Hungry for More: Remembering Anthony Bourdain

He was was one of us. 

By all accounts Anthony Bourdain hadn’t been a cook for a long time, yet somehow he still always felt like one of us — not an easy feat for a food celebrity. As with most cooks I know — especially those my age —he had had a big influence on my career trajectory. I can remember reading Kitchen Confidential at the age of 23 and wanting that life. Not necessarily all the drugs, but I wanted to live a life that felt that crazy and full, perhaps if only for the sheer pleasure of being able to write about it somewhere down the line. I moved to New York, because like Bourdain said, I felt that hunger for more. Bourdain’s work also struck me for another reason. For most of my adult life I gravitated towards both cooking and writing, and Bourdain was the first person I saw that seemingly gave me permission to pursue both, and I will always be grateful for him showing me that way. 

As young cooks we watched Tony’s fame grow, and his large personality and way with storytelling gradually seep into the mainstream. He served as a gold standard — the place you want to get to. He lived the life (or so it seemed). He had made it out from behind the line, enjoyed fame and success,  yet he still kept his life and work deeply his own.

Yet it felt like no matter how large he became he still spoke for us. He spoke for the blue collar worker. He spoke for the cooks that show up each day, but rarely get any recognition. He spoke for anyone who makes something in the world with integrity. He spoke for the down-and-out. He spoke for the group of misfits that is the kitchen world. 

Bourdain work, from his books to the stories on his shows, helped to elevate the image of the cook from merely blue collar worker to a smart, thinking person in the world. When he died, however, something new was made abundantly clear to me. It wasn’t just cooks that were deeply mourning his loss. His influence ran much deeper than the food world. There was a humanity to his work that spoke to just about anyone.

He was a deeply inquisitive person who lived life in the questions. He had the words, ‘I am certain of nothing’ in ancient Greek tatooed on his body, and the way he lived his life seemed to reflect that philosophy. In a world where we pass judgment so quickly, he seemed to live by another way — a more curious and explorative way.

Through his gifted storytelling he showed the humanity in all the people he met. He had a sense of respect and reverence for other people, no matter their background. I remember hearing him talk about his friendship with right-wing conservative Ted Nugent. When asked what they had in common he replied something along the lines of, “Absoultuely nothing. Except for a great love of BBQ”. Bourdain demonstrated time and time again that commonalities can be found with just about anyone over a meal. 

I fear we are losing people like that in our world — people who have the ability to connect with just about anyone, regardless of their politics, where they live, or their background. My grandma was like this too. She could strike up a conversation with anyone. Really, anyone. I would marvel as she would invite seeming strangers that we would meet in places like Paris and Rome to come visit her in her tiny hometown of Klamath Falls, Oregon. She could find something to talk about, and something to agree on, with just about anybody. I think Bourdain was like this too, and it’s a quality that I deeply admire.

I’ve been thinking about many things since Bourdain’s death — mental illness (especially in the food industry), the gifts travel has given me in my own life, and perhaps most importantly the practice of getting out of our individual bubbles, and connecting with people who are very different from ourselves. I think that as chefs and cooks we play an important role in this. We provide a tool — a meal — an event over which people can connect. It becomes easier to bridge any cultural divide when people are eating. In today’s polarized climate I plan to use this tool more. 

I am reminded of the quote by Anais Nin — “Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s caring”. Anthony’s life was big — vast — because he cared about humans. For him the world was not a scary place to be avoided, but a playground to explore the biggest of life’s questions. I think we can all take a little bit of that spirit along with us as we move through the world. The loss of a soul like Anthony Bourdain will be deeply felt for a long time, and my heart goes out to his family and friends. 



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