Thankfully, I’m beyond the hero worship phase of my life—at least of nonfictional ones and for sure I generally don’t idolize people I don’t know personally. I dig it: Gandalf and Colonel Kilgore are rad, but outside a few other ethereal examples, I rarely put anyone on a pedestal. The literal handful I do regard in that fashion are folks I’ve gotten to know and learn from. I figure most public figures are possibly jerks/junkies/sociopaths if you really got to know them, despite the outward manifestation of their persona, so why not skip straight to knocking them down a few notches. One exception was Anthony Bourdain.
Thursday night was slow one at the shop. The joint I chef at is located inside a well-regarded resort, and as such, we are at the whim of the seasons. It’s too damn hot here for people during the summer, so we run in a counterintuitive fashion to most of the restaurant world. You can always tell when we have time to burn: The walk-in is perfectly organized and properly labeled, and dry storage looks as neat as a pin. There’s no residual effluent of spilled ox tail stock and half broken-down boxes strewn around, and the back of house staff is in full mahalo mode. It really didn’t feel like the calm before the storm—more like a respite between Caribbean hurricanes—but we’ll take it. Like I said, it was quiet. For some reason, I never never think about Mr. Bourdain during the excess chaos of a mad kitchen rush. Rather, it is always in the quiet moments in between. That’s because I think he would have appreciated a bit of sovereign silence; that guy had been around a ton of entropy.
I’m sure he wasn’t accepting applications on new friends; at some point in one’s personal journey, your dance card is full. But I would have liked to have made his acquaintance. I didn’t know Mr. Bourdain, but I did admire the guy and think we would have hit it off. He wrote like he wasn’t trying be anything, and I’m fairly confident that, like me, he was a big-ego guy without seeming like a big-ego guy. That’s tough to navigate. Just ask Big Sandy.
He spoke with his pen, and in his case, it was extreme. He scribed like he verbalized, and you could hear his endearingly snobby yet trashy Transatlantic East Coast drawl in every sentence. He was like that rich kid in junior high who had the car and pills, threw it all away despite his parents’ protests, and went screaming off into the great unknown. In Mr. Bourdain’s case, this rocky (and roll-y) journey led him to rise like a phoenix from his drug-fueled past and pull off what would have not been thought possible: be a bulwark to both foodies AND people in the biz, two groups that are often like oil and water. I would even use the word dashing to describe his panache, even though I’m sure he would have rolled his eyes at the sentiment. I get a lot of it was production and packaging, but you have to admit there was something about the guy. I’ve always heard that people who are good on TV are the ones you can’t be around for more than 10 minutes in person—they’re just too big, personalty-wise. Mr. Bourdain seemed to defy this. He was just as big a heavyweight standing silently in a corner.
He stood his ground, too, and in his case, it made his career instead of destroyed it. So often in our industry, we dance around trying not to offend. As the douchebag restaurant owner in The Big Night said, “I am also a businessman. I am anything I need to be at any time.” In Mr. Bourdain’s case, he had free rein to call out all sorts of culinary elitism he found abhorrent, from veganism to perceived value. He didn’t dodge landmines; he stepped right the fuck on them with glee. To freely speak one’s mind in any sense—and on top of that, pay the bills—is out of reach for us mere mortals, but he made it seem like a walk in the park. I believe the “why” of food is just as or even more important than the “how.” The how is easy, and he could he get his head around it. It’s the why that counts, and that was his biggest influence on me. He taught me the gospel of people, character, camaraderie, community, and learning from the places you have been both personally and geographically. The things beyond the plate matter, and if you give those thought, everything else will follow.
We all hear the stories about someone paying their dues, and in many cases, it’s true. But Mr. Bourdain paid his in spades. The few people I’ve met who hung out with him said he could actually still cook and had a knife hand, which is rare. Most celebs turn into Rachael Ray or Bobby Flay and trade their actual skills for a crappy Amazon cookware set or endorsement for a lame chain restaurant. Mr. Bourdain never did this; he never had to. I’m sure he went through his youthful Anakin Skywalker phase, but he turned out to be Obi-Wan Kenobi and not Darth Vader.
I’d like to think some mysterious cadre of the restaurant industry à la Men In Black had Mr. Bourdain offed for telling the truth. In a world of logrolling, glad-handing and collectively slapping one other on the back, he was sublimely immune. My bartender instinct tells me he had been struggling for some time, and at least as I pen this, it seems to be the case. Fame can be a bitch no matter what the fiscal rewards are. Maybe Mr. Bourdain’s punk rock-ness came full circle; maybe he just felt it was time to punch out. Maybe I don’t want to know what kind of place he was in. I’m sure it was dark. Whatever it was, he ended his last sentence not with a semicolon, but with a period. Period.
And he’ll be missed for all the right reasons.