I was always envious of Anthony Bourdain. It wasn’t only his endless international adventures, his skills around the kitchen, or his connections to the best food in the world, but the honesty with which he wrote. His first piece in The New Yorker, a modern, sharp-toothed version of The Jungle, left me with a pit in my stomach, “He’s such a good writer,” I thought to myself, “I will never be as good as this.”
He had the ability to make any uneatable ingredient or pretentious word palatable.
His character had been sharpened like the knives in his kitchen: cutting, blunt, and aggressive. Teetered on a tightrope between a rowdy American man and diplomat, he was always utterly himself.
His sharp tongue got him the fame he deserved from haggling for the finest fish in Manhattan at 4am on a Tuesday to throwing back Vietnamese beers on plastic chairs with the leader of the free world. This man could serve you a perfect eggs benedict and bust your balls at the same time.
When I was baking, I could never keep my cool and would stress eat raw apple slices and uncooked crumble topping as I worked through the 6 am shift. His books would be stacked between the pantry shelves, his nonchalant eyes staring back at me as I hoisted buckets of brown sugar off the shelf.
“How the fuck is he able to work in a kitchen and stay so skinny and his eyes aren’t filled with broken blood vessels or underlined with dark circles?” I never had the cool to do what he did.
My envy did eventually turn into admiration, once I was transitioning out of my love of cooking. I was over the food porn, the ridiculous desert combinations, or the pretentiousness of gastro-cuisine. What I liked about Bourdain was that he never shied away from the nasty bits. He didn’t entertain the idea that food was meant to be looked at- it was meant to be devoured.
“Your body is not a temple, it’s an amusement park. Enjoy the ride,” is easily my favorite quote. He understood that food is messy and fickle and not easily tamed. He seemed to gain a strange pleasure of being covered in blood, eating bull balls, or puking his brains out. He never ran from it; hell, he enjoyed it. He understood that in order to have great meals, you need to have a few fuckups in between.
Which is also how he spoke about travel. Sometimes, I didn’t want to agree with his crude comment or eye roll about a culture, and at times I thought he was a bit insensitive or abrasive. But he was seeing things I wasn’t, and he was being honest. He never intended his work to be click bate. He only showed what was the truth, from the unexpected hospitality in Iran, the military dictatorship in Myanmar, to the opioid crisis in Massachusetts. He was a translator. A translator of ingredients, a translator of cultures, and a translator of experiences.
Most importantly, he knew how to unite people. He understood that what bonded stronger than tapioca starch was a shared meal- how stews could sometimes solve wars. When people sit together around a table, we pass around more than butter but our experiences, our pains, and our pleasures. We are forced to listen to each other between bites. He wanted curiosity to fuel us as much as our food does. He knew how to ask the right questions and when to let the meal speak for itself. These talents allowed him to extract the secret ingredients, cultural stigmas, or unsettling histories out of people. He showed us our humanity through food, and his biting perspective and expertise is something we might not see for a long time.
It honestly baffles me why someone who has been fortunate to enjoy more breadth and bread of the human experience would voluntarily take theirs away?
I truly don’t understand suicide. And I by no means want to talk light of this situation. It is saddening and perplexing and heartbreaking that we have lost such a unique and honest human being.
I didn’t know him personally, nor am I pretending that I did. I was just another person who devoured his work. I don’t know what thoughts plagued him once the cameras were off and the kitchen doors were closed.
All I can say is that I hope he is at peace now.
I can’t help but think, what was his last meal? Did he enjoy it? Did he savor it? I hope he did. I hope it was simple and effortless and nourishing. I hope it was a moment he was able to truly enjoy on his own, a return back to why he used to wake up in the morning. I hope it was the best meal he has ever had.
Tonight, I eat for Anthony Bourdain. A man I always wished I would randomly run into at a random dumpling house off Canal St, secretly trying to chew cheap pouches of heaven in peace. Tonight, I will be more risky about what I put in my body and more curious about who I am sharing the meal with.
We should become the intrepid, earnest eaters he wanted us all to be.