It was 7:12am on the morning of Friday, June 8th, 2018, when I stepped out of my shower to see a friend had texted me, asking if I had heard about Anthony Bourdain’s death. I stared at my phone in stunned silence. And then I saw the news update – suicide -and I began to cry.
Many celebrities paid homage to him in days immediately following. From chefs that he knew and respected, to members of the #MeToo movement that he was an ardent defender of, even from those he critiqued. But I hold no celebrity status. I am writing this as a humble fan and commoner, someone who was never able to achieve my ultimate dream of meeting him in person, cracking open a beer on an icy beach, and slurping fresh oysters while discussing philosophy. While I am simply a fan, his writing and televised adventures had an undeniable impact on my life. And that should be shared as much as the stories from those that knew him best.
When I was a child, growing up in rural Western Pennsylvania, a nice restaurant was usually the dusty, local Italian joint. My family didn’t eat out much, but when we did, I ordered a standard that my mother refused to make at home; Chicken Tenders and French fries. One day, she snapped and demanded that my siblings and I order something other than chicken, in a frazzled attempt to broaden our palates. I chose fried shrimp. It was the first time I had tasted shrimp in my life. Prefabricated, breaded shrimp never tasted as good as it did on my virgin tongue. The sweet, slightly fishy taste of the shrimp, in combination with the watery cocktail sauce in a plastic cup it was served with, blew my mind! Suddenly, much like Bourdain’s experience as a child eating oysters in France, my world expanded.
As the years went by, I continued to develop my tastes and cooking skills. I began working as a server and cook in a local diner when I was sixteen. I cooked for my family regularly. I began watching his show, No Reservations on the Travel Channel, when I was in high school. My mother found him vulgar; I immediately put him on a pedestal. His scuffed and worn cowboy boots that gave his long legs a slightly bowlegged appearance, his cigarette smoking and cursing, his irreverence for propriety, his love of black leather jackets, quoting old rock lyrics, and his even deeper love for the people he met on the road were something that spoke to me. I wanted to travel the world and eat everything from every culture. I dreamed of becoming a chef. It didn’t matter that I was a woman.
As fate would have it, I ended up studying the management side of the industry upon my acceptance to college. In my undergraduate program, I was bored. I worked in restaurants and banquet halls and country clubs. But nothing struck me that interesting. Balancing books and calling vendors about payments was not something that thrilled me. I was staring down the barrel of a career of mediocrity.
I began reading his books. Not just Kitchen Confidential, but the rest of them too; Medium Raw, The Nasty Bits, etc. Shortly after completing his collection, I signed up for a second degree as a Religious Studies major. The Religious Studies curriculum fed my soul on other cultures. I was fascinated and I began to explore the role that food actually plays in a culture, how intricate and strong of a binder food is to a society, and our shared animalistic need to nourish ourselves. This gave me a new layer of real satisfaction in my career and opened the door to opportunities that really stimulated me.
In the years since, I continued to follow his career and his new programs like The Layover and Parts Unknown. I ate up every article and piece of writing that he ever wrote. I even had his photo on my desk at work, and joked with my friends and coworkers that he was my boyfriend, he just didn’t know it yet. In reality, like some kind of bad attitude guru, I found that picture to be grounding in the chaos of my daily life.
When I watched his shows, of course I looked at the fabulous places he was visiting, the sites, and sounds, and delicious dishes. But what was more compelling to me, was the way he wrote about those places. His narration over the episodes and his prose tell a story of a smart man, with a razor sharp sense of humor and a self-awareness that I admired, just trying to expand people’s ideas about the world we all live in. He was a junkie, a recovering addict, a rockstar wannabe, a chef, a witty writer, and a complete asshole. He was flawed and human and gritty. He publicly challenged people on social media for being rapists and predators and defenders of rapists and predators. He was an honorable man.
Even now, a year later, it is still hard for me to imagine never buying another of his essay collections or one of his cookbooks. At the end of it all, his legacy is that he was able to bring parts of the world to those that could not otherwise see them and cultivate some thoughts of empathy and understanding for our fellow humans. He was able to straddle the worlds of the commoner and the New York elite. He was comfortable in each setting and appeared to make no pretense of those he met, whether they were a fisherman in a Thai village or the President of the United States, and he taught me valuable lessons about assuming things regarding people different from myself.
Anthony Bourdain had a poet’s soul. He saw the entire world through this lens. I understand it because I see it that way myself. When things like this happen, that part of myself truly scares me. I’m left wondering, will I end up this way…
He was fond of Jim Harrison’s poem, “Barking”, that they used in “Parts Unknown: Montana” to pay tribute to Harrison’s legacy as one of the great American writers. I find it fitting again. I hope he and Jim Harrison and The Ramones are somewhere now, drinking shots of whiskey around a fire and howling at the moon. That night, after reading countless posts about him on social media and across what seemed like every news outlet, I went by myself to my favorite Vietnamese restaurant and slurped a bowl of noodles. As I looked out the restaurant window at the rainy street, I smiled, believing that, just maybe, this man I deeply admired would appreciate this sort of quiet tribute.
The moon comes up.
The moon goes down.
This is to inform you
that I didn’t die young.
Age swept past me
but I caught up.
Spring has begun here and each day
brings new birds up from Mexico.
Yesterday I got a call from the outside
world but I said no in thunder.
I was a dog on a short chain
and now there’s no chain.
– Jim Harrison