On the flight to SF last week, I watched Roadrunner: A Film about Anthony Bourdain. It was a tough watch. Bourdain was something of a hero of mine. I enjoy cooking, writing, traveling, and telling stories. I suspect Bourdain was bipolar, though that's my completely unprofessional conjecture. Also, we both practiced jiu jitsu.
Earlier today, our friend Michael sent me this Rolling Stone article about Anthony Bourdain's pseudonymous participation in the jiu jitsu sub-reddit. It reminded me of the time I took a photo of Anthony Bourdain.
A bit of a backstory first.
I took my first jiu jitsu class in 1998 as a freshman in college. That's pretty early for jiu jitsu in America, which didn't gain worldwide attention until UFC 1 in 1993. I trained inconsistently for the five years I was at school. I learned a few things, got comfortable with rolling, but didn't do it regularly enough to make much progress. After I left school, I had a few fits and starts of training, but nothing lasted longer than six months. I sill considered myself a jiu jitsu practitioner – I always intended to get back into it – I was just on a bit of a break.
That break stretched on for over a decade.
In June 2015, I was in SF for work. I hadn't been to class in years, but my coworker Kyle Kelly-Yahner invited me to drop in at his school, Ralph Gracie Jiu Jitsu. For some reason, I said yes. I took two classes that week. The first was at 7am on a Tuesday, and it hit so hard that I left my office in the middle of my workday, went back to my hotel, and took a nap. I went back to the 7am on Thursday.
That was the day Bourdain showed up.
We met in the locker room. I got there early because I needed to borrow a gi. He got there early too – I imagine because life was easier when he didn't change in tiny locker room full of fans. So, it ended up being just the two of us, changing into our uniforms – him kindly making conversation, and me awkwardly trying to treat him like a regular person even though I knew that he knew that I knew who he was.
He did the whole class – warmups and everything. Which was not bad considering that he was easily the oldest person on the mat by a decade. During the drilling portion of the class he mostly worked with Kurt Osiander, the legendary head instructor at Ralphs. When it came time to fight, I got the impression that Kurt was rightfully protective of Bourdain, only pairing him with upper belts he could trust (ie -- there was no chance I was going to grapple with him that day).
Later that week, he came by with his crew and filmed this scene.
He walked past me when class was over, when everyone was either stretching or laying on their back catching their breath. I stopped him, told him that my old roommate worked at Alinea, and that he was an inspiration to us. He was kind in his reply, but I immediately felt awkward about namedropping not letting him just be another guy that day.
I felt better after someone asked everyone to take a group photo. As the visitor, I volunteered to take it and used someone else's iPhone (this was before I started carrying a camera). Kyle kindly texted me the photo later that day. It's a 62kb JPEG, but if you squint, the blurb of pixels in the front row left-of-center kind of looks like Anthony Bourdain.
Anthony Bourdain, and my encounter with him, was a big reason why I finally started training again in 2018. I was 38 years old. It was becoming obvious that I was either going to intentionally get healthier or unintentionally decline. Stasis was no longer an option. I saw photos of Bourdain walking on a beach with ripped abs at the age of sixty, and read stories about how he trained every day and even competed in a jiu jitsu tournament in New York. I figured if Bourdain could start in his late-50s, I could start again in my late 30s.
In March of 2018, I enrolled at Marcelo Garcia's Academy in Manhattan, resuming my jiu jitsu journey again after a fifteen year break. Bourdain died three months later. I found out an hour before class.