Until recently, I had never shed a real tear over the passing of a celebrity. While the deaths of other famous people have saddened me greatly, the tragic and devastating loss of Anthony Bourdain hit me hard and I wept.
Perhaps for some people it is a musician, actor or artist whose work had a deep impact on their life, but for me it was a chef. Anthony Bourdain inspired me and changed me for the better through his cooking, his writing and most importantly through his kind and generous personality.
Anthony Bourdain was one of my heroes; the chef I always look to for advice first (if Tony says don’t use a garlic press, then I won’t, at least not too often, etc) and the man who first inspired me to really take my cooking seriously. My passion for food, my love of being in the kitchen and this blog exist in large part because of Bourdain’s influence on my life.
Despite his reputation as a pretentious asshole (a reputation which he clearly enjoyed with an impish glee), it was clear that he was a man who deeply cared about other human beings. His traveling and eating and conversing with people from all walks of life around the world was not driven by a self indulgent search for pleasure; rather it was driven by a fascination with the human condition, a desire to give voice to the voiceless and a deep and genuine love for those with whom he came into contact.
My first Bourdain experience was watching an episode of his show No Reservations in which he visited Maine and wherein his cameraman, Zack, who had grown up in Maine, took Anthony to all of his favorite local haunts. They also visited Primo in Rockland – an old Victorian era house converted into a restaurant by well known chef Melissa Kelly which specializes in Italian and Mediterranean cuisine using only the freshest local ingredients. So fresh, in fact, that the vast majority of the food served there is actually grown there – it’s part restaurant, part farm. I knew I had to go there.
In 2010, my wife and I honeymooned in New England and we made the pilgrimage to Primo for dinner. The décor was astounding, the setting idyllic and the food – well, it was the best meal I’d ever eaten and remains so to this day. We casually mentioned to our server that our visit to Primo was our honeymoon dinner, and the next thing we knew, a bottle of dessert wine arrived at our table – compliments of the chef. Chef Kelly, that is. Later that evening, as we were finishing our meal and the restaurant was closing down for the night, Chef Kelly invited us down to her kitchen and showed us around. She was approachable, gracious and generous with her time, even at the end of what was probably an 18 hour workday. And it was in this moment I knew that I wanted to learn to cook. Not just cook, but cook. And so thanks to Anthony Bourdain and Chef Kelly the journey began – I was no longer satisfied with being a decent or even good cook – I wanted to be a great cook.
Since Bourdain was the only chef I’d really heard of, I started watching his shows: A Cook’s Tour and No Reservations. His traveling, his writing and his encounters with people all over the world inspired me to be brave, to try new things, to eat things I might not have ever been brave enough to try. Hell, I’d think to myself, If Bourdain can eat a Namibian warthog anus cooked al-denté over an open fire in the African bush, I can eat this live amaebi my sushi chef just handed to me as a gift.
Bourdain’s writing and TV shows also inspired me to try my hand in the kitchen. I’d watch the preparation of some French classic on one of his shows and think to myself, I could probably make that. As an anniversary gift after our first year of marriage, my wife bought me my first real chef’s knife – a Wusthof Classic Ikon – a knife I used many times weekly until very recently when I realized I’d finally worn the granton edge down to the ovals. I cried a bit that day too.
I’ll never forget, early on in my culinary ventures, when I was dicing an onion (of course with my new Wusthof Classic Ikon) and nearly took my thumb off. I’m looking at the scar as I type these words. Blood was everywhere. I’d managed to slice myself straight through to the bone and in that moment I thought to myself Is this really worth it? So I turned to Bourdain for advice – Tony, how should I slice an onion? And I came across this video:
As an aspiring cook, this was the advice I needed to hear. Not just in terms of technique, but in terms of “Suck it up and learn how to do this properly.” And I had no problem admitting that I was really an idiot – and I turned to Bourdain to learn how to be less of one. I could probably fill a book with other stories and techniques that I learned from Bourdain, but since this is a blog post, I won’t do that here.
More important, though, than what I learned about cooking, food and technique from Bourdain was how to relate to people of other cultures and other walks of life. Watching him go to places all over the world and vicariously experiencing his love of people, food and culture helped me learn to be more tolerant. He taught me to ask basic questions, like “What makes you happy?” when first encountering someone very different from myself.
When news of Bourdain’s suicide broke, I was beside myself. How could someone how had so much, who had experienced so much, who meant so much to so many people feel so isolated, desolate and hopeless that he would take his own life? And then I remembered that if I’d learned anything from Tony, it was to be kind. You never know what someone else might be going through and outward appearances can be deceiving.
Beneath the bravado and the masculine machismo and more than occasional snark, Anthony Bourdain was a very kind man. A man who loved other human beings. A man who wanted to share what he was passionate about with others. A man who wanted others to do well – indeed to thrive – and who wasn’t afraid to step up and say what needed to be said, to give voice to the voiceless, to challenge his readers and viewers to be kinder, better people and remind all of us that food isn’t ultimately about self-indulgence or seeking pleasure, but that food brings us together.
The next time you break bread with someone, remember that. All humans have to eat, so remember that sharing a meal with another person is possibly the most primal, simple kindness we experience in our lives. Eating with another person is an opportunity to encounter them in an authentic and relaxed way and because of this, many lasting friendships form over the simple act of sharing a meal. And if Tony Bourdain taught us anything, it was that.
I leave you with this video – one of my favorite videos of Anthony Bourdain because I believe here, for whatever reason, he is relaxed enough to show his true self. It is him making Linguine Con le Vongolé – the dish he loved to serve to those whom he loved most. Maybe make this for dinner sometime soon.