On June 8, an important voice of generosity and tolerance was silenced. Anthony Bourdain, the renegade chef, globetrotter and storyteller, succumbed to whatever demons haunted his earthly domain, as he took his own life at the age of 61. Bourdain had traveled to Kaysersberg, a small village in the Alsace region of France, near the German border, to shoot scenes for Parts Unknown, his popular adventure travel show, when friend and fellow celebrity chef Eric Ripert, found Bourdain unresponsive in his room at the Hotel le Chambard, having hung himself.
Bourdain was a tough character to pigeon hole. He wore many hats: chef, author, father, avowed drug addict and sharp-tongued critic. But his love of life and the conduit by which he offered his inherent gifts to the world, flowed from the idea of availing one’s self through the preparation of cuisine, and by sharing that passion with others round a dinner table, it opened doors to communication and often to a free exchange of ideas.
Through his worldly treks and subsequent writing, Bourdain emphasized how the simplest of people can often relay the most telling lessons about life. Sometimes we need only to slow down and put ourselves into another person’s shoes in order to ask the right question that will put a stranger at ease. In turn, a certain comfort can be achieved and perhaps pave the way for a discussion of the history behind some closely-held family recipe, or insight into a foreign political philosophy.
Bourdain earned his fame, having graduated in 1978 from The Culinary Institute of America in New York, but began his career shucking oysters and cleaning dishes in Cape Cod seafood shacks, then toiled for decades working 12/13-hour days for $10/hour as a line cook in a variety of questionable kitchens. It was this gutter up philosophy that made him the man he became. Add in his abundant charm and kitchen mastery, and together this later landed him the prestigious job of executive chef at Brasserie Les Halles in Manhattan.
Yet it was the publication of Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly, a 2000 bestseller, that launched Bourdain into a second career and celebrity chef stardom. This offered foodies a glimpse behind the scenes of how their favorite restaurants really operated, and provided insider tips on how to gain the upscale dining experience many sought. That drugs, booze, sex and rampant misbehavior existed in the restaurant business was obvious when one considered the days and hours worked, but Bourdain’s first person prose of Gonzo-esque journalism earned him a place at the table with the good doctor, Hunter S. Thompson.
With his sudden fame came television. A Cook’s Tour on The Food Network, Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations on the Travel Channel, and his ongoing success with Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown seen on CNN. These took cuisine to a different kind of edge, geographically and politically. Bourdain knew well from his travels that America remained a young country that failed to grasp the greater importance that comes with eating well, and even less could America comprehend traveling to strange, exotic and far away destinations, where dining on regional specialties was a necessity to engage in more meaningful conversations with locals, allowing for a deeper understanding of a people and place.
Bourdain took viewers with him to war torn regions of the world that news outlets in America had ceased covering. This offered Bourdain and his crew a chance to delve into the reality of political decision making playing out in tragic ways for peoples’ lives on the ground long after the bombs stopped dropping. It showcased how hard life can be in these far off lands, and the love and understanding people can have for one another – often on display during mealtime.
Yes, sometimes that meant eating some rather questionable cuisine, but that was worth the price of admission to share insight into the human condition of people located geographically a world away. Travel broadens a person, and that was Bourdain’s currency.
He depicted tolerance and appreciation of things not understood in a time when American leaders on both sides of the aisle do little than throw rhetorical fire bombs at one another, and our illegitimate boy king president is about as broad as a child who only eats overcooked hotdogs and soggy Freedom Fries.
Bourdain was a fellow traveler, a mutant of the highest order, and as a consequential result of all his first person forays into work and recreational play, was a beautifully broken individual. He was a seeker of the unknown, intrepid in his endeavors, willing to put himself wholly into all he did and not shy away from using his own foibles as vehicles in his storytelling.
“I should’ve died in my 20s. I became successful in my 40s. I became a dad in my 50s,” Bourdain told Todd Aaron Jensen in a 2016 interview for Biography.com. “I feel like I’ve stolen a car – a really nice car – and I keep looking in the rear-view mirror for flashing lights. But there’s been nothing yet.”
I am selfishly sad for Tony’s premature departure. I am truly sad for the hole his absence leaves in the lives of his family members. He gave so much, maybe there was no more left. I will say Anthony Bourdain left all he had out on the field and considering his shortcomings, his accomplishments soar that much higher to the heavens.
Happy travels Mr. Bourdain. You lived well and will be missed.