Like so many others, I was shocked to open my computer on Friday morning to the stunning news that Anthony Bourdain — the intelligent and irreverent, charming and charismatic chef/author/wanderer — had taken his own life. It has led to discussion of suicide and mental illness, which is always important, but I can’t help but also think of the beloved Bourdain as such an unlikely and uplifting success story.
The man that his friend and CNN co-worker Anderson Cooper aptly described as “one of this country’s greatest storytellers” was, despite his immense talent and work ethic, a very unlikely star.
He worked his way up from dishwasher to star chef in the course of two decades. While he earned his degree from the Culinary Institute of America, he did not follow a path of privilege so much as the old-fashion practice of learning the business from the inside out. He also picked up a drug habit that could have derailed his journey many times but instead deferred to one more obstacle to overcome as he rose to the coveted role of head chef of Manhattan’s beloved Brasserie Les Halles.
But who knew that behind the chef’s hat sat the mind of a tremendous storyteller? It took an impish and impulsive gambit — sending an essay on the inner workings of NYC kitchens that The New Yorker published in 1997 as “Don’t Eat Before Reading This” — to begin to unwrap his successful second act. In 2000, he became an author, and a bestselling one at that, with Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly.
And then, in his mid-40s, Bourdain’s quick wit, tremendous people skills and unquenchable curiosity about food and cultures became a marriage made in TV heaven. Starting with “A Cook’s Tour” on the Food Network, Bourdain evolved his storytelling knack and ability to get anybody to open up and share their cultures further with the successful and surprisingly sublime “No Reservations” on The Travel Channel. To watch Bourdain’s effortless charisma and ability to connect, it’s easy to see why CNN decided to work with him, and change the direction of their network programming, with the launch of the series “Parts Unknown” in 2013. It won awards and yet another legion of fans for Bourdain, but for him it was never about just earning fame and fortune.
Bourdain described “Parts Unknown” as “a series of … standalone essays that generally try to focus on the subject of food and where it comes from, but not always.” It was wickedly funny serial storytelling, bound by a sense of place on any given episode … and yet much more. Appropriate given his background, Bourdain was a champion of the underdog and of marginalized people. Food was how he connected with them, but empathy was how he attained their stories.
As he mentioned in an interview with Cooper, he never ever refused a meal offered to him in his travels, no matter how gross or unappealing or not-so-fresh it might have appeared (the worst thing that could happen, he joked, could probably be cured by antibiotics). This is such an important lesson for all of us — he treated cultures, peoples and food with great respect, realizing the way to the hearts of his hosts was through his own stomach. If a person accepts your food, he accepts you on every level.
For all of Anthony’s famed gift of gab, this was the real bedrock of his shows. He may have been profane, hard-drinking and sarcastic, but he did not see humans as greater or lesser, only as fellow humans.
“I still feel I have the best job in the world,” he told CNN a few years ago, “and it’s still fun.” He seemingly had everything to live for — it’s no stretch to spin the old cliche to say men (and women) wanted to be him, and women (and some men) wanted to be with him, because he was so magnetic and magnanimous. For all the travel, logistics and occasional dangerous food, it really did look like a job any one of us would want. That he had a young daughter that gave him a sense of purpose seems like icing on the cake.
Except that seeming to have it all ultimately would mean nothing to him.
I wrap this up with lines from my favorite book of poetry, Edwin Arlington Robinson’s Spoon River Anthology. The elegy for Richard Cory, the successful and most envied man in town, ends with a twist that has become sadly recognizable in our modern society:
Clean favored, and imperially slim.
“Good-morning,” and he glittered when he walked.
To make us wish that we were in his place.
We’ll never truly know what went through Anthony Bourdain’s head in those last lost moments. But we’re learning what a tremendous impact he’s had on his fans, followers and the friends he made so easily. Godspeed, Tony, and thank you for feeding our bodies and our minds.