The video has 1.8 million views on YouTube. I have watched it a dozen times, myself. I return to it because it will be as close as I ever come to having a late-night conversation with Anthony Bourdain. I am not sure why I feel this loss so keenly, but I do.
The voice-over narration sets the tone: “It is indeed an irony-free zone, where everything is beautiful and nothing hurts,” reads Bourdain, as the cameras shoot stark portraits of the burglar bars over the windows of a Charleston Waffle House. (Why burglar bars, though, for a place that never closes?) The last bit of this is a paraphrase from a quote in Kurt Vonnegut’s book ‘Slaughterhouse-Five.” “Everything was beautiful and nothing hurt” was Billy Pilgrim’s ironic epitaph for veterans who survived the grisly horror of the march to Berlin. It is, of course, a lie.
The scene itself is nearly as familiar to every Southern musician as the dots on a fretboard, or the gap between the snare drum and rack tom: A Waffle House after last call, the parking lot bathed in the flashing lights of a police car, the diners inside enjoying a temporary reprieve denied the outside losers of the thousand-dollar cat and mouse game of “I can make it home, I’m fine,” and the defenders of Law and Order.
Anthony is shithoused and laughing. Sean Brock is there, loquacious and joyful, defending the guilty pleasure of us all, but without any shame. And here is why I think some of us love it so much: Sean, with his soft Southern accent, is undeniably from working-class roots. Underneath the table, he’s probably wearing the same shoes he works in: kitchen shoes, with their greasy funk, familiar to anyone who has ever walked on the squishy rubber mats of a line, or slung steaming plates out to anxious expediters, screaming for “MORE NUMBER TENS, NOW!”
Anthony is a celebrity chef. A man who can walk with ease into restaurants where the bill would be a mortgage payment for most of us, but Anthony would never see the bill, because he is above even that rarified strata, now. “Tony” is a doyen of the world where culture and food collide, a world where most of us would be ashamed to lift the lid on a pot of our grandmother’s beans, but a place about which we have endless curiosity.
And yet, Sean is unafraid. Sean is from Pound, Virginia, not far from the Red Onion State Prison, an oddly named Supermax prison where every inmate is in solitary confinement.
Sean and Anthony sit on the same side of a booth, with plates of nearly everything that Waffle House makes spread out in front of them. A tasting menu of everything both pedestrian and sublime.
“You don’t come here expecting the French Laundry,” says Sean, around a mouthful of pecan waffle, “You come here expecting something AMAZING.”
“This is better than the French Laundry, man,” Bourdain says.
And there it is. Sean represents something very important to me. You can get from my hometown to his hometown in about three and a half hours, pedal to the metal, winding through the mountains. He is a rocker: tattooed and boozy, a workaholic even on his night off, and though I’ve heard that he, like me, is no longer a bucket into which to pour bourbon, he still has the tattoos that probably troubled his grandmother as much as they troubled mine. He has put in the hours. I mean the hours and hours and hours and HOURS of work it took to claw his way up into the outer fringes of respectability.
Husk began in Charleston, a frontier outpost of the cultured class. Husk is just blocks from the very wooden post to which stolen black bodies were lashed to be auctioned off into a short, brutal life, hacking cotton out of the iron-hard earth. A friend visiting from England once noticed that the only black people he saw working front-of-house in Charleston were at Husk. Everywhere else, black men and women were hidden behind kitchen doors, as they have been in Charleston for 400 years.
Bourdain is from New York City. While New York hides its racial animus much more discreetly, Bourdain has spoken at great length and with great clarity about how much he knows he benefits from his privilege. Southerners know, on an intuitive level, how much disdain is reserved in Bourdain’s world for the vulgarity of The Southern Thing.
But here is Sean Brock, and here is Waffle House, and here is Bourdain, through Four Roses-tinted glasses, seeing it for the first time, and rhapsodizing about its greatness. This is due, most likely, to Sean being such a fearless advocate. And I love him for it.
Waffle House is what it is: Humble, consistent, a little trashy, but egalitarian and hard-working.
For a moment, Bourdain was happy, bathed in the “warm, yellow glow” of a 3AM Waffle House, and the loving attention of his friend Sean. They’re both drunk and laughing. And Sean, bless him, is unbowed in his enthusiasm to show off the closest thing most Southern towns have to a New York diner. He knows his friend Tony is also Mr. Anthony Bourdain, a man with Opinions That Matter, and with a palate refined by years of Michelin-starred dining rooms, and yet he implores him to explore the “sauce-work” in the bottle of Heinz 57.
In the uncensored version, Sean says “Fuck the French Laundry, this is where I want to be.” Bourdain laughs and Sean laughs, and for a minute, it appears, nothing hurt.