I'm skipping the restaurant play this week because I have a few things to say about Anthony Bourdain. All weekend long I've been glued to my screen reading tributes and scrolling through the Twitter profiles of specific individuals, looking for insight into their thoughts and feelings; curious about what they have to say if anything at all. There's no way to make sense of this loss, but it feels imperative to grieve collectively. After all, he touched so many. I did not know Anthony Bourdain, but I was a die-hard fan. And in that, I am far from alone.
There are plenty of people in this world whom I look up to, whom I'm inspired by, whom I attempt to emulate, and whom I seek advice from. Anthony Bourdain, however, was the only real celebrity that I felt genuinely impacted by; the only hugely famous person who deeply influenced me. He was my idol. Here's why:
Tony championed food as a discipline. He took something that many people don't (or didn't) find exciting or fascinating—beyond its primary value as fuel, its ability to taste good, and its function of bringing people together—and explored its capacity for meaning and connection in unparalleled ways. He was a chef turned writer turned anthropologist who pursued informed conversation, genuine kinship, and uninhibited discovery—with food as his starting point.
It wasn't just what he did, but how he shared it. He was a brilliant writer and narrator; sharp and emotive, snarky and sensitive. He did not hold back. His work justified my own interest in food, sociology, and storytelling. Because of him, I stopped questioning my passion and instead committed to it.
I often think about an episode of Parts Unknown where he goes diving for seafood in Sicily. While Tony is underwater, the fisherman who took him out is on the boat tossing fish into the sea that he likely purchased at a nearby market. As a viewer, you see Tony become confused as mostly dead fish plop into the water around him. When he finally comes up for air, he's furious. It's clear that the fisherman wanted him to have a fruitful experience—but to what expense? That episode was a tough one to watch, but it demonstrated the value of his work in an entirely new way for me: Tony taught the importance of integrity. He had no tolerance for phoniness; his vocation was authenticity.
Beyond his work as a producer and journalist, he used his platform speak out against bad men who deserved to fall in the current era of #MeToo. And he pulled it off better than any powerful man has thus far because he was aware of his place in the world. He was self-reflective, he was forthcoming, and therefore, he was a true ally.
His death leaves a huge gaping hole not just in the food world, but in the interconnected web of humanity. That sounds cheesy, but Tony wasn't afraid to be cheesy. I always respected him for that. He proved that it's possible to be rough around the edges and soft at the same time.
I relied on Anthony Bourdain to share the kinds of narratives I never thought I could uncover myself. Now that he's gone, I am determined to practice eating and travel and storytelling with an open mind and a ferocious appetite for challenge. I will aim to seek out an eclectic range of experts to inform my observations, and I'll look to tell the stories of people whose voices aren't often heard, but who make the world go round. I will push myself to always write with meaning, feeling, and wit. I will fight for my values with rigor. It won't be easy. I have a long way to go. But if I can live my life and give back to the world in ways even slightly reminiscent of how he did, then I'll know that I'm on the right path.
Related and recommended:
Helen Rosner's beautiful tribute [New Yorker]
Jeff Gordinier on Bourdain as a brilliant and trailblazing food writer [Esquire]
Bourdain self-reflects in the context of #MeToo [Medium]
We have Bourdain to thank for the success of Xi'an Famous Foods [Eater]
An 88-year-old critic from South Dakota remembers how Bourdain stuck up for her when everyone else was laughing [Buzzfeed]
Bourdain remembers his father with admiration [Bon Appétit]
If you are having thoughts of suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, at 1-800-273-talk (8255), or the Suicide Crisis Line, at 1-800-784-2433, or text 741741.
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