Published on June 12th, 2018 | by Ian Goodwillie0
Anthony Bourdain (1956 – 2018)
A few of us were gobsmacked about Anthony Bourdain’s death last week. Ian writes The Feedback Society’s tribute to this writer, chef, traveler, and humanist.
It’s a strange thing.
Quite recently, I spent a couple of weeks in Southern California, the time split between San Diego and Los Angeles. It was a family trip so more time was devoted to theme parks than if I was there on my own. Now, it’s not to say that I didn’t have a huge amount of fun but it also wasn’t exactly the trip I would have planned if it were just me and my wife.
At the end of a long day at either the San Diego Zoo or Disneyland, two places that were absolute blasts to spend time, I found myself in a quiet hotel room looking to watch a little TV and wind down. I surfed for a while, eventually settling on Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown.
It wasn’t my first experience in the world of Anthony Bourdain but I hadn’t seen much of Parts Unknown. We gave up CNN as part of our cable years ago and I’m not one to track down/download content online. If it isn’t easily accessible through cable, Canadian Netflix, Amazon, or Crave, I’m increasingly unlikely to watch it. I barely have the time to keep up with all that content let alone trying to track it down somewhere else.
I do make exceptions from time to time, though.
In any case, it had been a long time since I regularly consumed content produced by Anthony Bourdain. I was big fan of No Reservations and The Layover but his move to CNN unintentionally lost me. As I sat in darkened San Diego and Los Angeles hotel rooms, watching episodes of Parts Unknown, including one set in Newfoundland which is a part of my own country I’ve never set foot in, I began remembering everything I loved about the man. In particular, his ability to dig deep into…well, everything. Food. Travel. Culture. Humanity. The next day I woke up and realized I fell asleep watching Bourdain, unable to turn his show off and I resolved to write a piece about how much I missed watching his shows regularly. About how much I loved and respected his work. About his impact on me.
Then I woke up on the morning of June 8th, 2018, and the reasoning for writing this piece changed dramatically. Anthony Bourdain had reportedly killed himself while shooting an episode of Parts Unknown in France with fellow chef and friend, Eric Ripert.
It was, to say the least, tough to swallow.
Many lifetimes ago, I worked in kitchens across Western Canada. Nothing fancy, just low-end restaurants and chain joints. There’s anything wrong with those types of establishments. They just are what they are. I decided it was time for a change, in no small part thanks to meeting the woman who I would marry and wanting to do better than I was. I made my way off the line and into a job at McNally Robinson Booksellers in Saskatoon as their Events Coordinator. It was job I enjoyed and achieved what could best be described as stellar mediocrity. I was sitting in a meeting with a rep for one of the publishers or distributors we worked with who was outlining upcoming releases. In that list was Anthony Bourdain’s 2006 book, The Nasty Bits.
It was the first time I had ever heard the name Anthony Bourdain.
Another member of the MRB family looked at me and emphatically gestured at the listing. It was her way of indicating that this was an author event to get in. And get it we most assuredly did not, which wasn’t a shock. While we do have some great authors in the area and some great tours that go through, most bypass us. Unless your city’s name ends in -onto, -real, or -couver, you’re going to have a hard time getting author tours to stop by in Canada. Still, he did make an appearance at MRB Winnipeg on that tour and I was at least able to secure a personalized copy of The Nasty Bits for myself.
After researching him for the pitch, I was immediately drawn in, buying his books and watching his shows.
I found that many cooks and chefs have a reverence for him, but not explicitly for his work in the kitchen. It’s more for his writing and what much of it represents. Kitchen Confidential is a book that any one has worked and bled for the restaurant industry should read. There is so much shared experience encapsulated in his story that it’s almost impossible not to relate to. It’s been at least 13 years since I worked a line but I can still look down at my hands and see the scars from those days. The burns and the cuts are as vivid now as they were then. Reading Kitchen Confidential brings those times, for better or worse, rushing back.
In some ways, I’m glad I didn’t discover Bourdain’s words until after I left that life behind. His realistic romanticism of that world may have kept me there instead of forging a new path.
That being said, I honestly can’t tell you if I would have been better or worse off than I am now.
Through his writing and TV series, Anthony Bourdain did everything he could to show you more than you would normally see as a traveler and citizen of the world. On our trip to SoCal, my family took time to explore. We made a point to get out of the San Diego and drive. We saw the rural areas around it as well as the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. My family experienced aspects of the region we never would have considered as strict tourists and that was in no small part due to Anthony Bourdain’s nagging voice in the back of my mind telling me to try a little bit harder. Anytime I travel, that voice is there and I owe a debt I can now never pay back for that.
The weirdest part of waking up to Bourdain’s death was the string of headlines in my newsfeed, all featuring an iteration of, “Anthony Bourdain, Celebrity Chef, Dead at 61.” Two of those words struck a chord with me.
Was he a chef? Yes. Was he a celebrity? Yup. But I would never, ever have defined him as a celebrity chef and would have to imagine that he would chafe against having his life summed up with that phrase.
His first career was as a chef, culminating when he became the executive chef at Brasserie Les Halles in New York and beyond. And it was one that he was well known for and well respected for. It’s possible that he even had some level of celebrity because of it, particularly among foodies and those in the restaurant industry. But he was never like a Guy Fieri or Bobby Flay. He didn’t have multiple cooking shows. He didn’t franchise his name to a litany of products and restaurants. He didn’t have dozens of cookbooks. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with any of that but that also just wasn’t Anthony Bourdain.
He was famous for being an author of fiction and non-fiction books. Keeping in mind I definitely preferred his non-fiction work, I respected him for putting himself out there into the world of fiction.
He was also a comic book fan and writer, specifically his two editions of Get Jiro! I remember watching him get interviewed on the now defunct Attack of the Show at Comic-Con International about the first edition of Get Jiro! There was a level of giddiness to him in that moment you rarely saw outside eating the right bite, drink the right beverage, or seeing the right movie. Despite everything else he had accomplished in his life, it was invigorating to witness someone experience this pure of a moment. He achieved something special. He fulfilled a dream.
He was a travel TV host, though he definitively redefined what that meant. The way he connected food, travel, and culture together was unique. He took chances on places few others would. He took the time to get to know people few others could. And he meant every moment of it. Thanks to that sincerity, he let us see the world in a way no one else had and that we were unlikely to pursue ourselves without his guidance.
On top of all of that, he was, in the most earnest and tangible of ways, a humanitarian. Through his work, he tried to show us the corners of our world we often forget or try to ignore. Whether he meant to or not, the way he showed us the world made us more aware of that world.
In a roundabout way, he was a modern-day Mr. Rogers, inviting us to be part of a much bigger neighborhood.
Anthony Bourdain changed the way I perceive myself, the world, and how I fit into it. The only other writer who ever truly had that impact on me was Hunter S. Thompson, who took his own life in 2005. But with Hunter, I wasn’t shocked when he killed himself. I was surprised. I was heartbroken. But I wasn’t shocked. Hunter lived his life by his own terms and when it became increasingly apparent that wasn’t going to be possible any longer, he ended it. You knew he would go out on his terms, one way or another. With Bourdain’s suicide, I am utterly shocked though maybe I shouldn’t be.
In roughly 2009 at a talk in Denver, someone asked Bourdain about Hunter S. Thompson. Bourdain spoke about the massive influence Thompson’s earlier work had on him but also how bad Thompson’s later years as a legend looked as his writing and physical state worsened. There are a few select comments in Bourdain’s two minutes on Thompson that stand out as he spoke about the author’s career and life. Keep in mind that these comments are out of context and I encourage you to watch the full video.
“He did not age well. I look at his career and I look at the last 20 years of his life or longer, and I’m very aware that it could be me … the guy killed himself. Not a happy man. I see him, I see him as a cautionary tale … I’d prefer not to end up that way.”
Hunter S. Thompson was 67 when he took his own life. Anthony Bourdain was even younger, only 61. My comments are not meant as speculation as to why Bourdain made this choice but maybe he was more similar to Thompson than even he realized, also ending his life on his terms. In any case of death by suicide, the reason is of exceedingly little comfort to those left behind. All you can do is hope those we’ve lost are at peace and encourage anyone on the edge to just talk about it.
In my basement, there is a small library of my favorite authors. There are other bookshelves throughout the house but this little library is reserved for my personal favorites. Chuck Klosterman. Christopher Moore. Douglas Coupland. But the top shelves have always been reserved for two particular authors; Hunter S. Thompson and Anthony Bourdain.
Once the shock wears off, I’ll head downstairs, grab Kitchen Confidential, and eat sushi while I read the most notorious work of the author I now have to refer to as the late Anthony Bourdain.
A strange thing, indeed.