Since his death last Friday, I have seen so many reactions to the loss of Anthony Bourdain. People and magazines have covered it from his impact on sharing food to his impact on sharing cultures. People have brought up his accomplishments, like an award from the Muslim Public Affairs Council to his realized lifelong dream of making comics. I started writing about him and then stopped. After all of that, what was left to say? And then I thought, he still meant and means something to me, and I can talk about that.
I’m really broken up about Anthony Bourdain. His loss is closer to that of a musician than a normal celebrity. With musicians and artists, and some chefs apparently, there’s a personal connection. While I didn’t know him I have experiences because of him. When Bowie died part of me didn’t know what to do. He’d been a presence in my pop-cultural life since my earliest memories. While Bourdain became a part of my life much further along, once I read and watched him his presence was a near constant.
If I cook because of Alton Brown, I eat because of Anthony Bourdain. If Alton Brown has taught us the foundational science of food, and Michael Ruhlman the maths of improvising in the kitchen, Bourdain taught of feeling your way through the process of cooking. His cookbooks, like in the early chapters of Le Halles, treat the act of shopping for ingredients as a strategic mission, but he always stresses that one should be open to what’s presented. Cooking, according to Bourdain, was a project in which you could plan but for which you had to compete for your tools. He writes of cooking as if it were a competition, even if you’re alone in the kitchen. Chefs, he seemed to say, were artists performing a trade. There’s an engagement and tension in cooking. There’s a grit to it, an aspect of getting one’s hands dirty.
What made Bourdain speak to so many was that he regarded local food as a part of culture, not something culture aspires to. An amazing cook can elevate ingredients and traditions to new places but if it doesn’t reflect something personal then who is it for? When he traveled, he looked at street food and local culture as guides to what he should be looking for in the art of food. Bourdain taught the world that food and cooking weren’t trickle-down arts. Food, like the ingredients it has grown from, start on the ground and work their way up. This approach has a lot of implications, whether his fans picked up on them consciously or not. It went a long way to humanize cultures that seemed foreign. There’s common ground to something that’s grilled and served on a stick, or stewed and poured in a bowl. Fine food can be a bit alien and distant from the everyday. When exposed to a culture that doesn’t provide a regular presence through either Americanized food or easily accessed pop-culture, people from these nations can also seem somewhat distanced or alien. But in the first episode of Parts Unknown, Anthony Bourdain went to Myanmar. Later in that season he went to Libya. In subsequent seasons he went on to mix places like Tokyo and Detroit together. If you asked people for two cites to travel to in order to explore their culinary offerings, would rarely make anyone’s list. But Bourdain clearly thought that Detroit had enough to fill a full episode, the same as Tokyo. His very visit broughtinto question the places that Americans thought they understood and reinforced the value of the local culture in cities and countries that many considered write-offs.
That’s a philosophy of empathy in practice. That’s the only way I can think of calling it. Showing people that there’s more to places they thought they understood and didn’t need to think about, and showing people that foreign cultures aren’t completely disconnected from us. Local food working up to fine dining is nothing less than an example of individuals creating value and providing the most basic levels of high culture. His approach wasn’t sanitized or gentle. He had a generally gruff demeanor. But his message in word and deed was empathy.
- Conciliatory does not mean kind.
- Polite does not mean empathetic.
- Fancy does not mean cultured.
- Artisinal does not mean authentic.
You can see his legacy in parts of the food world today. You can see it in the thoughtfulness of the chefs in Questlove’s Something to Food About. Bourdain himself lived long enough to see food culture evolve. As he noted in an interview with The Daily Beast:
“This is money that, 20 years ago, people of that demographic would be spending on cocaine or concert tickets,” he says. “That’s a big shift.”
Unfortunately his success, reach, and impact weren’t a cure for his depression. Coming from a history of heroin (and crack, and cocaine) use and rising to fame, it looked like he had maybe left his darkness behind. But depression isn’t something that can powered through and left in the past. Depression is a mental issue that is inside of those afflicted. For those who do not suffer from depression, it’s important to know that it’s not the same as being depressed. Being depressed can be a reaction to the outside world. Depression is a mood disorder that imposes itself from within. It’s a constant presence, whose strength and influence can wax and wane, but is ever-present.
Crisis Text Line: Text START to 741741 from anywhere in the USA, at any time, about any type of crisis
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255
The Trevor Project: 1-866-488-7386
Now I plan on going to New York to eat my feelings. Not in an unhealthy way. In celebration. I threw together this Google Map, cataloging some of Anthony Bourdain’s favorite places to eat when he came back to New York. Bookmark it and check back. I plan on adding the places he visited in his shows or wrote about in his books. But until then I’ll hold a personal memorial for him by letting him guide me to more experiences.
And I can already personally recommend Yakitori Totto. The kawa (grilled skin) is their signature but their shishito tsukune (Japanese green pepper stuffed with chicken) is not to be missed.
Thank you, Mr. Bourdain.