Travel isn’t always pretty. It isn’t always comfortable. Sometimes it hurts, it even breaks your heart. But that’s okay. The journey changes you; it should change you. It leaves marks on your memory, on your consciousness, on your heart, and on your body. You take something with you. Hopefully, you leave something good behind. Anthony Bourdain
I’ve tried several times to write this post, each time unable to get it right. First I wrote out of anger and frustration, the second draft came out of sadness and confusion. Empathy, in a subtle way, came next. I’d never met him, yet my emotionally-charged, incoherent ramblings would suggest otherwise.
I’m not here to pretend to understand the man, I didn’t know him. Like most of you I only know what he shared openly, in his books and on television. All I can do is share my own thoughts on how much of a profound impact he had on mine and Kylee’s lives.
Inspiration is an Understatement
He was a mediocre chef who helmed several average restaurants during his 30-year span in the industry. He was also a junkie. His own stories painted himself as the cliché New York City addict, scratching his arms in some back alley in the 1980’s, waiting to get his next fix; hoping it would be enough to get him through the next 14 hours on the line – a place he called home.
After kicking the heroin and cocaine – all on his own – he pushed on. He accepted his life in the heat and sweat and chaos. Hardly a glamorous lifestyle when viewed from the outside world, it was the only life most cooks knew.
It wasn’t until that fateful article in the New Yorker. Laden with cynicism and inside-jokes, this short exposé of restaurant life was both to educate outsiders and praise his comrades in arms. It did both, more successfully than anyone could have imagined. Even the final lines of the book that would arise from this article showed that Anthony had accepted his place in the world:
In The Kitchen
While this seemingly straightforward memoir was simple entertainment to most who read it, it was much more to the rest of us. Outcasts from regular society, night-owls whose only glimpse of daylight was during the painful, hungover moments on the way into work. For many of us, this life of debauchery was all we knew, the camaraderie of our fellow cooks was all we had.To us as misfit cooks toiling away in the trenches, pale-skinned, forearms scarred from burns, reckless and full of youthful ignorance; we suddenly felt part of something bigger. While the book has its share of flaws, it spoke to so many of us in words we could feel. Kitchen Confidential was like a fucking bible – Anthony Bourdain was our prophet.
By the time the book reached the masses, Bourdain had a TV deal and a second book already in the works. 44 years old, he went from living paycheque to paycheque in a rented apartment, unable to afford basic health insurance, to being a New York Times best-seller travelling the world. While his blunt honesty brought so many cooks closer together, his success brought us hope.
On The Road
In the years prior to beginning our own life on the road, Kylee and I would watch Anthony travel to exotic locations while eating the strangest food. Without question, he is one of the biggest influencers in our own journeys. It was through “A Cooks Tour” that we were first exposed to the idea and simplicity of street food, and just how important it is.
Not only the simple stuff, but the weird shit. By the time we made our way to Korea, we were veteran bug-eaters, but we likely never would have known to try Sannak-ji if it weren’t for Bourdain. Fermented shark in Iceland? Same story. To be completely honest, the worst part about having dengue fever in Vietnam, was that I didn’t have the energy to track down the live cobra heart I once saw him slurp down.
He encouraged us to go further and look deeper. We stray from the path of normalcy in search of new and unique experiences. We skip the hotel bar for the dive at the end of a dark alley, often the only foreigners in a dark room filled with locals winding down after a long day of work. We ask more questions, talk to the locals, become part of the location rather than pass through.
We spent our honeymoon in Sardinia for no reason other than the praise he gave the stunning island. To this day it’s one of our favourite places on earth.
I have no doubt in my mind that Kylee and I would not be the travellers or the cooks we are today if it wasn’t for the curiosity he instilled in us – and the confidence to follow it through.
An Accidental Journalist
He opened our eyes to much of a world hidden from view. While he would never call himself anything more than a simple storyteller, he was more of a journalist than most journalists are these days. He asked important questions, simply and casually. His laid-back demeanor relaxed people enough to answer occasionally tricky questions.
A path that began with a travelling chef exploring unique and interesting food evolved into so much more, often shedding light on issues rarely touched on in the mainstream. Ranging from the significant importance of undocumented immigrants in professional kitchens to the Israel/Palestine conflict, and taking us with him to conflict zones and so-called dangerous places.
While bridging two worlds through the universal language of food, he brought viewers to places they’ve only heard about in the news. In doing so he showed us names and faces, laughter and smiles. With that, he gave a truly human element to groups that are often little more than statistics or, even worse, “collateral damage”.
Anthony Bourdain spoke his mind, he always had opinions and shared them openly, often defiantly, unapologetically. He also wasn’t afraid to change. To evolve and acknowledge the mistakes of his past; most notably very recently in discussing the role Kitchen Confidential played in glorifying the often sexist behaviours of the restaurant world.
It was fascinating to watch this evolution from the outside. Even more incredible was that he had lived what many would consider an entire lifetime, before we’d ever heard his name.
Anger and Gratitude
Our lives wouldn’t be what they are right now if it wasn’t for Anthony. Yet we’ve never had the opportunity to meet the man, let alone get to know who he really was. That’s the funny thing about celebrities, we only ever know what they decide to share. Although he may have had the best job in the world, something he would often say, it’s clear that there was so much more going on than what we could have imagined.
His life came to an end in much the same way that it was lived. From kicking heroin addiction on his own, to his seemingly complete control over Parts Unknown, and his hard-line stance on so many important issues; his final act – as selfish as it may have been – was done on his terms.
While we are unable to forgive him for how he departed this world, we’re eternally grateful for not only the imprints he left on it, but for the impact they have had on our lives.
Thank you, Chef.
If I’m an advocate for anything, it’s to move. As far as you can, as much as you can. Across the ocean, or simply across the river. The extent to which you can walk in someone else’s shoes or at least eat their food, it’s a plus for everybody. Open your mind, get up off the couch, move.Anthony Bourdain
If you aren’t comfortable, or feel you have nobody you can talk to openly, check out one of the links below for a list of resources and phone numbers you can call all around the world, completely anonymously.
For everyone else, pay attention to those around you. Reach out to them, it may be exactly what they need but don’t know how to ask.
Finally, be kind to one another. Smile more, say hello to strangers. The little things may seem insignificant to some, but can literally be life changing to others. Life is already too short.
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