For the last two weeks I’ve been away from the blog because I’ve been preoccupied and feeling a bit uninspired. It was troubling to me at first, but then Anthony Bourdain died. You probably know Bourdain from his most popular travel shows Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown and Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations. His shows were so groundbreaking they should have changed travel TV forever, but they didn’t. His approach to food and travel went beyond middle-class adventure and top ten dream destinations. His point of view was so authentic and the lengths he went through to uncover the essence of a town or community were so drastic, they were not to be replicated. He wasn’t at risk of being copied or even emulated because no one else could do it.
It’s bizarre how the death of a stranger can affect you, but I guess Anthony Bourdain wasn’t truly a stranger. His death is weighing on me not because I knew him personally, but because we all knew him impersonally. In the days following the news of his suicide last Friday, I kept seeing him on the street. The outline of a man in the distance would look just like him until the figure would get closer, the crowd would disperse and of course it wasn’t him. I was a complete stranger to Bourdain. Why is his death affecting me beyond the initial shock and sympathy we normally offer to celebrity? Why, a week later am I still consumed by thoughts of it?
On the surface, Anthony Bourdain did everything wrong but somehow ended up on the right side of career, family, community and love. At least that’s how it looked from behind my copy of Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly, where he reveals just how entrenched he was in the dark side of the restaurant world. Despite his seedy past or maybe because of it, I’m enamored by the things he said, the work he did and the many skills he mastered. He dared to do things I’ve never even let myself consider. He went to culinary school; took a pass on nine to five life in favor of grueling kitchen work and long hours; he traveled the world tasting and writing about every food imaginable. Everything he did cut to the core of the very message of this blog; that sharing a meal is everything.
I was probably never cut out for restaurant work, but I do wish I had Bourdain’s ability to talk about food and the importance of sharing a meal with such wit and poignancy. All week I’ve been comparing my tiny blog, born of my own limited experiences and family memories to his large-scale adventures and compelling stories of people in the most remote areas of the world. From this angle my life and aspirations seem so ordinary. Most people you know have tasted or written about Italian cuisine. How many have gone to Gaza, eaten with locals, immersed themselves in the everyday and then gone on to win the “Voice of Courage and Conscience” award for said activity? Up until last week, I couldn’t even point to Gaza on a map. Bourdain could give you a firsthand account of its people, its culture and of course its food.
As I Google Gaza and click to maps, locating it to the southwest of Jerusalem, I’m struck by Bourdain’s fearlessness. I’ll do a lot of things for a meal, but would I travel nearly 6,000 miles to the Middle East? And if I did could I leave my inhibitions and preconceived ideas at the customs gate? Or would I be influenced by American news and politics leaving my experience tainted? Bourdain could find the good in any geography or more accurately in any culture. He could get to its core beyond news reports and social media, beyond the superficial.
Who else could go to Iran and deem it the most pro American place he’s ever filmed in? Iran. Pro American. Let that sink in. Yes, this is simply his story, for his show, from his point of view but somehow I see the proof. I believe his story and maybe that’s the most important thing. Perhaps it’s because his claims were never sugar-coated. They were in no way delusional. He showed the violence, the poverty, the corruption but he showed it through the eyes of everyday people trying to live their lives and support their families, sometimes in unthinkable conditions of which they had little to no control over. He gave the marginalized and the powerless a voice. He shared his platform with them and gave them the spotlight to describe their life and country in their own voices. “This is not a black and white world,” he explained of Tehran. “But it’s also a place that can warm your heart one day and break it the next.”
Diana Battu, a human rights lawyer said of Bourdain, “He not only loved food, but all of the things that surround food – love, humanity, culture, tradition.” Isn’t that what I write about? I’m sure there isn’t a reader out there who would put me in the same category as Bourdain. He was so ahead of all of us. I guess that’s why his death is still nagging at me and why I’m mourning for someone I’ve never met. In his travel shows he is always shown in the local streets, among the community talking about everyday life. Or he’s in someone’s home with their family sharing a meal – the thing I hold dear. By contrast, Bourdain was admittedly a “work first” sort of person not family first. I’m confused by the contradiction, but two wives and one celebrity girlfriend later, Bourdain thrived on, perhaps lived for the career he concocted for himself, the one he whipped up out of a love for line cooks, restaurant buzz, drugs and of course food. It was his curiosity and heightened awareness of the world around him that qualified him to go from unknown chef to author, TV show host, travel and food writer and all around celebrity.
Recently I read a comment that perhaps Bourdain would still be alive today if not for the success and wild popularity of, Kitchen Confidential the book that launched him into fame and fortune and made him a household name. I disagree. I think it bought him twenty years. It was that financial success that enabled him to do the work he loved in both TV and writing. I think his work first mantra was a form of self-preservation that kept him alive for decades. I think without it he would have ended up part of a faceless statistic – another kitchen worker lost to hard drugs, hard work and easy self-destruction.
Instead, Bourdain was able to leave chef’s life behind and uncover the platform that would allow him to share his point of view with the world. Unlike other food and travel writers, he wasn’t sharing his story. He was sharing their story. He shared the story of people from literally every corner of the world from New York City to South Africa to the Middle East, exposing the chaos but finding the good in every culture and far off geography. In the duration of a thirty-minute show he was able to humanize communities of people we would otherwise only think of in terms of violence and statistics. He taught us not only about their food but about their struggles, their fears, the life changes they dreamed of and the successes however big or small that they had achieved. He also visited places like Italy and France and locales not plagued by war and political unrest, but either way he changed the way we think about other cultures the best way he knew how, through food and more specifically through sharing a meal.
Am I jealous of Anthony Bourdain? After everything that has happened am I still longing to experience in some way the life he lived all the while comparing my safe and ordinary life with his reckless and outlandish one? Yes, I am at least a little bit because subconsciously when we envy remarkable people like Bourdain who have succumbed to self-destruction, we do it in a way that eliminates the negative. The same characteristics that make me feel small and unimaginative next to Bourdain are the same ones that would prevent me from the downward spiral that ultimately cost him his life. I don’t really think that I am small and unimaginative, but in this case comparison is tempting and hyperbole irresistible, especially given the sheer magnitude of Bourdain’s persona. I don’t envy his fame and fortune, but I do envy his voice and his ability to communicate his point of view in a way that leaves people better than he found them. I admire the goodness beneath the once drug addicted line cook who probably by chance got away with some questionable activities. I admire his redemption and resilience and I wish that resilience had endured.
I can’t resist imagining, even wishing for an alternate ending to this story. I know it’s probably selfish because deep down I’m disappointed that I never got to meet him, but I wonder what would have happened if he had the strength to let go of that faulty safety net and push pause on work? What if he took his daughter on a summer long food tour across the globe? What if he scheduled a vacation with his new-found love, Asia Argento? What if he listened to the many accolades bestowed upon him before they became tributes? I know that his life wasn’t actually enviable, but I know it could have been. He experienced every luxury except for the one that I have, a life free of depression. That was the catch. Last week he taught us an expensive lesson: depression does not discriminate. As the unburdened, I believe I have an obligation to look out for those who struggle. I’m probably unqualified but I’m going to try anyway. I’m going to do what I can to help remove the stigma attached to depression and mental illness, and to make it something we can and should talk about for the sake of all those who suffer quietly. I’m going to try to be kinder and more understanding of those around me. Please feel comfortable to leave your comments on this post and know that your thoughts are safe here.
RIP Anthony Bourdain: June 25, 1956 – June 8, 2018
In tribute to Bourdain you can check out the closest we’ve come to food and travel writing in our four part series of our Italian vacation: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4