Content Warning for mentions of suicide and celebrity death.
The beauty of technology lies in connecting people. Every now and again someone enters your life and changes you from afar—be it a character from a movie, an actor, a writer, a celebrity. You see that person or their work, and you connect with it. They speak to you, tell a bit of your story, give you back something of yourself that you never thought you’d see reflected and in a way that makes you better for seeing that truth, even if it’s a hard one. When you lose that person, it hurts. Sometimes, it hurts as much as when a family member or pet dies. Just because you never met in real life doesn’t diminish the sense of grief and loss. Because we don’t have to intimately know people for their lives to touch us, change us, make us better.
Yesterday, we lost Anthony Bourdain. If you don’t know who he is, you’re missing someone special, and I’m sorry that you are only hearing about him after he’s gone. I’ll come back around to talk about his death, but right now, I want to talk about his life.
Anthony Bourdain might not sound like the kind of person who would end up doing what he did. He was a line cook for over a decade before he wrote his expose of the culinary industry. He did a lot of drugs and wasn’t shy about it, even late in his life. He was frank about his struggles and about how much of a jerk he had been (and still was in some ways). Many would likely look at him and see ‘privileged white male.’ Plus, he comes from the culinary industry, and we’ve likely all seen enough cooking competitions to believe that most cis white dudes in that industry are arrogant dicks who don’t care about anyone else. Or at least, that’s what we assume even if it’s not entirely true.
But over the past several years, Anthony Bourdain has become a staple in my partner’s and my life. He was more than a celebrity chef and travel show host. He was a source of endless inspiration, of wonder, and of pithy one liners. (He had some pretty sick burns, yo, and aimed at the right people.)
See, unlike most travel shows, Bourdain didn’t treat his visits like a tourist destination. He took the time to learn about local culture and find guides who would show him what ‘real’ life was like. Travel, to Bourdain, represented more than a leisure activity. It was a chance to listen and learn.
“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.”— No Reservations: Around the World on an Empty Stomach
He never shied away from political or religious discussion with the locals, even if it meant them ragging on America for a while. Nor was he snooty about his food choices. One of my partner’s and my favorite things about Bourdain was how much he loved his ‘street meat.’ He ate anything his hosts put in front of him and relished it. He wasn’t an elitist and took great pains to celebrate the ‘lowliest’ of foods.
He was a connoisseur of the finer things, only the finer things didn’t mean expensive. Handmade food with love from family recipes passed down generations. Handmade shoes or knives or suits crafted with painstaking labor and care. Everything made could be an art form to Bourdain.
If you’re around my age or older, you remember Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood and the sense of curiosity and wonder you felt when he would play videos about how things were made. Bourdain captured that for me in a way very few other shows have ever been able to do. I wanted to see the world as he saw it, explore everything, try everything, meet and talk to people, to listen to their stories like he did. Food, life, the world, people—everything was a gift, and we could choose to celebrate that or not. Watching his shows, I know what I wanted.
“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. Walk in someone else’s shoes or at least eat their food. It’s a plus for everybody.”—Parts Unknown
If you watch Parts Unknown from the earliest seasons to now, the evolution in both Bourdain himself and his work unfolds in a truly breathtaking way. Where his show had begun as a way to highlight the beauty of places most Westerners would consider beneath them, it became over the years to represent a form of rebellion against Western patriarchal, colonial, racist, and capitalist structures. He dove head first into places no one else would go and just let the people talk about their struggles. No judgment, no bias, just food and conversation.
He’d go to Puerto Rico and talk about how badly the US has treated them in one breath, then, a few episodes later go to West Virginia and listen to rural white folks’ complaints about coal and lack of jobs. You get the sense he was trying to dismantle bigotry and prejudice one plate of food at a time.
And part of the beauty was, his open, honest demeanor made space for people to open up to him. He was expanding minds and worldviews through cooking and travel. My partner and I don’t watch a lot of TV shows consistently, but we always looked forward to Bourdain. He was irreverent to what deserved it and treated as sacred those things that deserved it. Every human being on his show had dignity, a voice, and agency. He never disrespected cultures who were different and took time to try and help viewers understand what they were seeing from the inside out.
“Travel is about the gorgeous feeling of teetering in the unknown.”—Parts Unknown
I saw so much wonder and joy through Bourdain’s eyes. I also saw tragedy, pain, and suffering. He could cut through bs like butter and never shied away from showing the world how awful human beings could be to each other. And how stupid most of the reasons for being awful were. He fought fear of the Other with knowledge. He sought to increase cultural empathy and humanize everybody.
He cared about bringing voice to the voiceless. About standing up for those who were marginalized, misunderstood, and rejected. He stood up for food workers, especially immigrants. When Asia Argento, his girlfriend, got treated poorly for being honest about what Harvey Weinstein did to her, he defended her. He’d become one of the most vocal male supporters of the #MeToo movement. And he put his money where his mouth was. He told Batali to retire after his scandal broke rather than try to rehabilitate his image. He spoke openly and frequently about the need to expose predatory men. When Argento dropped her nuclear bomb of a speech at Cannes this year, Bourdain told an interviewer how proud he was of her and how powerful a moment it was.
To my partner and I, he represented how cishet white male privilege ought to be used: to make the world a better place for those who don’t have it.
“Right now, nothing else matters but women’s stories of what it’s like in the industry I have loved and celebrated for nearly 30 years — and our willingness, as human beings, citizens, men and women alike, to hear them out, fully, and in a way that other women can feel secure enough, and have faith enough that they, too, can tell their stories. We are clearly at a long overdue moment in history where everyone, good hearted or not, will HAVE to look at themselves, the part they played in the past, the things they’ve seen, ignored, accepted as normal, or simply missed — and consider what side of history they want to be on in the future.”—“On Reacting to Bad News”
He was a rebel, a renegade. He couldn’t care less what anyone thought of him and used that position to advocate for and highlight people our society would rather ignore. He made space for everyone to speak. He reveled in the wonder of the world. Curiosity dominated his approach to others instead of prejudice. He made me want to be better.
And he struggled with mental illness and depression. He had all his life, had never been shy about that on any of his shows. My heart aches both because he made me want to be better and because his struggles are my struggles. He wanted to make the world a more honest, compassionate, just place, and he fought his own inner demons every day. He was battling on all sides, sometimes himself, sometimes on behalf of others. He was a warrior.
Depression lies. I know this intimately, as did Bourdain, and in the wake of his passing, I feel raw. Both from what he meant to me and from his death. He let me see for a moment, that the world, and my own fight against mental illness, could get better. It still can. His work still speaks to us. So, as my final thought, I want to honor Bourdain by giving us all a challenge worthy of his legacy:
Go into the parts unknown with wonder, curiosity, and love. Don’t shy away from difficult questions or their complicated answers. Listen to everyone, accept their stories and gifts with love. Stand up for the voiceless, fight oppressive systems, and never let those who benefit from the system have the last word.
I took a walk through this beautiful world; felt the cool rain on my shoulders…
RIP Anthony Bourdain.
You left something truly beautiful behind after your journey here with us.