bismarckstrasse station, you’ll hardly realize you are crossing what was once one of the most heavily militarized borders in the world along the Berlin Wall. At Rogacki, be prepared to be animatedly excited by the fare on sale – smoked fish, cheese, and meats that will leave your head spinning. At the lunch counter, where I unforgettably had the opportunity to order in Spanish with a Dominican waitress, I asked for two blood sausages that nearly made me fall over with flavor. These are the real deal – cut them open and let the inner heaven mix with the potatoes and sauerkraut. Take in that you are eating amongst locals who, 30 years ago, lived on an island surrounded by Communist dictatorship. Berlin’s history always sneaks up on you when you least expect it.
I credit Tony Bourdain with opening Berlin to me and giving me the chance to be a podcast host. Tony, thank you for this special opportunity, and Berlin, I wear you on my heart…it is an honor to tell your stories.
In graduate school, I had neighbors from Tony’s beloved Vietnam who, one afternoon, invited me over for a feast. Emerging from a kitchen from whence wafted the aromas of garlic and fish sauce were colorful meats and vegetables of all varieties. Spread on a blue tarp around which about 15 of us sat, the beautiful food, thanks to Tony, didn’t present a gustatory challenge, but rather an opportunity to try cuisine from a land Tony said was like another planet that sucked him in and never let him go.
Excited for the oncoming flavor rush, I unleashed my chopsticks, which whacked through the air as I attacked every dish. Pho and spring rolls were my favorite, and to this day, that was one of the greatest meals I ever had. I credit Tony Bourdain with not only introducing me to new foods like this, but making them beloved as I prepare them in my own kitchen and try them in others.
Beyond myself, I am amazed at how many people Tony inspired to travel and eat. Watching Tony excite and even try to terrify Anderson Cooper by cooking exotic foods from his next destinations was pure delight for me. My favorite clip is Tony teaching Anderson about “Army Stew” and Korean food, one of my all time favorite cuisines.
Singer and actor Jesse McCartney, of whom I have been a fan since we were kids, credits Tony Bourdain with inspiring his love to cook, something I surprisingly discovered while writing this post. “I’ve read all his books. I thought ‘Kitchen Confidential’ was awesome,” Jesse said. If Jesse ever reads this, no doubt he would agree there are destinations we visit that capture our hearts so much we wish we could just plant our flags, turn back home to say “I’m leavin’, never looking back again!”
Tony was a friend to all of us, a special treasure whose loss has been incalculable. Tributes from those he inspired, some of which I include from some of my favorite people, are below…
Tony, thank you for taking me around the world. Thank you for giving me a lifelong quest to find new ingredients and flavors. Thank you for making me love to cook and to realize the most simple flavors, be they from fancy or poor, make the best food. Thank you for reminding us we are all part of the same tribe – a human race who, despite borders and language barriers, all strive to be loved, successful and have a good meal from time to time. Your spirit lives on in all of us. We will continue cooking, eating and traveling in your honor, and we have no doubt that warms your heart even now.