My wife and I went to Thailand last year on our honeymoon. Had we never known of Anthony Bourdain, we might have just headed for Hawaii (not that there’s anything wrong with that).
But Bourdain changed me. And not just me. Bourdain changed the restaurant world. He changed the travel world. And he changed the media world. In no small way, he helped change the world at large. He made it feel simultaneously much smaller and much bigger. He died from an apparent suicide last week, and the world will be less colorful and feel slightly less accessible without him.
The brash chef, a bubbling cauldron of irreverence and respect, made the foreign familiar, dissolving borders both physical and literal with his works of New Journalism for the Travel Channel (“No Reservations”) and CNN (“Parts Unknown”). But before he created the platform which celebrated, investigated and marveled at cultures ranging from Iceland to Malaysia and West Virginia to Tokyo, he revealed a world equally as foreign to so many: the professional kitchen. His 2000 book “Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly” pulled back the curtain on the rebellious, creative, hard-working and sometimes destructive cast of characters that found refuge and purpose in cooking. As he would later do traveling the world, Bourdain helped his audience understand a culture beyond their own personal experience, and he allowed his subjects to be truly seen and heard.
Bourdain spent the better part of 20 years showing us to ourselves, helping us recognize that behind every bowl of oxtail stew or plate of fried chicken, there is a person, a culture and a story. Yes, he had what seemed the enviable job of traveling the world, constantly maintaining a childlike wonder on a very grown-up budget, but he was not trying to be an exalted rock star; he was simply a searcher, and our proxy.
A brilliant wordsmith, underrated filmmaker and reluctantly vulnerable humanist, Bourdain re-calibrated the way we thought about food. He wasn’t a vamping chef in pristine whites jazzing up meals you can cook at home or a clown peddling in redundancy with how “delicious!!” every bite of chicken-fried steak was that he encountered across the country. He was a storyteller, a raconteur, an excited student of the world that reminded us that connection with another person or culture is often just one meal or bite of food away. He made you want to head to the airport with just your wallet and travel to Bangkok or Dublin, hungry for a meal, a conversation, an adventure, a lesson in life.
I didn’t know Bourdain, though as with any great artist you feel you come to know at least a layer or two of the person, and I am in no place to make judgments about how his life ended. I just know that I have never endured the crippling despair of depression, and can only imagine its dark grip. His daughter and dearest loved ones have my deepest sympathy. If you or anyone you know is battling depression or thoughts of suicide, please know there is help out there and recovery is possible. And please call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline phone number at 1-800-273-8255. Chefs with Issues is also a resource if you are struggling and work in the food world. Locally, you can call 512-472-4357 to connect with mental health services.