What Anthony Bourdain meant to me

Waking up on the morning of June 8th was a shock to me, as I read that my favorite traveler Anthony Bourdain was found dead in his hotel room. No words can express the loss I felt, especially as he seemed to have it all: a fantastic job, great friends and family, and people who adored him. I cannot claim to be the most eloquent of writers, but I hope that my 27-year-old self can put something together than is worthy of this titan of travel. But, before I go on, I want to say that we as a society need to check on our friends. Even those who seem like they’re coping may be battling inner demons. Please, know that we’re with you no matter what.

The National Suicide Prevention Hotline number in America is 1-800-273-8255.

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While I can’t remember when exactly I found out about Mr. Bourdain, I remember the first time I watched No Reservations on the Travel Channel. From the get-go, I was hooked. It wasn’t like any other travel program that I’d seen, because here was a guy who was willingly traveling to unconventional places in the world, all while enjoying new cultures over scrumptious meals that made my mouth water. Granted, the fact that he never really shook off his old career as a chef helped, but as he himself stated, food is what brings us together. (In his travels to Vienna, one of the local chefs made a remark to this extent, saying that the food each country eats gives us insight into their collective psyches. I’m not as well-traveled as he was, but I can absolutely attest to this theory!) Plus, his snark was also a breath of fresh air, in stark contrast with a lot of the channel’s bubblier personalities. Despite that gruff image, he made sure to highlight the poignant history the world had to offer; he dove right in under the shallow surface to find the real treasure. We had these destinations in front of us, ready to be explored, but Mr. Bourdain simply gave us the key to uncovering the path.

Recently I’ve been going back to watch both his shows along with re-reading his books, and it still strikes me at how easy he makes it look. I marvel at that, actually. For all my bravado about stating I like to travel to these types of destinations, I still remain somewhat fearful of places off the beaten track. On the flip side, he found these areas of the world splendidly wild. Between shows, this mentality became even more pronounced-you can tell he’s being restrained in No Reservations compared to his gleefully reckless abandon in Parts Unknown remains an indelible image. It goes without saying that plenty of people have been exposed to exotic, spirited worlds the like of which we’d have minimal chance of ever stumbling across. Better yet, he didn’t neglect to show off an America that Americans have yet to completely discover; . Even when you thought you knew the lay of the land, he came along and pried off the covers. Plato once said, “An unexamined life is not worth living” and Mr. Bourdain was the embodiment of that. Something that especially stuck out to me during his second-to-last season of Parts Unknown was his decision to visit West Virginia, which if we’re being honest, isn’t most peoples’ ideal destination. Reading his blog, however, was typical Anthony Bourdain: he knew that it was a chance to simultaneously dispel notions that they’re all rednecks there while highlighting their unique culture/lifestyle. That’s why I and so many others tuned in-to see him bring much-needed understanding into this world. By the legions of fans he had in the end, he succeeded in this endeavor.

Yet another way he’s helped enrich my overall outlook on life is something that doesn’t necessarily pertain to travel: the kitchen lifestyle. Look, I’ve got the bare skills to cook (which is why I only make tacos, burgers, and cutlets), but I appreciate the chaotic grind that goes on in order to satisfy our cravings. The amount of management and drama that goes on was surprising, but I guess it was to be expected. After all, we only see the tip of the iceberg in this fascinating profession, so anything goes, but his recollections were viciously detailed. Entertaining, but with the knowledge that only a select, neurotic few are cut out for. Before I entered his world, I was super naïve, but now I’m, as the popular saying goes, woke. One neat tidbit I picked up from his books A Cook’s Tour and The Nasty Bits was that he wanted to tell the world how valuable his Hispanic employees were. He went to bat for them at all times, since they are the unsung heroes of the cooking world. Need somebody to whip up any and all types of food, even without knowing the proper names? They’re the guys you need. In a touch I thought was awesome, he visited the village of his sous chef (the kitchen’s second in command) in Mexico to see that small-town culture, and was consequently treated to the warm hospitality of his lads. He didn’t have to go that far, but that curiosity about these guys is proof, if you ever doubted it, that he was a good guy.

In recalling his blessedly chaotic life, it’s incredibly fitting to use the words of his partner, actress Asia Argento. “His brilliant, fearless spirit touched and inspired so many, and his generosity knew no bounds.”  To this day, one of my biggest regrets in life was not attending a lecture of his at my college back in 2010, which looking back, I wish I could have experienced that passion and unique style of his. Hearkening back to when I first saw him, I honestly thought that this guy is a bit of a prick, but his sardonic behavior belied his heart of gold. That sense of cynicism may turn off some people, but for me, it’s the way to enlightenment for travel-you need to filter out the easy, touristy stuff from the actual authentic version of your destination. What gave me a better appreciation was reading his books, where he mentioned the behind-the-scenes of the episodes where he wasn’t feeling it. Some travel bloggers/shows try to shoehorn that bubbly, cheery feel into each and every episode, but having that honest, brutally so even, mood of his represented is vastly underappreciated; I don’t think we’ll find somebody to replace that gap he left.

However, it is hard going back to watch both shows knowing that deep down he was suffering. That hindsight makes us second guess the moments-how much did he force himself to smile and enjoy the moments for us? I don’t want to label him as a tortured artist by any means, but jeez, you never know. To all outward appearances, he had the world, literally and figuratively, in his fingers, but even then that wasn’t enough to save him. Articles written after his untimely passing chronicle how broke he turned out to be, how lonely his private world was. Why didn’t he let people know? Was he too deep down the rabbit hole, or was he a victim of his success to be able to open up? We’ll never know, and the “what if’s’ will haunt us.

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Again, I hope that this post does him justice, my attempt at creating a paeon of sorts for him. I never have met him, but in a way, part of his spirit lives on inside me, you, and all of his fans. Now? When I travel, I try to think how he would view a certain dish or city. But more importantly, I try to channel that love for the unknown. In teaching us lessons about food, we all collectively became a little less afraid of the unknown in the world. Thank you, Tony. Thank you for taking us along with you on the roads less traveled.

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