Anthony Bourdain was a lot of things to the millions his life and works influenced.
He was an ambassador to foreign lands and under-appreciated America, spending so many years with his viewers that he felt almost like family, that uncle who travels for work. He backed authors for a line of books, and wrote his own, starting with the memoir “Kitchen Confidential,” a culinary publishing phenomenon.
Between books and television, Bourdain was a lodestar for a million chefs, restaurateurs, and other people who decided that food and its expressions were a driving force in their lives.
So to wake up Friday and find that Bourdain had died by suicide was a bitter blow. It was shared by a significant portion of the culinary world. Food writers, too. Bourdain was the first to remind you that he was an utterly ordinary chef, that in his case the pen was mightier than the chef’s knife.
“Mine was not a glorious career,” he told The News in a 2013 interview. “Much of that book is spent in pretty harsh, ugly and unrewarding situations. I try to remind people as often as possible that I wasn’t a great chef. And when success came along, it was not for my cooking, by a long shot.”
To me, he was the most real celebrity I have ever interviewed. Where politicians and billionaires, stars of stage and screen would icily change the subject to avoid subjects, he copped to his sins. Where others would deflect any suggestion that might tarnish their halo, he was bluntly critical of himself, and the cultural figure he cut on the world’s televisions.
Asked how fair it was to judge a cook on a single bite of food – which he did for ABC’s “The Taste” for three seasons – he pleaded guilty to cheesiness.
“If nothing else, it seemed an interesting format,” he said. “But as is clear, the network gods demand a certain stylebook. I well understood that going on a network show, with that comes layers of makeup, ultra-bright lighting, a lot of noise and cheeseball effects and noisy editing and weeping and rending of garments. That’s the playbook.”
“Will I have fun?” was his guide to deciding what opportunities to embrace, he said. That’s how he ended up writing film criticism for Lucky Peach and ad-libbing a line for an “Archer” episode.
He also was an appreciator of Buffalo. His show “No Reservations” visited in 2009. Bourdain later told the website DCist “Ten years ago, I would have looked at (Buffalonians) as those poor guys who live upstate, and I’m lucky enough to live in Manhattan. Now I see it as a very distinct personality, a very distinct culture with its own architecture, its own kinda feel. It’s, actually, a weirdly wonderful place. Even in winter. I think it took me traveling around the world to get to that point.”
But nothing Bourdain did could surpass the impact of his first book, leaving him navigating through a culinary landscape he helped change. He honored that fact while rueful at times over values read into his work.
“People do over-romanticize the book,” he said. “People have come up to me who clearly took away from the book something different than I was saying. People have handed me packets of cocaine at signings. Where in ‘Kitchen Confidential’ does it make it sound like cocaine was a good idea for me?”
He talked about being a heroin addict who managed to stop. He let you see bruises and scars, instead of pretending they didn’t exist. He let you see the darkness, his continuing presence evidence it could be driven out by light.
He spoke in complete sentences, and seemed ever willing to err on the side of authentic opinion over safe pablum, even when it left him apologizing later.
Cooks didn’t have to agree with everything he said to find Bourdain resonating with them. He never did apologize for writing, “Vegetarians, and their Hezbollah-like splinter faction, the vegans, are a persistent irritant to any chef worth a damn. … Vegetarians are the enemy of everything good and decent in the human spirit, and an affront to all I stand for, the pure enjoyment of food.”
He seemed to feel a responsibility to his audience, to use his fame to raise up others, whether a Vietnamese market stall vendor or a cookbook author who didn’t fit the mold.
That was Bourdain’s way. Among modern television shows, his was dedicated to celebrating humankind’s common tongue of hunger and satisfaction, that no matter where you are, everybody’s got to eat. That once you make the effort to learn what deliciousness a stranger can offer you, they are no longer strange, but a comrade shaped from the same clay.
May that be the enduring legacy of Anthony Bourdain.
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