The texts began around 7:30 Friday morning.
“Did you hear?”
“Oh my god.”
“But his life looked so full… so happy.”
One added “he must’ve had cancer… why would he leave his family if not for something like that?” Anthony Bourdain died, in an apparent suicide, in France. He was 61.
When you’ve worked in food for half of your life, industry news comes at you fast and from everyone you know. Usually it’s about a new dish to try or a city to uncover; sometimes it’s the #MeToo comeuppance of a chef. It’s not always light, but rarely do I feel gutted by tragedy in this culinary bubble. This morning, I was not sure if my friends and colleagues were reaching out because of my connection to his work or because I’ve suffered from major depressive episodes for as long as I can remember. Maybe it was a bit of both; the suicides of two prominent people in five days is sure to rock anyone, especially someone who has contemplated or attempted the act. Unfortunately, the number of suicides in the U.S. is rising rapidly. As of 2016, it is the tenth leading cause of death and rates have risen by 30% since 1999, according to the CDC.
You’ll be hard pressed to find someone who has not been affected by Bourdain, in his life and, now, his death. He knew this was the case, too, saying, “As you move through this life and this world you change things slightly, you leave marks behind, however small. And in return, life — and travel — leaves marks on you. Most of the time, those marks — on your body or on your heart — are beautiful. Often, though, they hurt.” The chef, eater, and traveler was among the most unpretentious in an industry overflowing with money, cronyism, and cultural vandalism. He took a world made inaccessible by frills and foams and lit it on fire, giving us food and travel in its purest form. In doing so, he gave us the entire world.
A chef by training, Bourdain spent years in some of New York’s best kitchens and brought us behind the line with him in a New Yorker piece titled “Don’t Eat Before Reading This,” which was expanded into his first book Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly. He traded his chefs whites for denim and a motorcycle to give us a series of travel shows that centered around his culinary adventures across the world.
Admittedly, I found Bourdain arrogant when first introduced to his work. In a 2002 interview with Chris Tan, he said “[b]ad food is made by chefs who are indifferent, or who are trying to be everything to everybody, who are trying to please everyone.” An idealist (and only 15), I misunderstood Bourdain in this moment and wrote him off. It wasn’t until I was managing a restaurant myself that I reconsidered his words and the second part of his explanation of bad food: “Food that shows fear and lack of confidence in people’s ability to discern or to make decisions about their lives.” Our jobs as makers and eaters is to trust; trust the diner enough not to pander to their perceived fragility and trust the chef to serve us a dish with integrity.
A concern of many in the food and travel industry is the co-opting, distilling, and bastardizing of culture. These sins are not new. It is why Manhattan’s favorite ramen spot is owned by a Jewish man from Long Island and a blonde woman opened a bar with beers served in brown bags and fake bullet holes in the wall in Crown Heights; both were whitewashed versions of a culture not their own.
But he was not in it for the ‘gram. Tattooed, toasted by too many years of sun, Bourdain favored grit—and a simple life. He frequented the last remaining buffet-style Popeyes in Louisiana, filling up with spicy chicken, a tub of mac n cheese, biscuits, and Dr. Pepper—and sure, he drank beer with President Obama, but it was done without fanfare, on a plastic stool in Vietnam. Bourdain traveled to live in someone else’s shoes, as the expression goes. He believed travel is what makes us better humans. Of his interviewing style, he noted, “We ask very simple questions: What makes you happy? What do you eat? What do you like to cook? And everywhere in the world we go and ask these very simple questions…we tend to get some really astonishing answers.”
His weathered appearance made us believe he was full of life absorbed over years traveling the world. Unfortunately, it may have been telling us a different story, one we did not really hear. We are left to wonder: What made him happy? Clearly, we thought there would be more time for these questions. In an Instagram tribute, Lukas Volger, editorial direction of Jarry magazine, wrote, “I always thought of him as a ‘someday friend,’ removed by just a degree or two.” Perhaps it’s this feeling of a someday friendship with ‘Tony’, as friends and strangers alike called him, is what’s left the world so stunned. But suicide will always have that effect. There will always be questions left unanswered.
Though, it is strange that people feel they are owed an explanation for Bourdain’s death; it would be out of character for the gives-zero-fucks traveler to leave us with a reason for his choice. It is impossible to ever gain clarity over such a tragedy, especially one involving a person who lived so fully. But that’s the thing about mental illness, as it is with travel and food: Nothing is ever how it seems.
Anthony Bourdain died as he lived, according to his own rules: Fiercely, with reckless abandon. And a ravenous appetite for more.
If you or anyone you know is considering suicide or self-harm or is anxious, depressed, upset, or needs to talk, call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255 or text the Crisis Text Line at 741-741. For international resources, here is a good place to begin.