by Robert Dean
I always thought I’d meet Anthony Bourdain. I was convinced that as my career evolved, we’d cross paths. I’d get to be one of those writers he loved, we 'd sit there, sucking down Lone Star longnecks in a roadside diner somewhere in west Texas or we’d be on an adventure down in Melbourne talking about why we loved the Ramones and The Stooges, too. About why books matter, why writing is a hard life, not dissimilar to the pirate mentality of a line cook.
Being a writer and someone obsessed with the kitchen, I assumed this relationship was a natural fit - game recognizing game. He was my idol. A beacon of hope that a punk rock loser could get a win. I don’t have many heroes, but Bourdain was a guy who’d battled his demons. As someone who fights depression, I thought I knew him.
We’d opine about Pam Grier flicks like Coffy or just how badass Michael Caine was in Get Carter. We’d order a round of Jameson’s and extol our love of Jim Harrison’s Legends of The Fall. We clink our shot glasses and then go on a bender of epic proportions. He’d dub me an heir to his throne, and we’d exchange texts and samples of whatever we were writing.
I’d see him one day in my travels and we’d bond about Tikka masala or Old Towne Inn in Chicago. He’d ask a few questions about The Rolling Stones best record and I reply, “fuckin’ Exile on Mainstreet, of course.” And we’d be off to the races.
It was a good fantasy, and now, it’ll forever remain only that – make-believe.
I know things because of him. I envied him because he’d shared meals with some of humanity’s most exceptional people when in reality, he was one of the finest too. Anthony Bourdain wasn’t just a host. He was the guy who snuck in the back door, leaving a crack open for the rest of us.
When people die, it rakes us over the emotional coals, challenging our sense of being, and purpose. Death dares us to ask: what does it mean to live genuinely? Can we carry on someone’s legacy, or did the memory of that person affect us as profoundly as we like to say on Facebook?
Losing Anthony Bourdain is a knife in the gut. This one hurts. Bad. How could someone who'd realized the dream, who seemingly had the (now)-perfect experience, burn it like a slip of paper into the ether? We’ll never know went on inside of his head. That was Tony’s choice, as he stared into oblivion, locked away inside his five-star French hotel room.
Folks from all over the world will muse about his greatness, his likability, his genuine nature, that he was an A+ original. They won’t be wrong. Every note and letter spent adoring his name will be a statement in truth: our species is better off for getting to know him over these last two decades.
Every walk of life watched A Cook’s Journey, No Reservations, and Parts Unknown. We voyeuristically imagined ourselves drinking a cold beer in the jungles of Brazil or wandering on the streets of Tokyo through his adventures. We learned new things about people on the other side of planet, just as they learned about us, over here in TrumpLand.
Anthony Bourdain taught us why food is important, why it binds across the lines of reality and what we’re willing to fight for. All cultures, all people center life around food, and whether seated on the floor or at a table, its an experience we all share as a people. If there’s a universal truth we all know, it’s that food makes us less assholes.
Even if you hate one another’s opinions, points of view, and guts, there is always the commonality of the meal. We’re drawn to the scent of flesh cooked over fire. Blame it on our hard-coded hunter/gatherer DNA, but it moves us, and Anthony Bourdain tapped into that.
We tend to be a lot less mean when a medium rare steak served with glistening plate of waffle fries is dropped in our laps. Anthony Bourdain dared us to sit at life’s table, no matter how awkward the conversation, to find a solution, in spite of the gravity of the world.
Before Kitchen Confidential, chefs were seen as these guys with folded arms in starched white jackets and big funny hats. We were let in on the secrets of the service industry, that everything wasn’t gleaming and pristine. Bourdain pulled the curtain back. He showed us the teeth of the pig, the hair plucked from the hide of the animal, and did so with a bloody, drug-induced irreverence.
That book changed our relationship to the food we eat. Everything was less about how a plate comes out to the table, but how we see the mechanisms of the environment, which it was centered.
Before him, the Food Network was just knives hitting the cutting board, not a real peek into the industry of service. The Food Network didn’t know what to do with Anthony Bourdain. Instead of embracing the weird, they laid their chips on safe programming. It wouldn’t be too far of a stretch to see how bad they wanted to make up for their error in later years. After just one season, A Cook’s Journey was pulled. To the Travel Channel went Bourdain and the beginnings of an empire were created.
Despite food being the pulse of No Reservations and Parts Unknown, the people are what made the body of work shine. Viewers into the world of Bourdain learned how to appreciate the far corners of the world, how the people in the streets, the dinner table or against the brass at the local pub, all wanted the same thing: an enjoyable life.
Parts Unknown stood as the last real bastion of counterculture America in the mainstream. Bourdain created cinema-inspired television on a network, a feat that changed the face of CNN from talking head machine into a place of experience and stories. Anthony Bourdain let the squares inside his orgy of life.
While Bourdain hit the nicest of the nice, he also slummed – it wasn’t about the luxury of the room or the number of Michelin stars dangling from the name, it was about the experience. He had drinks made from spit and cow’s blood, he devoured fresh caught snapper on the beach, pulled from a man’s cooler who couldn’t speak a lick of English. The narrative never changed: love the people, and learn their secrets.
Bourdain and his Zero Point Zero crew made television that wasn’t a bunch of fat white guys guffawing over a local beer and burger joint. That pedestrian shit was for the birds. Instead, they saw their chance to make high art, to challenge viewers and take them on the journey.
The Heart of Darkness, the movies of Federico Fellini, the car chases of Steve McQueen, a penchant for crime and darkness, books, and music all permeated the landscape of the show. While competing travel shows opt for canned guitar riff music you could find in an elevator, bands like Queens of The Stone Age, and The Black Keys wanted their songs featured. Margo Price, Ume, The Sword, the godfather of punk, Iggy Pop all got to experience the world of Bourdain, and the result remained centered around the love of art, no matter the medium.
The look and feel of his shows were never a hatchet job. The narration, the vibe, everything was poured over. Every shot mattered. The writing on the show was brilliant, honest and true. While Bourdain’s books and essays are testaments to his writing prowess, it was the guttural rawness of his scripts that ached, that begged the viewer to travel, to eat, to experience life.
The honesty of the subjects he took on is what made people adore Anthony Bourdain. He took us to Montana, to Madagascar, to Moscow. We saw the streets of New Orleans, the intensity of South by Southwest, and we got to know the tragedies of Iran and Myanmar. When Anthony Bourdain visited West Virginia, he handled the opioid crisis with care and humanity. He showed his character, it wasn’t devastation porn, but a portrait of a hidden America.
He was a brilliant writer, a storied cook, a former addict, and the guy you wanted to talk to at the party. And now he’s gone.
Brian Allen Carr summed up Anthony Bourdain earlier. I’ll end there because as a writer, it’s genuine, respectful and stabs like a dagger. Goddamnit, Tony, we’re going to miss you.
“Anthony Bourdain was Hunter Thompson, Fernand Point, and Studs Terkel wrapped up in one. He's the reason America eats at food trucks. He's the reason we take pictures of all our food. If you've Yelped, it's because of him. He was the most significant writer in recent memory.”