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Zamir Gotta became familiar to American television viewers as the eccentric Russian right-hand man and traveling companion to American celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain in 10 episodes of CNN’s Parts Unknown and the Travel Channel’s No Reservations that aired between 2001 and 2016.
A fluent English speaker who worked in Moscow as a translator and field producer for western media including ABC, the BBC, the Travel Channel, Discovery and PBS after the collapse of the Soviet Union and once ran a bootleg vodka operation in northern Iraq while based at a Soviet power station, Gotta — whose first name Iazamir translates as “I am for peace” — recently launched his own brand of U.S.-made Zamir vodka, which he refers to as his “peacemaking” tool, to be used responsibly and respectfully.
A close friend of Bourdain’s for 17 years, Gotta exclusively shares here with The Hollywood Reporter his devastation and grief on hearing news of the TV chef’s death by suicide in Paris last week — and memories of some of the best of good and crazy times they shared:
“Tony’s death is a huge loss and I am devastated and heart-broken. He really convinced me that personal freedom and dignity are something we should never trade for anything. For me, he created what I can only define as an unbearable lightness of being through food and booze. He swept aside my negative stereotypes about street food. And since meeting him I learned to be bold and fearless in standing up for what I believe is right. Without Tony’s presence and influence in my life Zamir Vodka would never have been conceived or realized. He was a man whose friendship enriched and enlarged my world and his loss is the world’s loss.
“It can happen that you lose relatives or family members and one does not feel bitter — it’s life and losses happen. But then there are people who are in your life with the same sense of family and understanding and their death brings shock and collapse, as if we had a shared DNA and their death is like a death within our hearts too.
“I was fortunate to find in this life a true comrade-in-arms who, through his example, helped me throw off the chains of being Soviet born and brought up; who helped me become a citizen of the world. Through working with Tony, helping create such enjoyable and vibrant television, I became closer to the world of Hemingway and Kundera. We were drinking from the same glass, eating from the same plate in tiny road side cafes and dives — it mattered not whether we had caviar or blini, vodka or beer — there was always food for thought and lively discussion both between us and our viewers after the shows were aired.
“Tony called me an ‘international man of mystery’ — it was his little joke, but in real life he was, and shall remain, enigmatic to us all. He never complained or hurt anyone, was always accommodating and welcoming to people from other cultures and traditions. He was always thoughtful and respectful.
“In losing Tony I feel like I have lost a brother.
“I still vividly remember the first time we met. It was February 2001 and I was working on the Food Network’s Cook’s Tour episode. The shoot ended well and he and his first wife, Nancy, came and stayed in Moscow for a day. My wife Katya prepared duck stuffed with apples and we all had fun discussing movies by Sergey Eisenstein and Cold War spy films. Katya and I were both enchanted by this charismatic chef, who also happened to be very shy and insecure. Later, when our son was born there was no question — he was named Anton partially in honor of our new friend Tony.
“Tony was bold and fearless. In February 2014 a week before the Winter Olympics opened in Sochi, I was tasked with setting up a dinner interview with Boris Nemtsov, Russia’s charismatic opposition leader [THR: who later was shot dead within view of the Kremlin in what is believed to have been a contract killing in March 2015]. The restaurant we had booked canceled just three hours before we were due to arrive, when they heard our guest was Nemtsov. It took me a while to find somewhere else, but once there we had a great dinner, which ended up with Nemtsov inviting us to take part in an anti-corruption rally the next day. Without a second thought, Tony said ‘damn yes!’
“He would not be dissuaded — even though we argued that the Russian police were brutal, that we would be attending without any kind of press accreditation…but even after his New York-based producers said ‘no, too risky’ he still went ahead. Nemtsov was pleasantly surprised. And since then I started attending most of those kinds of rallies without a second thought.
“Then were was the time in Ukraine, which both of us had some anxieties about visiting, but everything went well and that night when we ate dinner off camera we downed two bottles of vodka between us. Our new, young DoP thought he would never see us in again…but in the morning we were up and ready, fresh as daisies for the cameras to roll.
“And Tony did not neglect to show me the ugly underside of America either. In 2008, out of the blue the producers of No Reservations invited me to be part of the Rust Belt episode shot in Detroit, Buffalo and Baltimore. A decade later and I remain eternally grateful for that experience: Tony deliberately showed me, his ex-Soviet buddy, how capitalism sucks during times of economic crisis. I remember the sad images of the General Motors factory in Detroit that was closing down, the lines of unemployed. But in Buffalo — where I am now based — although it too has suffered similar economic problems, I have been made so welcome by the locals, who regard me with affection as the underdog to the legend that Tony is. It is a melting pot city of immigrants from Poland, Germany, Ukraine…and it is no surprise that my peacemaking vodka was conceived and launched here.And that is all thanks to Tony….
“And then there is the episode in Uzbekistan, which has gone down in history as one of the most popular among Tony’s fans.
“It was the very last day and we managed to secure access to the older banya [steam sauna] in town, where the local masseur was rather disgruntled about being exposed on American TV. But I paid ahead of time and the masseur then outdid himself in enthusiasm, really overdoing it in his efforts to impress Tony and me. Afterwards Tony was in agony and distress — almost as if he had undergone some kind of sexual harassment…and he knew whom to blame. But, bless him, he never once pointed the finger at me and the episode became a huge hit.
“Tony’s presence in my life will remain with me; five years ago he encouraged me to begin work on my autobiography — he suggested I call it Strictly Zamir Life of a Fixer — and promised to write an introduction. Alas now that shall never be, but I plan to finish the book this year and dedicate to his life and memory. As we say in Russian vechnaya pamyat —everlasting memory. Rest in peace Tony.”
As told to Nick Holdsworth.
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