Remembering Anthony Bourdain (1956-2018)

I feel like an asshole even trying to articulate any thoughts on Anthony Bourdain’s apparent suicide in France, at age 61, as should anyone who earns a living by doing whatever it is you call what I do; that is, trying to talk reasonably intelligently about food in a way that Bourdain did so effortlessly and with so much more skill and ability. Over the course of the days and weeks, I have no doubt that others will be able to provide greater insights and more meaningful analysis of Bourdain’s impact, making this post more for myself, than anyone else.

Whether you loved or hated the man, there is no single person that participates in the restaurant or food media world of today, who wasn’t either directly influenced or impacted to some degree by Bourdain and his first bestselling book, 2000’s “Kitchen Confidential.” His was a story of misfit redemption; Surviving the grit of the brutally difficult 1970’s-era hard knock, drug-addicted restaurant world, only to emerge a thoughtful, wiser elder statesman of that culture, with just enough rough patches left around the edges to make him really, really interesting, and a joy to watch on television.

In “Kitchen Confidential,” Bourdain spoke in a voice that reflected the straight talk of the inhabitants of the kitchen world, while illustrating a certain romantic, Sid-and-Nancy nihilist sexiness for those of us who were glimpsing behind that curtain for the first time. His struggle was the same as every downtrodden dishwasher who had ever worked a hungover busy Sunday brunch shift, and his emergence from that world to celebrity chef and pop culture personality was inspiring.

He never claimed to be the world’s most gifted chef, and maintained an enviable, self-effacing humility even as he helped every wannabe food journalist and food wonk explore the back-alley culture of the world’s most unreachable places, from the comfort of our own living rooms.

His outspoken celebrity feuds were the stuff of legend; in the course of his career, he picked fights with almost everyone from Donald Trump to Paula Deen to Guy Fieri*, each time managing to evicerate his opponent (real or imagined) with just a few well-chosen words. Bourdain made us all believe that even at age 61, you could still travel the globe, wear skinny black tee shirts, idolize Iggy Pop, and publicly call bullshit, wherever you found it, as long as you could back it all up by showing up, doing the work, and cooking your ass off.

*Bourdain and Fieri actually had much more in common than either man would care to admit. Sure, Bourdain was classically trained in the French tradition in the rough-and-tumble meritocracy of NYC kitchens, while Fieri was pitching performance mufflers on television and wearing sunglasses on the back of his head. But both men recognized the importance of shining a light on small-scale, hardworking, independent producers of food that speaks to peoples hearts and souls. The fact that Bourdain was doing it with roasted chicken kidneys eaten off a skewer from a street vendor in Saigon, while Fieri does it with sausages stuffed with American cheese and other, smaller sausages from a “funky little joint” outside of Chicago hardly matters.

Bourdain visited my home state of Maine for an episode of his Travel Channel show, “No Reservations.” His tacit dismissal of Portland’s lauded restaurant scene became the stuff of local legend; he couldn’t get out of Maine’s biggest city quickly enough, choosing instead to spend most of the episode following one of his squirrely cameramen around more remote parts of the state, including Rockland, near where I live, and Milo (a town more known for its logging industry, than its culinary significance), where he ate barbecue served from a shack accessible only by a remote, forgotten snowmobile trail. The episode was classic Bourdain, who was driven to find not the food that was receiving the most applause or acclaim, but the food which most provided the context to a place. His repeated demands that we “be a traveler, not a tourist” resonated with anyone desperate to get off the tour bus, and immerse themselves in a culture not their own through the easy accessibility of that place’s food.

In a world where Instagramming a cruise ship photo of your Unicorn Frappuccino passes for food celebrity, Bourdain urged us all to explore more, try harder, and be smarter. To try the things, meet the people, go to the places. In spite of his celebrity status, my feed is filling with anecdotes from people who had the chance to meet and connect with him even briefly, and they almost all portray a man who continued to empathize with the little guy, still ascending the ranks in a kitchen; he would always take the time to hear the story of how you got your job as an oyster shucker, ignoring the pleas of the PR people urgently trying to keep him on schedule. His was one of the few authentic voices (a phrase he would have fucking loathed) that we had left, and its sudden violent absence already makes the world feel just a little more hollow.

From what I’ve seen on Facebook this morning, his suicide has left a lot of people feeling really, really confused. From the outside, here was a man who appeared to have the world by the proverbial balls*. He had boundless financial resources (at least, compared to regular people like us), multiple bestselling books, worldwide adoration and acclaim, enviable talent spanning several disciplines, an adoring wife or two, and the opportunity to spend his entire life pursuing the exploration of topics that truly seemed to interest him.

*Everyone remembers that super famous and morally enlightening proverb about balls, right?

Suicide, we all secretly believe, must only happen to those for whom there seems no possibility of a bright future, and we can’t collectively understand how a man like Bourdain could feel that overwhelming hopelessness. I don’t know what to take away from his death, yet. For now, it can only serve as a reminder to reach out to the people who matter to you, and remind them how important they are in your life. Somehow, Bourdain lost that connection to us, and in turn, we lost him.

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