As a travel writer, as an adventurer, as a free spirit, I worship Anthony Bourdain. In this regard I am not unique, certainly.
Anthony Bourdain, Bourdain, Tony, the Parts Unknown guy, or however you know him is globally beloved. Uncontrovertibly, Bourdain is not without controversy. This is precisely why we love him.
It was only Sunday that I watched his Hong Kong episode, the last one aired while he’s still alive. It was one of such quality and direction that I yearned hard to return to the Far East. It was as moving as it was creative.
It wasn’t a week ago, when Parts Unknown liked one of my tweets, and I screenshotted it and sent it to my friends. I freaked a pretween at a Beiber concert.
And it wasn’t minutes prior to the news breaking, that I had just written a line in one of my pieces referencing him. In his episode on Vietnam he highlights the incredible joy a Westerner gets when visiting Asia for the first time. His words and ideas said it best, so I cited him, and headed upstairs for a refill of joe.
And as I took a coffee-poop break while writing that essay, my family screamed out to me: “Holy shit, Mikey. Anthony Bourdain is dead.” Odd time to hear that.
Why was Anthony Bourdain beloved?
That is a truly jarring sentence, even as I write it. It doesn’t seem real. Bourdain had know idea who I was. I have no link to him other than some tenuous goal to emulate his career, as do most in the field. And yet, it’s very much a shocking, jolting realization.
If I could be anyone, I’d be Anthony Bourdain. I’ve said that enough times it’s annoyed people.
I’ve never been genuinely saddened by the loss of a celebrity. Michael Jackson, Avicii, Carrie Fisher, Robin Williams, Eusebio, Heath Ledger. These were all remarkably talented individuals, but when they died, it never struck me viscerally. Our raw emotions are complicated.
However, Anthony Bourdain was an individual I emulated. He was and is irreplaceable. He is transcendent in many ways.
He had a keen eye for one-of-a-kind views. In a world with a high concentration of travel writing and travel blogs, his was a view that cut across mainstream takes. His insight led us to new interpretations and fresh perspectives on even the most intimately familiar.
He was fearless. His episode on Iran is proof, even though it was his friends who bore the risk of death. He was capable of entering a culture and inserting himself right in the narrative, without the obnoxiously imposing nature of many gringo, Anglo-Saxon Orientalists.
He was worldly and tactful, yet relatable and biting when he wanted to be. I don’t always agree with his takes on dictatorialism. For instance, I think his Singapore episode overemphasizes this narrative. But Bourdain is unafraid to ask questions when he wants. He brings poignant questions to an American audience (relating Singaporean “one-party” politics and American bipartisanism), while being fair and wholesome to Singaporean society. That’s impressive.
He liked to swear. Fuck is a fantastic word. It’s assertive. It’s a crutch. It’s filler. It’s commanding. It conveys all sorts of meaning, some appropriate, some misguided. It’s always worthy of dissection, though. And that’s what Bourdain does best; he urges further inspection.
He was thought provoking. You might not agree with him, but he got people talking. He was somewhere in between liberal political correctness and old timer who-gives-a-shit. He was endlessly thoughtful about what he was saying, but that doesn’t mean he ever pulled punches. He somehow stood for much of the left while being sharply critical of it.
He was a remarkable story teller. He’s the kind of person who makes you want to sit around a campfire and listen to his adages and anecdotes. But just as bonfires are inherently communal activities, he encourages you to share and engage, as well.
He promoted good food, regardless of socioeconomics. As American society moves away from mom and pops toward transnational chains, it takes a character to help promote quality grub. A McNugget was an anathema to him. Food mostly easily brings groups together who otherwise wouldn’t.
He was empathetic of the “other.” Despite admissions that he could’ve been a better person to busboys, he reveals in Kitchen Confidential that you should learn Spanish as much of the industry requires it. Whether it’s a self-serving or caring gesture is a moot point. He recognizes not everyone is like him. He actively pushed for Mexican and Chinese cuisine to lose it’s stigma as low-quality, low-cost. He fought for different.
And last, he always spoke with fiercely emotive force. He moved the reader, listener, watcher in numerous ways: the timber of his voice, the choice of his words, the passion behind his message, the selection of music, the filmography, the settings, his tone, his body language, his sarcasm, his joy. He evoked something in his shows each and every time.
Remember, I’m speaking to only one period of his life, one aspect of his career.
Just Do You and You’ll Get There Eventually
People like Bourdain teach a valuable lesson in simply being yourself.
I don’t mean to lessen the damaging impact Bourdain’s life may have had on other people. He was a drug addict with no purpose. He could’ve easily become merely a statistic that his episode on Western Massachusetts details. He must’ve pissed off countless numbers of chefs, store owners and mere passersby. Doubtless, he did.
But if we grant forgiveness to flawed souls like Augustine, we must dole it out to all who seek it.
Bourdain lived his life untethered to societal demands – I think – and did what he wanted. Through this, he inspired many including yours truly.
While he may have been a troubled youth (and adult), he clearly has charm, of which his TV shows ooze.
He started from the bottom in restaurants, went to the world’s premier culinary school, got noticed by being a little shit, became an executive chef at a New York restaurant, wrote a book and from there launched his media career. This paragraph accelerates decades of hard work, but the point stands. Just do you.
For Kitchen Confidential, the Food Network hired him for A Cook’s Tour, from which he pivoted to No Reservations, where he got his break.
His vision, his voice, his perspective was irrevocably shaped by his episode in Lebanon, in which he captured the outbreak of war. This episode was the launchpad for the rest of his life. Without this moment, his celebrity and influence would have been seriously less.
People jealous of success pin it to luck. No. We make our own luck.
Had the University of Washington not had public access to computers, do you think a precocious Bill Gates would not have found success in some other field?
Had Manchester United not developed the Class of 1992, do you think their preeminent talents would not have unearthed some other gem?
Had the Beatles not been noticed in their 10,000 hours of shows in Hamburg, do you think their relentless drive wouldn’t have gotten them noticed otherwise?
Read Phil Knight’s Shoe Dog on the founding of Nike, and you will see just how much luck one visionary can create. It’s not divine happenstance; these individuals pursued their own path.
Bourdain perpetually just “did him” and it lead to a profoundly influential career.
The other enormous lesson Bourdain teaches is in finding yourself. As a young Tony, shooting heroin on a beach on Cape Cod, he would probably not have defined it so much as “finding himself” as it was “losing himself.”
And yet, this was a pivotal element in his narrative. We are perpetually finding ourselves, especially as millennials have more jobs than previous generations ever had. We are finding ourselves, vocationally, spiritually, existentially, adverbially, whatever.
Bourdain forged a path without a heading, without a compass, without a map.
While I consumed his media for years, it wasn’t until summer 2017 that I related to him on more than a superficial level. I had always enjoyed his takes on traveling, but something about hard drugs and selling your record collection didn’t sync with me.
While finally reading Kitchen Confidential to its completion, I had realized I was in a similar boat. I felt his plight when he was younger.
At that point in my life, I had just finished a whirlwind two years abroad in China, zooming about Asia, treating each paycheck as a plane ticket and each personal interaction as a story. It was a wonderful time I pine for again daily. (Soon enough.)
But after that adventure was put on hiatus, I found myself back in Springfield, Mass, my home base, my roots. I felt confused, with the normalcy of home juxtaposed to the freedom of my former lifestyle in China.
I wondered what I was going to do. I blindly applied to waiter jobs at local restaurants. (Like Bourdain.) I thought extensively about attending culinary school. (Like Bourdain.) I began writing my blog in earnest instead of as a pastime. I began looking at a number of professions (teaching, coding, marketing, tour guiding, trucking, finance, tourism).
None of those really captured who I am or was and so continued on finding myself.
To me, history lacks a telos. Further, history is the amalgamation of all mankind’s stories. If the anthology of human stories lacks an objective pursuit, then my life needn’t require one. I needn’t find some higher level pursuit in my mid-twenties if it hasn’t emerged naturally.
It took me re-reading a decades-old book discussing fornicating in a kitchen to achieve an epiphany: just do you.
We lost a great man in Anthony Bourdain
He was all this to me, and I never knew him personally. I’m not saying he owed it to his fans. I’m not saying he was selfish and a great talent died too young. I’m not blaming him.
I do believe he was star that burned through its hydrogen too quickly while still shining bright. But this is to say nothing of why what happened, ended up happening to him.
There is a huge taboo, globally, around discussing mental health.
Fuck that. It needs to end.
If you have a cut, you apply a Band-Aid. If you break your arm, you mold a cast. If you have depression, you seek out a psychologist.
I’m not saying this is simple or easy or straightforward. Nothing health related has clear answers, because of finances, ethics, social code, fear, etc. I’m not saying Bourdain had an obvious path out of this. He clearly did not. The man was a celebrity with access to virtually whatever health services he needed.
I don’t claim to know his deepest ails, and I don’t need to. I know the world lost a truly remarkable man.
On a personal level, in college, I had crazy anxiety problems. Perhaps it was homesickness, perhaps something else. Point is, I would ceaselessly shake, be restricted by tunnel vision and lose feeling in my chest and arms and face six days a week, bare minimum. Something wasn’t right.
This was clearly a psychological problem of some variety. Society conditioned me to think it was my own fault, thus catalyzing a feedback loop further. It was no bueno.
Further, in my university’s infinite wisdom, they placed the mental health services near the quad, the math building, the econ building and a frat. Not exactly a hidden place to get treated for a taboo condition.
We as a society need to remove the stigma. Boys should be able to cry. Children shouldn’t have to always “hold it in.” We shouldn’t bottle it up. We should be encouraged to discuss mental health issues.
I will repeat that. If this slate of Avicii, Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, in conjunction with an uptick of suicides, has taught us anything, it’s that. We should be encouraged to discuss mental health issues.
There are many ways to eulogize or commemorate a man. As an active participant on Twitter, Bourdain had many avid followers. After his death, many suggested brilliant ways to honor him. Go on trips. Help a friend with depression. Get to know “the other” better.
I like all these, but if we want to remember Bourdain for what made him happiest, it would be food. As Michelle Wolf once said, “The most useful information on CNN is when Anthony Bourdain tells me where to eat noodles.”
If we want to honor him, go get a good meal. A great meal. Because quality food makes everyone happy.
I hope you enjoyed my take on Anthony Bourdain. He was an incredible soul, a remarkable talent and an admirable man, if not controversial. An article like this could, in fact, be lengthened to be a book. So until the next time I reconsider his impact on my life, let this raw prose serve as my memorial for a great inspiration.
Photo Credit: Featured Image is by Tammy Green of Chicago on Wikipedia, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Anthony_Bourdain_008.jpg