When I woke up this morning and picked up my phone, it was the first news I saw. Anthony Bourdain found dead at 61 of apparent suicide. Another icon and influence gone.
You need not have considered yourself a fan of Bourdain to be saddened over his passing, because even if you weren’t a fan, if you’re a fan of food-related television or writing, or you consider yourself a foodie, chances are you’ve been influenced by him in some way.
His book, Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly (2000), broke the mold for what people had come to expect about food writing. It wasn’t simply a memoir about great food experiences and a collection of recipes. No ― it was a gritty, honest look at what it takes to make it as a professional chef. Shows on foodie TV make it seem like being a chef is a fun, awesome gig ― which sure, sometimes it can be. But Bourdain threw open the kitchen doors, and showed all the flaws and problems and chaos that existed within, the wild collection of characters, the frenzy behind the calm in the dining room. It felt as if he were a rebel chef, tossing aside the glossy shine of the celebrity cooking industry, and stage-whispering the secrets of the industry in our ears.
As somebody who had already spent several years working in restaurants by the time Kitchen Confidential came out, I could relate so much to his book. These personas ― the cooks and chefs and waitstaff ― were people that I knew and worked with.
Not only was he honest about the people in the kitchen, he was honest about the food and the food business in general, and that was an important part of his appeal ― this was a guy who wasn’t going to put up with bullsh*t, but could also talk about his own issues. He was honest about his personal struggles with substance abuse, ranging from alcohol and cigarettes to cocaine and LSD. This was a man with grit and problems and a past, who was still appealing ― because he wasn’t perfect.
The popularity of Kitchen Confidential led to him writing A Cook’s Tour: In Search of the Perfect Meal (2001), and a television series on the Food Network of the same name (A Cook’s Tour) in 2002. This led to Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations and later The Layover, both on the Travel Chanel, and most recently, Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown on CNN. He also made guest appearances on other shows, such as Top Chef on Bravo and Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern. He was heavily nominated and awarded for his work, from ‘Food Writer of the Year’ (2001, Bon Appétit magazine) to multiple Emmy Awards.
His lasting legacy is what he championed: willingly seek out other cultures and learn about them, explore their cuisines, meet their people and talk with them. His blue-collar, fearless approach of exploring food and travel made the world accessible to everyone; and gave people the confidence to leap in and try new experiences. As President Barack Obama expressed on Twitter this morning, “He taught us about food — but more importantly, about its ability to bring us together. To make us a little less afraid of the unknown. We’ll miss him.”
He inspired ― and will continue to inspire ― people to try new things, explore new places, meet new people.
I think Drew Magary said it best in his “Appreciation” today:
“He lived. Anthony Bourdain lived so much that the idea of him dying seems completely preposterous. …. And I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say the world would be a better place, and can very much be a better place, if everyone followed his lead and took true joy in seeking out and understanding the unknown. That is the greatest and most wondrous indulgence of all. Raise a glass. Cook a pig. Hug a friend. We cannot have Anthony Bourdain’s life, but thanks to him I know damn well that all of us can still have fantastic lives of our own, and that’s no small thing.”
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