Celebrity Chef Anthony Bourdain Has Died at 61.
The news alert popped up on my phone as I woke up yesterday.
I had to put my glasses on to ensure I had read the headline correctly. The news was being reported everywhere and it was heartbreakingly true.
As the minutes passed, more and more information was reported . He was found unresponsive in his hotel room by his best friend and fellow chef Eric Ripert. The friends were filming an episode of Bourdain’s critically acclaimed CNN series, Parts Unknown, in Strasbourg, France. It was suicide.
In 1999, Mr. Bourdain thrust himself into notoriety with the infamous essay “Don’t Eat Before Reading This” that was published in The New Yorker. This was the first time that the world was exposed to the chef’s unique voice, in which he blasted vegetarians as a “Hezbollah-like splinter faction” and mercilessly mocked yuppie foodies for their willingness to pay $12.50 for two eggs at brunch. He hated brunch only slightly less than he hated vegetarians.
In 2000, Bourdain published Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly. It was the first food novel I ever read, but certainly not the last. I had worked in restaurants, bartended and dated a talented chef who battled some serious substance abuse issues. All of this was small potatoes compared to what was happening in the most revered restaurants in New York.
I am surprised at how deeply Bourdain’s death has affected me.
It has been on my mind since I heard the news, and I have come to the conclusion that it was his absolute honesty, which is shockingly nonexistent in the public sphere. His body of work was thoughtful, unpretentious, intelligent and wickedly funny. Most importantly, his work was genuine and that is why people truly connected with him.
I value honesty and authenticity in my relationships slightly less than sarcasm, and I believe with every ounce in my being that there is great value in filling your life with people who are true to themselves. Mr. Bourdain spoke freely about his struggles with heroin and depression. He openly shared his identity as a deeply flawed human being, something that most of us take great care and great pain to hide.
In so many ways, my extensive interest in good food and all that comes with it has been the only thing that I’ve been able to possess as my own throughout my tenure as a military spouse.
During this military journey, at times I have felt exceptionally frustrated and unfulfilled, and my outlet has been to cook and to read everything I can about food and the people who make it.
When I found myself as a resentfully unemployed newlywed in rural Oklahoma, my days consisted of walking my dog and screwing up each recipe that I attempted. I was a pretty legendary failure but my deluded self-confidence and absolute inability to accept that I could possibly be bad at anything kept me trying. And reading. And subjecting my husband and friends to awful food. They were kind enough to keep eating what I cooked.
I still remember the first really good meal that I made. It was a Tri-Tip with patatas bravas, pan con tomate and a layered lemon blueberry cake. It felt really good.
Food does that to people — when you eat it, when you cook it, when you understand it.
I am not the type of person to feel as though I know a celebrity. I don’t refer to people I consider notable in the same way your aunt speaks about Kathie Lee and Hoda as though they just left her kitchen after a few cocktails that morning. I honestly don’t think I really know a lot of my actual friends. I do, however, pride myself on being able to pick out My People.
Tony Bourdain, I am certain, was My People.
We will be moving to the East Coast next week, and I had the recurring fantasy of running into Chef Bourdain and his buddies at the Siberian, an unmarked hole in the wall the who’s who of the Manhattan culinary scene frequented after shift. We would pensively yet enthusiastically discuss our love for travel and offal meats and our unrelenting contempt for those who order their steaks well-done. We would share our mutual disgust for Celebrity Chef Culture and lay into the hacks and frauds that masquerade as real cooks.
I had a running list of discussions that I hoped to have with him. I wanted to discuss the infamous meal in which he casually slurped noodles and chatted with President Obama in Vietnam. I wanted to ask him about how he brought himself to eat a goat rectum or whale blubber.
I already know the answer to that, but I wanted to listen to him explain that when people put their heart and soul into preparing their most treasured dishes around a table or campfire, you eat what they proudly and graciously offer you.
I wanted to hear him recount his conversations with vastly different people from all over the world as they shared food and more times than not, lots and lots of booze. I wanted to hear his story about being trapped in Beirut in 2006 when the conflict between Lebanon and Israel erupted.
I wanted to talk to a good man who showed respect for everyone he met and never lost the desire to grow and learn. And, I wanted to hear about the food.
Anthony Bourdain will not be remembered because he put his name on overpriced, inferior cookware at Walmart or Target. For those of us who love him, we will mourn him because he truthfully let us know that a proper cook needs nothing more than a good sharp knife, a cast-iron skillet and a willingness to try. He will be remembered not for his celebrity relationships, but because he championed the #MeToo Movement and unapologetically disavowed friendships with highly regarded people. He isn’t beloved because his steaks and frites at Les Halles were second to none, although they were — I was fortunate enough to eat there, he will be remembered because he was a passionate advocate for immigrant rights, the people who are the backbone of the restaurant industry.
Mr. Bourdain will be remembered because he was a good man who despite his personal demons, gave of himself and his gifts so unselfishly that it finally broke him. Much too often, prodigious creativity, talent and empathy is accompanied by insurmountable internal struggle. It is astonishing to me to consider this exceptionalism in the face of such pain.
Chef Tony used one word to describe himself. Enthusiast. I can think of no single word which better encompasses his spirit, his life, and his legacy than Enthusiast. Leave it to him to be the most introspective person on the internet.
Thinking about this was the one thing that made me smile despite the overwhelming sadness I’ve been feeling about his passing.
I never had the opportunity to meet Mr. Bourdain. It hurts me more than I can reasonably explain that he’s gone. Nonetheless, I mourn for his daughter, his girlfriend, his family and his friends. I mourn for what he was to so many of us foodies, and I mourn what he could have been for so many others.
Anthony Bourdain was a chef, an author, a traveler, a, Emmy and Peabody Award winner, a father and an Enthusiast.
Rest peacefully, Chef.