On Thursday morning, June 8, my soul got sucker-punched with news that Anthony Bourdain was dead. He had killed himself in the room of a small, yet elegant hotel in eastern France.
Like many who have followed this culinary bad-boy through the years, I was genuinely sad for someone I had never known and now—despite my deepest desires—never would. The narrative in the coming days focused mostly on the “why?” of his death. (Don’t get me wrong, suicide is a serious issue and, perhaps, Bourdain’s death will increase some awareness.) But, I couldn’t help but think that, like so many celebrity deaths (God, Bourdain would have hated that moniker), the focus should have been on his full-throttle, no-regrets life.
After the sudden death of someone close to me, I read a book on grief. I was skeptical. I don’t do “self-help.” In fact, I don’t remember the name of the book or the author. However, I do remember its one, basic premise: life is gift. There’s no room for melancholy or anger, but only joy given by the life of another. I don’t know why Bourdain killed himself—I wish he hadn’t—but I cannot and will not focus on that. I will focus on the gift he gave to those who love food; those who love to travel; and those who love to travel and eat food with friends, family, and strangers.
I never knew Anthony Bourdain, much less met him. I even had a crazy dream that one day he would read this blog, and I would be “discovered.” I could have then spent the rest of my days tagging along as the goofy sidekick on his T.V. shows.
When someone passes, your brain taps a reminder of when you first met. Sometimes, it is distinct and immutable, like a photograph. For others, it is fuzzy and indistinct. Bourdain is the latter. I started reading and watching him only when I really started to care about cooking and food and how it defines us. I can't tell you when that was.
Bourdain changed over time. We all know about his demons—demons that may have caught up with him in the end—but his writing and view of the world changed. He evolved from a “me” to an “us.” By that I mean, his early writings, especially Kitchen Confidential, were about him and his life in the world of the kitchen. I love that book by the way. I listened to it while training for my first marathon. It got me through some cold mornings. I also love that book because I worked in a restaurant kitchen when I was a teenager. I guess there was a certain degree of simpatico there.
But his later writings, and particularly his shows, were more about the place of food; about the uniqueness of a culture’s cuisine and what it said about them and how they saw the world: from Southern barbecue served from a trailer in the Mississippi Delta; from pasta at a trattoria in Rome; to spicy noodles in a Shanghai alleyway. In each instance, he would sit down and talk. Really talk to people. Go back and watch his shows carefully. Each time when he talks about politics, culture, race, ethnicity, or anything that sits on the third rail of our modern existence—ready to ignite—he did it while sharing a meal. There was little, if any, fire. It’s pretty hard to damn someone when you are breaking bread.
A few nights ago, I had a good friend over for dinner. His girlfriend was going off to med school, and he wouldn’t see her for a while. I was addled by personal and professional bullshit, as well as Bourdain’s sudden death. Needless to say, we were a little down. I typically do most of the cooking, and my friend always begs to contribute. This time, I told him to make something from Bourdain’s latest cookbook in his honor. He did: sautéed mushrooms, which we both like. He was dismayed that the mushrooms were not sliced thin, like the recipe called for. That was perhaps the best tribute. Tony wouldn’t have given a rat’s ass. All that mattered was honest food, good drink, good friends, and honest talk. That’s what we served that night for sure, well past midnight.