Anthony Bourdain: A Belated Obituary to a Working Class Hero
If anything is good for pounding humility into you permanently, it’s the restaurant business.
– Anthony Bourdain
The date was June 8, 2018, and I was in Paris working on an article when word came through that Anthony Bourdain had hung himself in a little village outside of Strasbourg, less than a six hour drive away.
I took the news surprisingly hard—surprising because I wasn’t
all that knowledgeable when it came to his work. While I had seen several episodes
of his various shows, I had never read his books and certainly wouldn’t go so
far as saying I was a fan. My mother—who watched his show with a dedication
that bordered on religious—was a true fan. I’d given her a copy of his cookbook
the previous Christmas.
For me, Anthony Bourdain wasn’t a celebrity, but more of an
elder statesman of a cosmopolitan tribe made up by my fellow travel and culture
journalists. It later struck me that my sorrow at his passing was not so much drawn
out by an appreciation for his work, but because in him I recognized a kindred
It later struck me that my sorrow at his passing was not so much drawn out by an appreciation for his work, but because in him I recognized a kindred spirit.
Like myself, Bourdain had grown up as a young punk rocker
with something of a death wish, which he expressed through his copious consumption
of drugs. And like me, before he went into writing he spent years working in
various kitchens. From there he began living and reporting on a global life
filled with food, drink, and interesting characters, which, again, is a
lifestyle with which I am all too familiar.
You might have noticed that the words “me” and “I” have
appeared numerous times, which might seem a little off topic, if not downright
narcissistic. But I believe that it speaks to my point—Anthony Bourdain was
much loved because we saw ourselves in him.
In his heroism we recognized our own.
I remember when Bourdain’s first book Kitchen
Confidential swept through the restaurant where I was working back in the
early 2000s. My co-kitcheneers appreciated it not only because of its no-holds-barred
portrayal of life on the prep line, but because for the first time someone had made
working some menial service industry job seem cool.
Prep cooks and bussers were suddenly ascended to superhero status,
valiantly waging a brutal, disgusting war to keep hungry mouths fed. It was a
level of recognition that the working class was unused to receiving.
Finally, here was someone saying I see you, and your
efforts deserve respect.
Anthony Bourdain was a superstar by the time he was deep into his show No Reservations, but his super-stardom was unlike anything most of us had ever seen.
Over the years he was joined by A-list celebrities and
important personages of every variety, but no matter how famous the guest or
fancy the food, Bourdain always offered an authenticity that was hard not to
admire. “No reservations” wasn’t just the title of a show, but a quadruple entendre
with multiple meanings, one of which involved the fact that he had no
reservations about being his somewhat rough self and saying exactly what
was on his mind.
“No reservations” wasn’t just the title of a show, but a quadruple entendre with multiple meanings…
In a world of highly-polished celebrities, this sort of frankness
was refreshing. Bourdain was a punk rocker in the truest sense of the word. He
would say and do whatever felt genuine, authority and decorum be damned.
He seemed like how any one of us would be were we
thrust into the world of high society. And it seemed like there would be no discrepancy
between the person we saw on TV and the person we would share a meal with had
he stepped through the screen and into our own dining rooms.
In other words, he came off like a real dude, and these days
real dudes are hard to come by—at least on television.
You wouldn’t expect someone who interviewed the President of
the United States to talk openly and often about their history with drug addiction,
but Anthony Bourdain did.
Like many of us, Bourdain had a long history with druggy-demons,
and having overcome them he was more than willing to share what many of us would
prefer to keep secret. And again, that’s another aspect of him that made him so
This is especially true these days. When Bourdain started
his career, the national opioid epidemic was flying under the radar. But by the
time of his death, pretty much all of us had come to realize that we knew
someone who had been snared by it.
When Anthony Bourdain discussed drugs, it was neither to
glorify nor shame. It was a matter of fact confrontation of a very real aspect
of modern living, and his example proved that addiction was a monster faced by even
the best of us.
As his tragic end showed, Bourdain’s example also proved
that depression is a beast that is all too brutal, and that anyone—whether they’re
a line cook or an international celebrity chef—can be afflicted by it.
And perhaps that’s why his death hit so many of us so hard. Bourdain
seemed like some normal guy who had somehow stumbled into the life that we all
wanted. If all the travel and food and famous friendships aren’t enough to make
a person happy, what is?
I don’t have an answer to that. What I can say is that it’s
up to us to live by the finer elements of his example.
With the passing of Anthony Bourdain, it became our responsibility to explore the world, eat, drink, and share it with one another.
When Bowie and Prince died, it became our turn to make the
music. When Robin Williams died—another victim of depression—it became our job
to make people laugh. With the passing of Anthony Bourdain, it became our
responsibility to explore the world, eat, drink, and share it with one another.
I had a date the night Bourdain died, and we decided that we
would eat it up proper in his honor.
We started with dinner at la Cloiserie des Lilas—once patronized
by the likes of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Joyce, et al.—where I had an
extraordinary salmon doré with a fricasseeof chanterelles. From
there we went to la Rotonde (another literary haunt that was frequented by the
aforementioned names, as well as Henry Miller, Anais Nin, Gertrude Stein, and
others), where I had several negronis. We finished the evening with a bottle of
wine along the Seine.
It was, I suspect, a celebration that Bourdain would have
found fitting, though I bet he would have been just as satisfied with cheap
beer and a three-dollar doner kebab. For while he enjoyed fine food, he was no
snob—a worthy epitaph.