What Anthony Bourdain gave us, and what he left us

Illustration for article titled What Anthony Bourdain gave us, and what he left us
Photo: CNN

As I’m typing these words there are a hundred others doing the same, penning remembrances and think-pieces of Anthony Bourdain, who was found dead in a French hotel room Friday. I’m having trouble coalescing my thoughts into a tidy piece with a beginning-middle-end. Mostly it’s just fucking sad, given how lovingly he wrote and spoke about his daughter when I interviewed him in 2016. I have a 2-year-old son now. This morning, for the first time, he nuzzled up next to me on the couch and said, unprompted, “Love you daddy.” I can’t even comprehend.

Advertisement

I’ve had three interactions with Tony (this is not me being chummy, that’s just how everyone refers him). The first was in the basement of the Chicago Theater, after he had just performed his one-man speaking show for a sold-out crowd. It was pleasant, cordial, and not particularly noteworthy. The third time (I’ll circle back to interaction no. 2) was my 2016 interview about his cookbook, Appetites. He was in a particularly spry mood, I remember.

My longest interaction with him was in 2011. I had this thought of starting a podcast about the craft of writing and interviewing writers I admired. While everyone loved Kitchen Confidential for its salacious tales, I was drawn to that book for the prose. Consider the era of food writing: The medium where most appeared in 2000 was newspapers, which was very much recipe-driven, staid, and employed flowery decadent-velvety-mouthfeel clichés. Tony’s writing had kinetic energy, it had rhythm, it made me laugh out loud. It lacked artifice and bullshit. This was the opening paragraph to his 1999 The New Yorker story, “Don’t Eat Before Reading This,” which earned him his book deal for Kitchen Confidential:

Advertisement

I was like a young Cameron Crowe reading Lester Bangs for the first time, feeling the same jolt of electricity shot down the spine.

I obtained Tony’s personal e-mail from a colleague, sent him a note, and told “Mr. Bourdain” how much his writing meant to me. I asked if he would talk to me about his writing process, and if I could record this conversation. Within minutes, Tony replied yes. We spoke for an hour and he became the podcast’s kickoff guest. I remember him talking about not laboring over sentences and reading George Orwell for inspiration. Some of the lessons he offered about the writing craft I still use today. (If I had to recommend one of his book, it’s The Nasty Bits, a sharp collection of essays from his travels.)

Two more thoughts about Tony’s legacy, which I’ll keep brief because others will say far more eloquently: No person in the history of television has created a better show about food, travel, and culture. Full stop, retire the trophy. Those with aspirations about traveling the world and eating on camera—why even bother after Anthony Bourdain? Tony’s love of film imbued his shows: The Rome episode of No Reservations was an homage to Federico Fellini, shot entirely in black-and-white with the driving scenes shot on a green screen. He didn’t make a television food show, he made the television food show.

Lastly: What of his legacy? What lessons do we takeaway from his 61 years on earth? A number of people on social media have written today about how Anthony Bourdain inspired them to travel, to expand their horizons, to step out of their comfort zones, maybe try a new dish they would’ve never considered. Since we’re all more comfortable inside our silos, to convince thousands of total strangers to introduce some discomfort into their lives—and then reaping those rewards of new discoveries and experiences—now that’s a life worth lived.

Advertisement

As for myself, I’m saving the chicken I planned on roasting tonight for tomorrow. In Tony Bourdain’s honor, I’m dining out at our favorite pho restaurant, owned by an immigrant Vietnamese family, the one with their kids quietly doing homework at a back table.

Kevin Pang was the founding editor of The Takeout, and director of the documentary For Grace.

Share This Story

Get our newsletter

DISCUSSION

c8h18
To be or not 22B

I wrote this up for a forum after hearing the news, its the best I could do:

When I was in college I had just taken the first steps into the real world - no more of my old bedroom, the streets I knew, or my Mom’s cooking (unless I got a care package that would make a babushka blush). I didn’t know anything about the world, especially food, other than that frozen pizza goes really well with Pepsi and N64 Goldeneye late at night. I got sick of eating pre-packaged, fresh-frozen, microwaved crap, so I decided one of my first “adult” things would be to learn how to cook food from actual ingredients. This did not initially go well.

Being a dork, I decided to start with instructional how-tos - early internet videos, random recipes for foods I had never heard of, and digging up blog advice. These things also did not go well. I had no perspective on the ingredients, how much heat to use, or what the difference was between a moist steak and shoe leather with A1 sauce. I first happened across Good Eats after some months of grinding through both recipes and the terrible stuff I made, and Alton Brown was a revelation since he actually explained why food cooked how it did, and how different techniques produced different results. I had watched a ton of Mr. Wizard in the morning before grade school, so Alton was basically that all over again, except I wouldn’t be eating a baking soda volcano. I mowed through seasons of the show and actually started to get somewhere with cooking, and decided I should give the other shows a second try since I now knew some fleeting information..

At some point I caught my first episode of No Reservations, probably from being too lazy to hunt for a show after a few beers, and it floored me. Here was a dude who was definitely someone I could have grown up around and been told not to emulate, with the obvious consequences of becoming as much of an edged heel as himself. Except, that’s not the truth - he talked about people, culture, and food as if they were pieces of life that you should try to appreciate and fit together, and was far more thoughtful than an initial impression might give. TV is so sanitized, where everything is over-produced, cut and recut, so that the bleached smile and a demeanor will impress a bluehair at the country club. Bourdain, and his show, were none of that. He just sort of strolled around smoking, looking for good meat on a stick, drinks, and an opportunity to swear and bullshit, and something about how edgy and unproduced parts of the show were really appealed to me. Here was a guy that would cause people to drop their pretension, and if he made someone uncomfortable then too bad, stop being a sally and get a sense of humor.

I am a history teacher by trade, love to travel and eat, and have always loved to poke and prod to rustle feathers, so obviously I became a sad fanboy immediately. I watched all the episodes, read all the books, and seriously contemplated chefing as a way to not have to read 20+ books during yet another semester. Reading Kitchen Confidential made me realize that there is no way I’d cut it as a chef, the hours and efforts needed seemed beyond 20-something me. Was the thought of leaving my little apartment, known ways of life, and track toward middle suburbia scary? Yea, probably. So, I lived vicariously through the show, and tried to make all kinds of the weird shit I saw; cooking with wooden skewers over an electric stove sucks.

I continued to be a fan and keep up with his adventures after college, and can actually throw together random ingredients well enough to not kill anyone. Alton may have taught me the scientific approach to cooking, but Anthony showed me that a meal should be fun and shared with people. Did you ever think about why friends meet up for food, or why a fancy meal is served to people who hate each other and are trying to find a way to make peace? Because we cannot simultaneously break bread and break someone’s neck. If you are able to share a meal you are able to share that which makes us human. A full belly can wipe away all the emptiness of divisiveness, and thank god we have people who remind us that we all take this shit way too seriously sometimes.

I will miss his show, more books, and above all his personality. Did I know Anthony Bourdain personally? No. Did I see maybe just a little bit of myself in his empathic cynicism and hope? Definitely. I wish his family and friends the best, and offer condolences, but this is total bullshit and its really sad that he decided it was time for him to go, it wasn’t.

Rest in peace Tony, and thanks for showing me that sometimes the best food requires at least one thing to go fuck itself.