June 8, 2018 – He appeared in my viewscape fully-formed years ago, the spirit animal I didn’t know I had.
We were plenty different—him far more brazen, knife-skilled, tatted-up, sharp-tongued and swashbuckling than I dared endeavor, every bit a Jersey bad boy, martial artist and anti-vegan—but in core philosophies we clicked.
There was one of them right there on the pages of Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly—the book that converted me as a follower and launched him on his trajectory toward international icon and cult-worshipped star of shows like “No Reservations” and “Parts Unknown.”
“Do we really want to travel in hermetically sealed popemobiles through the rural provinces of France, Mexico and the Far East, eating only in Hard Rock Cafes and McDonalds?” he writes. “Or do we want to eat without fear, tearing into the local stew, the humble taqueria’s mystery meat, the sincerely offered gift of a lightly grilled fish head? I know what I want. I want it all. I want to try everything once.”
Kitchen Confidential itself was the manifestation of a belief I held since working as a busboy at the long-departed Monterey Joe’s on North Fremont, next to the bowling alley in North Monterey: That working in food service should be a prerequisite to graduating high school.
It’s not just for the unique human lessons about customers and staff, though those are precious, and graphically evoked in Confidential’s pages, but more so because everybody eats away from home eventually, and should understand what it’s like to be on the other side. It generates empathy, humility and respect that can’t quite be achieved otherwise.
I see it in my dad, a former dishwasher, when he sneaks into the kitchen to tip the guy toiling at the sink. I recognize it in that big chip on the shoulder of Ivy League-educated chef Michael Jones, founder of Cachagua General Store, who reserves his most vicious venom for upper crusters who dare look down on the blue-collar kids he hires and turns into world-beaters one back-breaking dinner shift at a time.
When I became a food writer, it was not because I knew anything about food. What best qualified me to be a journalist were travels to the off-the-map Southeast Asian and obscure South American haunts Bourdain celebrates, tempting fate and tastebuds at the same time.
My editor bit on my first restaurant review pitch—about Jose’s Mexican in New Monterey—partly because I had spent months in Mexico shopping for endless peppers in local markets with my adopted abuela for her intense molés and giant pots of caldo de pollo we would gradually eat over three days with stacks of freshly pressed corn tortillas.
I scoured every inch of Mexico City, but with the help of Bourdain’s lens, and realized I learned the most there in the kitchen with Evanghelina.
“Food is everything we are,” he said once. “[Food is] an extension of nationalist feeling, ethnic feeling, your personal history, your province, your region, your tribe, your grandma. It’s inseparable from those from the get-go.”
Before I became a food writer, I was a tutor, teacher and uncle. I avoided decanting life advice, but one soapbox I did have was simple: travel. Bourdain had that calculated and articulated.
“If you’re…physically fit, hungry to learn and be better, I urge you to travel—as far and as widely as possible,” goes one of Bourdain’s most popular refrains. “Sleep on floors if you have to. Find out how other people live and eat and cook. Learn from them—wherever you go.”
I originally fell in love with the food beat because of the flavors and experience. But I came to truly treasure it because of 1) its ubiquity: not everybody votes or watches film, but everybody eats; and 2) its heart: nobody succeeds in food without a passion for making people happy.
Bourdain diagnosed how he got at those elements as he accepted the prestigious Peabody Award for public service and media excellence in 2013.
“We ask very simple questions: What makes you happy? What do you eat? What do you like to cook? And everywhere in the world we go and ask these very simple questions,” he said. “We tend to get some really astonishing answers.”
One of the reasons Bourdain’s apparent suicide today (June 8, 2018, at 61), in a hotel room near Strasbourg, France, hit so hard is because our questions won’t get answers, astonishing or otherwise.
His abiding curiosity and his relentlessly renewed beginner’s mind hinted that he had too much discovery ahead to end things now. He appeared far too hungry for more exploring.
Other shock from his countless fans, 7.5 million twitter followers and scores of fellow thinkers, authors and chefs, including Eric Ripert (who found him in the hotel), might come from the fact he has survived so much, including addiction and depravity.
Even Confidential is a parable in resilience: When he wrote it he was well into his 40s, a full decade behind on back taxes and had yet to own a piece of furniture. Plus something further—his alchemy of youthful enthusiasm, fearlessness, charisma, and comfort in far-flung places—suggested invincibility.
The news shook me more than it might have because I was already wrestling with similar tragedies. A minute before I heard word about Bourdain’s death I was completing three tweets about suicide. I was moved to do so after reading and thinking about Kate Spade’s suicide, including this line from a Time report on rising suicide rates: “Research suggests that high-profile suicides like Spade’s can spur ‘suicide contagion,’ a known public-health issue. In the months following actor Robin Williams’ highly publicized death by suicide in 2014, there was a 10% spike in suicides nationwide.”
One of my tweets cites the hardest story I’ve ever written, about an adored Carmel Valley winemaker who was always there to help, smiling, generous, handsome, heartfelt, until he killed himself last year at his winemaking facility, leaving his wife, kids, staff and wider community to pick up the pieces and wonder what they could’ve done to help support him.
A number of locals who are both smart and caring tried to block the story, and more took exception at something I wrote in closing the piece:
[He was] strong and bronze, father and farmer, great guy and greater friend, was suffering from depression that has long haunted his family – and claimed his brother last winter – and few knew it. When someone so special, so inspiring and so helpful can be so fragile, it’s not just heart shattering, it’s humbling.
That’s why I hope another one of his legacies will be a willingness to skip the stigma surrounding depression, and use this as an opportunity to talk about the ways we can help cope.
Like one [of his] friends told me, “It brings it full circle how vulnerable we all are.”
The scariest day of my life happened not long after that winemaker’s suicide. It wasn’t a misstep cliff jumping or a near-death car crash (true stories), but when I self-poisoned myself on where I was in life, and how many opportunities I had f—ed up.
At one point I wondered—with what felt like every cell in my body—if could ever turn off a loop of anxious thoughts that was hamster wheeling around my brain.
I got most freaked when on the basketball court, which was always—before then, anyway—a refuge from negative thoughts and self-defeat, and the slippery panic doubled: Can I stop these thoughts once they’ve started? Will I ever control my head again? Wait—I’m on the basketball court and I can’t stop thinking like this? Why am I so weak and flawed and f—ed up?
Something happened, though, once we left the court. I knew my hoops teammate had wrestled with his own demons. So I tried, tentatively at first, talking about mine.
It got a lot easier as he nodded, began to identify and talked me through his experience.
I don’t know what Bourdain was dealing with, and don’t pretend to. I do know that talking with my basketball buddy shocked me in how much lighter I felt, in a hurry. That feeling deepened when I confided in other friends.
My demons aren’t dead. But neither am I.
A painful irony struck me in composing this piece: Even as he had so many people like me listening intently to his travelogues, maybe Bourdain didn’t feel like he had someone who could listen to his problems.
A passage from Confidential seems a little too prescient: “[When I die], I will decidedly not be regretting missed opportunities for a good time. My regrets will be more along the lines of a sad list of people hurt, people let down, assets wasted and advantages squandered.”
The last four months I’ve been channeling Bourdain in a major way, living to travel and understand through food. Two days ago my former employer marveled at my “Anthony Bourdain existence.” A day previous I quoted Bourdain’s one-word Twitter profile when seeking a way to describe my approach to food-and-drink reporting: not critic, but “enthusiast.”
In traveling around Asia, Africa and Europe, I’ve had his mantras finding their way to my mind, including, “Sometimes the greatest meals on vacations are the ones you find when Plan A falls through.”
Of late I’ve spent meals in some world-class restaurants in Bangkok, Thailand, and Split, Croatia. But the best meals have been sitting on the floor with Afghan refugees in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and a family mourning its patriarch in Ha Long Bay, Vietnam. Food and identity were indistinguishable.
As Bourdain says, “Food is everything we are.”
Along these travels I’ve explored some of the most spellbinding temples ever created—including one in Chiang Mai made completely of sculpted silver—and UNESCO World Heritage sites like Croatia’s Plitvice Lakes and its surreal turquoise waterfalls.
But the real pilgrimages have been for food, at places ID’d by one Anthony Bourdain.
That included a stop at Chiang Mai’s Cowboy Hat Lady food stand (actual name Khao Kha Moo Chang) for super bare-bones khao kha moo pork leg with rice, pitchers of spicy sauce and whole cloves of garlic that resonate with another Bourdain motto (“Good food is very often, even most often, simple food”).
It also involved a visit to a new Hanoi landmark in the same country Bourdain called “life-changing,” in channeling Graham Greene’s The Quiet American: “They say whatever you’re looking for, you will find here…The smell: that’s the first thing that hits you, promising everything in exchange for your soul.”
I ate where he and President Barack Obama toasted local beers at a place called Bun Cha Huong Lien.
It was touristy and so crowded an oblivious tour guide might as well have been sitting on my shoulder for half of my lunch, but despite that and the long walk across the city to get there, I was experiencing deliverance because I was in a place two paradigm shifters shared a meal and another Bourdain principle: “You learn a lot about someone when you share a meal together.”
Bun cha involves a mountain of white rice noodles, grilled fatty pork, a jungle of aromatic herbs and dipping sauce. With the Obama Special at Huong Lien, it also comes with a beer and a rich shrimp-and-pork roll—the kind of meal that didn’t seem like an end is imaginable.
Bourdain’s end was hard to imagine too, and will take a while to sink in, if it ever does. While he might’ve ended his episode to head into the ultimate parts unknown, his contributions will live on, as will so many wanderings he inspired, including my own.
As much as he changed the way we looked at restaurants and set the table for reimagining of chefs as renegades and rock stars—while advocating for immigrant, restaurant worker and women’s rights—his greatest contribution is that reverence for identity through food, without sacrificing his playful irreverence.
The playful part: “Total cost of bun cha dinner with the President: $6.00,” he tweeted from Hanoi. “I picked up the check.”
His irreverent reminder, with that kick of ever-present perspective: “I, personally, think there is a really danger of taking food too seriously. Food should be part of the bigger picture.”
Fortunately there is no danger of his influence going anywhere. Another chef with prodigious perspective put it best: “RIP doubtful,” Tom Colicchio tweeted today. “Tony’s restless spirit will roam the earth in search of justice, truth and a great bowl of noodles.”
So no RIP needed. Just more exploring. For him, but also for us.
Mark C. Anderson is a freelance writer and editor based in Seaside, California, who is nativating the world via food, drink and a pioneering work-travel program called Remote Year. He is currently in Split, Croatia. Reach him via firstname.lastname@example.org.