When I saw the news this morning of Anthony Bourdain’s death I was shellshocked. I went about my morning knowing the day wouldn’t be a normal one. I hadn’t taken much time to read the details and later on in the afternoon I learned it was a suicide, which changes everything. I couldn’t stop thinking about it and felt that stifling these thoughts, or just pushing through the day, would be an utter disservice to my own mental health, and the man I respected more than I can ever express. I wish I had answers to share, but I don’t. I’m just feeling a lot today, and thought this article could serve as an aqueduct, carrying the torrent of emotion engulfing me today outwards to whoever it may interest.
To so many of us, Anthony was a pinnacle of adventure. A rambunctious, Hemingway-esque globetrotter of the modern day coupled with a culinary mind highly revered on a global level. With years of television shows, tell-all books and a style of journalism that seemed to pull back the curtain on parts of our world, domestic and abroad, that are typically hidden in plain sight, why then, is this suicide so startling?
We were so familiar with him, or at least the persona we were able to glimpse, that over the years, he truly felt like a comrade. It felt like if we met him in person, we’d get right into the good stuff, no awkward beginning, just candid friendship right off the bat. With most celebrities there’s not much we’re able to attach to, but Anthony was different. He blended the exuberant with the attainable. The gourmet with the gritty. He wasn’t just scouting out the Michelin star rated spots for the uber wealthy, he hit the dive bars and street food with as much or more passion as those at the culinary forefront.
About 10 years ago my sister became inthralled with Bourdain as she was becoming a chef herself, gravitating towards the lifestyle articulated in “Kitchen Confidential”, a book I’d pick up several years later on my journey. His content has been a staple in my life for years, long before I even learned how to cook. Through many evenings watching his wildly entertaining, profoundly insightful international adventures and reading his best selling book, my image of him took form and from the early days to the recent work, there was an undeniable darkness in him.
Maybe it would come to light in the form of a cynical joke or a crass generalization, and often times it’d get shrugged off, but I see those as tells. Sometimes he would tip his emotional hand a bit too far, and if you watched closely, you could see an underlying turmoil. Beyond the disgruntled teenage angst most of us go through, there was something more going on. When this darkness is left unchecked, it can grow right alongside the bright parts, often times eclipsed by the aspects we prefer to look at.
Just 2 days ago I was watching an episode of “Parts Unknown”, his most recent and longest running series. The episode took place in Armenia alongside Serj Tankian from System Of A Down and encapsulated more culture and genuine perspective in 45 minutes than any full length documentary could dream of. This wasn’t a stand out episode, it was par for the course for Bourdain. He never phoned it in. Every episode was a riveting piece of journalism and something those native to the land could be proud of.
The reason I bring this episode up is because, as he so often did, he took the opportunity to heckle his vegetarian guest and that exemplifies what I love about Anthony. He could sit at a table with someone of conflicting view without letting it derail the shared experience, and better yet, he could joke about monumentally important elements of life without doing so in a way that insights anger. When I read his rants about veganism in “Kitchen Confidential” I was laughing along with him. I could laugh because I have such a deep respect for him and I knew he wasn’t coming from a place of hate.
The timing is what caught me so off guard today, the circumstance however, sadly, did not. Even in moments when he was on top of the world (at times, literally) he still couldn’t let go of that cynicism. Some would say that’s just personality but I disagree.
The question that’s being asked countless times today is “Why does this keep happening?”. Earlier in the week, designer Kate Spade fell victim to the same path and soon another surly will too. We can post the number to the suicide hotline (which is fantastic), we can talk about these issues more openly (as we should), but these are still reactions. Once a problem is to the point of calling the hotline, it’s deeply embedded. I want to find preemptive approaches to reducing our escalating suicide rate.
Midway through high school, when my drinking had moved well beyond my control, a friend reached out to me. He could see that something was wrong. The problem was apparent even though I took steps to mask it. He knew me too well and saw through the facade. When you’re a 17 year old guy, asking one of your male friends if he’s ok, and expressing true worry for him is not something that comes natural. In fact, it’s rare in life when that ever is comfortable. I swiftly denied that I was in over my head, “I’ve got a handle on it” I assured him, knowing I was lying through my teeth.
When someone has a darkness in them, they’re familiar with it and they often know how to hide it, but if they drop their defense for a moment and you see something unsettling, say something. I was never going to ask for help, mainly because I just thought the problem was a part of me, and that’s a common mentality. Friends and family know the person, and when there’s something else going on, something foreign and draining, once it’s glimpsed, don’t let it go unchecked.
Obviously I never met Anthony Bourdain, I just saw something in him that I felt in myself, something I keep an eye out for in those around me. I’ve read many articles today summing up his biography, his a career and the details of his death, those aren’t things I wanted to cover here because I did not have a personal relationship with him. All I have is a supreme admiration and a gut-wrenching feeling that his story didn’t have to end this way. Anthony connected us to culture. He was a conduit of inspiration for us to get out into the world. To meet people different than ourselves. To try things we’re uncomfortable with. That spirit will never be forgotten. He’s branded a desire for exploration within us that we’ll carry for the rest of our days and pass down to those who follow us. His life has taught us lessons beyond that of a chef, or a tv show host, he was just a damn fascinating person, the type of man I wish to be, someone who could be called one of the coolest men on Earth without much objection. I know the lessons from his life will radiate through our world forever, I just hope the more difficult lessons to be learned from his death aren’t soon forgotten either.