My chance encounter with Anthony Bourdain is a night I'll never forget

Steve Hurlbert, for CNNPublished 12th October 2018
NEW YORK, NEW YORK - APR 1: Anthony Bourdain at home in New York City, New York on April 1, 2018.  (photo by David Scott Holloway)  "Parts Unknown -  Lower Eastside"   25219_031
New York (CNN) — About five years ago following a work event in New York City, my colleague and friend Jeff Hanle and I ended up in a dive bar not far from Columbus Circle.
I don't remember the name of the bar, and I'm not sure I could even find it again on my own.
But I'll never forget it because it was the night I met Anthony Bourdain.
It was the kind of place that oozed character. You could tell before stepping inside that it was a real neighborhood bar, perfect for two guys from Colorado searching for an authentic New York experience as much as a drink.
Although it wasn't very late (maybe 10 p.m.), the bar was pretty empty. A couple huddled together in a corner table, and a man sat alone at the bar.
Jeff and I bellied up to the bar, a couple stools down from the man, who didn't so much as bat an eye when we sat down.
After ordering two beers, Jeff nudged me with his elbow.
"I think that's Anthony Bourdain," he silently mouthed.
"Impossible," I silently mouthed back, shaking my head.
To be fair to Jeff, it really did look like him. The unmistakable features -- salt and pepper hair, the tall and lanky build, noticeable even from his perch on the bar stool — made me look again slyly. It sure seemed like he could be an incredibly convincing Anthony Bourdain impersonator.
Maybe even a Bourdain proxy that the real Anthony Bourdain could send to events he didn't want to attend.
But the real thing? Here? No chance.
Steve Hurlbert's chance encounter with Anthony Bourdain left a deep imprint.
Steve Hurlbert's chance encounter with Anthony Bourdain left a deep imprint.
David Scott Holloway
Out of the literally thousands of bars in New York City, I couldn't believe that we had randomly wound up at the bar Anthony Bourdain supposedly frequented. (Later, I'd learn that Bourdain lived near Columbus Circle and the bar, The Coliseum, which has since shuttered its doors.)
But what if it was him, I thought, and we wordlessly devised a plan to figure it out.
Jeff struck up conversation with the bartender, asking him both about the bar and the neighborhood. "Is this considered the Upper West Side?" he asked nonchalantly.
"Not really, but close," the Bourdain doppelganger interjected before the bartender could answer.
And then we knew. It was him. It was Anthony Bourdain!
And he was talking to us!
Long-time admirers of his work, Jeff and I were floored, but we tried to play it cool and did our best to act normal, like this was any other random conversation one might have with a friendly stranger at the bar.
We talked idly about the neighborhood and New York in general for about 10 minutes before he extended a long right arm in our direction, making it official.
"Hi, I'm Tony," he said warmly, shaking our hands while a slight smile creased his face.
We introduced ourselves, barely missing a beat before we continued the conversation, which ended up taking a meandering route -- as great conversations with astonishingly interesting people tend to do.
We didn't talk about food, travel or TV. Jeff and I never mentioned what big fans we were or made any reference to his fame or celebrity.
I suppose we were thinking, based on our limited impression of Anthony Bourdain, that he'd appreciate a real conversation with real people far more than fawning fans asking for autographs and selfies.
Instead, the three of us discussed some of life's weightier themes: passion, pain and happiness. At one point, there was a lengthy discourse about the Stoics, ancient Greek philosophers who, in simplest terms, believed that our happiness is dependent not on external, materialistic belongings, but on our own virtue.
We talked about the Stoics' belief that by treating others well, it frees us from being controlled by outside pressures that manifest themselves in things like envy and fear. (A philosopher by profession might say we barely scratched the surface, and yet, it was a fascinating discussion.)
I wasn't surprised by Bourdain's obvious intelligence, but I'll admit I was impressed. But what struck me more than his way with words and clear knowledge on so many things was how he listened.
Tony asked us questions about our lives and what we'd learned through our own experiences, reflected both through the prism of Stoicism and in general living. He seemed genuinely interested in what we had to say, despite -- or maybe because of -- the fact that our lives were so different from his.
Here we were, two guys in town for an event for Colorado ski resorts, the business we're in, and here was Tony, an award-winning celebrity who'd probably just gotten off a plane from some exotic location where he was shooting "Parts Unknown."
Tomorrow, Jeff and I would fly back to Denver, and Tony, well, who knows where he was headed next. Russia? Las Vegas? Thailand?
Las Vegas Travel Minute
And yet, he was interested in us, in our stories.
As I shared details about relationships, past life victories, and most importantly, defeats, I felt Tony listening intently and without judgment. He expressed a level of interest I don't get from my own friends or family.
Tony was present that night with us at the bar, just as we've seen him be with the people he meets along his travels. Whether with the people of the Congo or chefs in Los Angeles' Koreatown, you get the sense that he's paying attention. It's not a routine or schtick, and we got to see that up close and personal.
Anthony Bourdain shares a meal with chef Roy Choi and restaurant owner Roy Kim at Dong Il Jang in Los Angeles' Koreatown.
Anthony Bourdain shares a meal with chef Roy Choi and restaurant owner Roy Kim at Dong Il Jang in Los Angeles' Koreatown.
Zero Point Zero
After a while, when the conversation began to come to a natural conclusion, Tony got up from the stool, shook our hands again and sincerely thanked us for the conversation.
"You gave me a lot to think about," he said (a comment which astounds me to this day), before dipping out of the bar and into the city.
Jeff and I sat speechless for several minutes afterward, gobsmacked over this surprise encounter. Not only had we had this incredible interaction with a celebrity, but it also felt imbued with meaning.
When I heard that Anthony Bourdain had died, my mind went immediately to this night at the bar. Although he no doubt left an impression, I was still taken aback by how much the news of his suicide affected me. I'd hung out with the guy for maybe two hours on a random Wednesday in September a half decade ago.
And yet, I'd never forget it.
As time passed, I came to look at our meeting as a gift -- not only of Tony's time but also his insight and his humanity -- a testament to the kind of the person he was, and the kind of person we all aspire to be.