The news that Anthony Bourdain took his own life while on location in France to film an episode of CNN's Parts Unknown resonated throughout the Denver dining scene. Bourdain's visits to the Mile High City were few, but we clung to his words and opinions like blessings (or curses) from the Vatican.
After a 2002 stop here, Bourdain stated that he would never return to Denver, finding nothing worthwhile to eat during a tour of downtown on foot. But that was his public persona: casting judgment and moving on, leaving chefs, diners and audiences to wonder if it was just an act for the cameras, all bluster and bravado at the expense of our restaurant scene...or if there was a kernel of truth in his words.
He eventually returned to Denver, but not until 2009. People were still mad, but also proud of Denver, so they let him know where to find the kind of gloriously craveable street eats that food shows are so good at showcasing — and Bourdain listened. After his visit, Denver was featured in a 2010 episode of No Reservations, in which he said:
I had a checkered, even tortured relationship with Denver before I came this last time. Even though Denver's always been great to me, in 2002 I came through here on my book tour and found myself hungry, wandering around the city center looking for good food. What I saw was not inspiring — and I said so, repeatedly, frankly insulting the city long after the world had moved on and things had changed.
Seven years later, Denverites recommended that he try Biker Jim's Gourmet Dogs, then nothing more than a street cart on the 16th Street Mall serving outlandish game sausages grilled up by founder Jim Pittenger. In the episode, Bourdain tells Pittenger, "Thank you for all your good work in making Denver a wonderful place to be."
At least Bourdain had the good sense to recognize what we already knew; not long after, Pittenger went on to open a storefront version of Biker Jim's on Larimer Street, quickly becoming one of the country's most buzzed- about hot dog slingers.
In that 2010 episode, Bourdain also visited Mizuna, owned by chef/restaurateur Frank Bonanno, whom he called the "big dog in town." Proof of that pronouncement has been growing over the past several years as Bonanno has built up his restaurant empire, culminating in Denver Milk Market, the massive undertaking that launched at the beginning of this month. At one point, Bourdain had planned to open his own international food hall in New York City, but those plans were put on hold last year — and now will never happen.
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"I wish he could have waited ’til tomorrow," Pittenger says. "Things might be different then. He took a permanent solution to what I can only imagine is a temporary problem."
When Bourdain came to Denver in 2016 on a publicity-tour stop for his last book, Appetites, he acknowledged legalized marijuana as a draw for the city's chefs and disparaged craft beer during his on-stage monologue.
Anthony Bourdain's lust for adventure, food and drink, as well as his engaging storytelling, had always made us feel as if we knew the man, but as with so many celebrities, his private life and emotions weren't part of the lively picture portrayed in his TV shows or by the media.
But in the little time we had to get to know him here, at least he finally gave Denver his blessing.