I’m certain you’ve heard or read that Anthony Bourdain left this world before he should have. It was a shock, to say the very least. Now, I never met Anthony Bourdain in person. But, he had an unvarnished openness about him, that made him seem comfortable. It made him feel like a friend. You know, the type of friend you don’t see often, but when you do, you pick up where you last left off like it was yesterday. And it was always interesting. I don’t get whipped up over celebrity, but I must say, his death affected me much more than I could have imagined it would. Tony, I felt I knew you.
Before 2000, when Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly hit the book stores, I had heard a bit about him. He would show up in cooking magazines from time to time, but I didn’t pay too much attention. Then I read Kitchen Confidential. It was, to say the very least, a brutal peek into the world of fine dining. It was also a riveting story and I was hooked on Anthony Bourdain. The man could write. Through his writing, I found him to be self-possessed, foul-mouthed, a supreme smartass, honest, tough, kind, curious and damaged…my kind of person. And the man could tell a story.
Tony Bourdain was a raconteur and first-rate story-teller. On No Reservations and Parts Unknown, it’s pretty clear that it’s all about the story. Okay the food, too, but he seemed to realize they were dependent on each other. He was truly interested in the people he encountered. He wanted to hear and share their story. Because, every one of us has a story. And the people he seemed to find most interesting, were the “little” people…the every person, person. Those were the stories he wanted to hear. Those were the stories he gleefully shared with us. He was a listener and a good one, which is a gift unto itself. He took us to places far and wide, broadening our culinary horizons and bringing small, personal tidbits to us, offering us the stories of people we would normally never encounter. Offering us the world. The other. The unknown.
He was a Renaissance man. He was an author, both fiction and non-fiction, and he was also a voracious reader. His taste in books was wide-ranging. He told an interviewer his favorite book was True Grit…not the movie, though he apparently loved both cinema and music, but the book. He did jujitsu on a daily basis, which must have taken some significant discipline, given the grueling schedule he kept. I think I read that he painted, too. And of course, he cooked. He, by his own admission, was not a trend-setting chef…he was a skilled and very capable chef (his words, not mine). His true gift was his openness, his curiosity, his intensity and the story…always the story.
He wasn’t a fan of the “celebrity” chef. I think what annoyed him about the celebrity chef, was that the food became secondary to the personality. And he was all about the food and the culture that surrounds it. He never seemed to let his ego, and I suspect he had a pretty healthy ego, dictate how he viewed other chefs. When asked about what he thought of Julia Child, he said, “Julia Child was the single most important, influential and game-changing figure in the history of American gastronomy. Everything tracks back to her. And though uniquely situated to do so, she never endorsed a thing: not a pot, not a pan, not a chain of restaurants, not a spice blend, apron or boil-in-the-bag dinner. She will be remembered for what she did on this earth, which was to inspire millions to cook — and eat — better.” It is that last part “to cook and eat better” that could have been his mantra. Even when he was eating tripe!
One of my favorite episodes of Parts Unknown was his meal with President Obama. It was an interesting and telling snapshot of both of these men. It gave us a little peek into what both of them seemed to value, the pure enjoyment of sharing a simple bowl of noodles and a couple of beers with an interesting person; sharing a story.
He was honest about his demons, too. He spoke of his battle with addiction and his dismay at why women he worked with and knew, weren’t able to come to him and trust him with their story of sexual abuse. He sincerely wondered why they didn’t feel they could. He saw this as a personal failing and it bothered him. One doesn’t see this sort of self-reflection often. It’s unpleasant and we would just rather avoid it. He didn’t.
Sadly, he didn’t seem to discuss his apparent battle with depression or the darkness within him. I’d read snippets about it, but nothing to the extent of his addiction. But we, society, whatever you want to call it, aren’t comfortable with mental illness. It’s messy and we don’t understand it very well. As a society, as a people, we need to do so much better with this, to break the silence.
So though I never met the man, he allowed me to feel like we knew him. But, his story ended too abruptly and much, much too soon. The world is a less intersting place without you. I will miss you, Tony.
If you know someone who may be in danger of taking their own life, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, Call 1-800-273-8255 (Available 24 hours a day).