Reflections on the Death of Anthony Bourdain
My heroes tend to be deeply flawed, suffering from addictions, adulteries, or self-destructive appetites, never seeming to live up to expectations much less keep a family together or hold down a steady job. They come scratched and dented, like an old pick-up truck, which saves the disappointment when they inevitably fall from their pedestals. They are, after all, heroes not idols. I don’t worship them; I admire them. I don’t admire their brokenness, nor do I imitate their self-destructive tendencies. What inspires me is how they accomplished things that are good, noble, and true, often in spite of themselves and their personal demons. Anthony Bourdain was that kind of hero for me.
As a speaker and writer, I find myself channelling Bourdain whenever I need to find my bad boy voice. Some people say they can see and hear his influence in my writing or speaking. I should be that good. When I’m asked to speak to my fellow clergy or seminary students of the goings on in the ecclesiastical kitchen, I hear Bourdain’s voice reading my version of Church Confidential. I share his prodigal son persona, his disdain for authority and mind-numbing conformity, his impatience with narrow-minded thinking, and his love for the underdog and the little guy.
Bourdain told the hard truth about food, people, and life. He exposed us to the rawness of what went on behind those double doors of a restaurant kitchen. He led us into the holy of holies, the inner sanctum where only the culinary priests and their acolytes are ordinarily allowed to go. He took us to distant lands and introduced us to foods we’d never tasted before. He dined at the most cutting-edge restaurants on the planet. He ate with the peasant farmer and his family sitting on a dirt floor in Cambodia. He spoke the universal language of human fellowship. Eat at someone’s table, and their world becomes yours.
I first became aware of Anthony Bourdain through Ted Koppel and Nightline, a late-night feature news show for insomniacs. I was up late one night, and Koppel was interviewing a cocky, foul-mouthed New York chef with a cigarette in one hand and a cell phone in the other, simultaneously talking to Koppel and cussing a tardy meat supplier. I was mesmerized. I grew up in Chicago, a classic restaurant town where steaks, chops, and baby back ribs reigned supreme, and where going to a nice restaurant was much like going to church or the theater. The show was all in the front of the house. Bourdain gave us a backstage tour, and life was never the same
I called my best friend the next day, a fellow pilgrim on the culinary trail, who, given the opportunity to hit the rewind button on his life, might very well be cooking in a kitchen somewhere. “You need to see this guy,” I told him. I sent him a copy of Kitchen Confidential as a gift. He sent me the same in return. We might have saved the postage, but that’s how we are. I read my copy while hanging out at the in-law’s farm in Kansas. I couldn’t put it down. I still haven’t.
Kitchen Confidential turned into a best-seller that propelled Bourdain out of the kitchen into this beautiful world with a travel show called A Chef’s Tour, later morphing into the award-winning No Reservations, and most recently Parts Unknown. I’ve watched almost every episode, some multiple times. Guests at our house have endured post-dinner viewings of No Reservations as though they were movies from a recent family vacation.
I returned to the kitchen after a long hiatus due in no small measure to No Reservations: Techniques, the episode featuring several of Bourdain’s friends demonstrating basic dishes and methods, including Scott Conant’s famous Spaghetti al Pomadoro. I had a bumper crop of San Marzanos on hand, my wife was out of town tending to family, and I was hungry. I whipped up a plate of Conant’s spaghetti with its fresh tomato sauce and garlic, basil, and chile pepper infused olive oil. I ate it al fresco on the patio. Amazing! The old cooktop flame had been rekindled.
I’d given up cooking after marrying my wife, who is a formidable cook in her own right. Bourdain brought me back. I began cooking breakfast and dinner on a regular basis. I took up artisanal bread and pasta making. My skills are much more refined today, thanks to shows like Mind of a Chef and a library of cookbooks. My culinary curiosity and vocabulary have expanded too. Following Bourdain’s lead, I’ve discovered the richness of sea urchin (Uni, for you sushi afficianados), the savoriness of shrimp brains, the satisfying richness of tripe and tendon, and the magic of every kind of Asian noodle and dumpling I can get my chopsticks on. When dining at a restaurant, I always make it a point to engage the table server, if not the chef, concerning some fine point of a dish, and to express my admiration for his or her craft whenever possible. I know what it takes to prepare a good meal, and I know how to appreciate one that is made for me.
Bourdain taught us to be travelers rather than tourists, to venture out of the comfort of the familiar, to go where the locals go, engage people and their culture on their own terms, and not to make too many plans. Karen and I patterned our dream vacation to Italy around No Reservations: Emilia-Romagna. While everyone we knew was going to Rome, we went to Bologna and the surrounding Emilia-Romagna countryside to take a few cooking classes and to see the home of Parmigiano Reggiano, prosciutto, and balsamico. Yes, we spent a few nights in Venice, and a couple of days in artful Florence, but the highlight was making handmade pasta with Federika in her countryside kitchen, touring the churches and markets of Bologna with Naima, our personal guide and Bologna resident, and getting to know people where they lived and worked.
We visited a small vineyard where the owner proudly greeted us with a table of bread, meats, cheeses, together with six of his wines for us to sample. We were his only guests, yet he treated us as though we were visiting dignitaries. We sipped his wines appreciatively and toured the beautiful villa and its oppulent grounds. As we were about to leave, the owner’s son arrived, who was the wine maker and spoke fluent English. We chatted about California wines, winemaking, and the history of the region. We went back to the six open bottles from our tasting, and over the course of the next hour or so polished them off together with the meat and cheese. Wine tasting had become an impromptu meal and conversation.
At another vineyard in the Emilia countryside, the vineyard owner gave us a hastily arranged tour, apologizing that he had “only fifteen minutes” before he had to pick up his daughter from school. As we walked through the aging room filled with stainless steel tanks and oak barrels, I noticed an array of large clay pots off to one side. “Oh, you have amphora!” I said, pointing. His eyes got wide. “You know about this!” and proceeded to spend the next forty-five minutes in animated discussion about his experiments in ancient Etruscan wine-making methods. I assume his wife picked up his daughter. At lunch, one of the finest meals of our trip, the wine flowed freely, literally, in the direction of our table. Our guide seemed surprised. “This isn’t what is usually served.” When you ask interested questions about people and their work, doors swing wide open and wine flows in Cana abundance.
I have Anthony Bourdain to thank for rescuing me from descent into food snob hell. My palate had been forged in the heady days of the “great foodie revolution” of the 1980s when I lived within smelling distance of North Shattuck Avenue in Berkeley, the home of Alice Waters’ iconic Chez Panisse and other lesser known, though no less creative, eateries. Every morning you could smell the roasting of garlic, chilies, and coffee wafting through the air as the wood-fired ovens warmed up. I experienced the heat of Szechwan and Hunan, the subtleties of sushi, the endless regional varieties of Italian, Mexican, Spanish, French along with the emerging “fusion” foods that would later become staples on the California cuisine menu. I learned to use chop sticks, slurp noodles, taste wines, sample anything. It’s easy in the midst of such mind-numbing deliciousness for a young man to become snobbish and thumb his nose at the humble fare of his childhood. Bourdain taught us to eat Grandma’s overcooked Thanksgiving turkey or a cliche-ridden church potluck with the same zeal and gratitude as any three-star meal.
To prepare food for another is to honor them, and to receive that meal with joy and gratitude is to return the honor. I recall lunch in an apartment in Novosibirsk, Siberia with my Russian translator and her mother. I was teaching for a few weeks at a small seminary there, and my traveling companion and I were invited for lunch. In truth, he was invited, and I was tagging along. The meal was simple but delicious, and served with obvious pride and respect. I don’t remember what we ate, but I do recall that I never felt so honored to be at a table.
Food snobs are the Pharisees of the culinary world – measuring, comparing, and critiquing from a distant arm’s length, all the while looking down their noses at the tax collectors and sinners gathered at the table. When the internet foodie Pharisees turned on a kindly old lady for writing a gushing review of a local Olive Garden restaurant, Bourdain rushed to her defense and called off the dogs. The man who loved Popeye’s chicken and In & Out burger, and who once constructed a tasting menu at Waffle House with Sean Brock, had zero tolerance for snobbery.
Snobbery robs us of the joy of a simple meal well-prepared, a humble glass of inexpensive yet great wine, and the company that goes along with them. It is is an insidious form of gluttony that does not appreciate a meal for the gift it is but for the status it conveys. The most memorable meals I’ve eaten were not the fanciest or the most expensive. A taco, a bowl of noodles, a pumpkin-filled tortelloni, a slice of handmade bread with a wedge of cheese. The joy is in the simplicity, the honesty, the care, and the company. It is respect for ingredients and love for those at the table that make for memorable meals. Every meal is grace, undeserved kindness to a poor miserable sinner.
Bourdain was a bridge builder who spanned the chasms of culture one dish at a time. He spoke the universal language of fellowship. He ate with peasants in their huts and culinary giants in their kitchen palaces. He slurped noodles in Hanoi with President Obama, dined on grilled meat with disabled veterans in Ted Nugent’s backyard, and broke bread with West Virginia coal miners.
I live in the Los Angeles area, where every language, tribe, nation, and people have come together in a cultural mix that is not so much a melting pot as it is a bouillabaisse of diversity. Growing up in a very white, and at times bigoted, Polish/Irish neighborhood in Chicago, I was not accustomed to this way of life where you don’t go to the world on vacation, but the world comes to live next door to you, invited or not. Bourdain taught me how to navigate the rocky waters of multiculturalism, to venture into that Chinese noodle shop that doesn’t speak English or that family owned taqueria where the menu is all in Spanish, to step away from the safety of suburbia and find a world of flavor and spice and interesting people waiting to welcome you to their table.
Bourdain changed the way I saw the immigrants, legal and illegal, who come to our country seeking work, opportunity, or simply a safe place to raise their children. I am on the polar opposite end of the political spectrum from Bourdain, but I’ve grown to learn that complex issues don’t readily yield to binary red or blue solutions. A lot of our country was built by cheap immigrant labor. I come from immigrant stock, both legal and not so legal. My mother is from Germany; my grandfather from Ukraine. My eyes were opened to the immigrants who work the farms, kitchens, and construction sites in our community. I realized that we need them as much as they need us. While we’ve progressed from the days of slavery, we still tend to exploit people for cheap labor by having them work for us without legal status. I have grown to admire the skill, hard work, and tenacity of our immigrants as much as I’ve grown to love their food.
My heroes aren’t immortal. Sooner or later, they die. Death is a bitter enemy, a thief who steals away a life and refuses to give it back. It robs a young girl of her father before he can walk her down the aisle at her wedding. It parts the one-flesh union of husband and wife. It steals a lover from her beloved, a friend from his companion. It robs the world of its artists, poets, and heroes. Death is not a friend; Death is a God-damned enemy. You don’t embrace it; you don’t shake its hand. You give it the finger. I want my heroes to die heroically, spectacularly even. A plane crash, a car wreck, a motorcycle accident. I expect them to die “doing what they love,” to borrow a tired cliché- hang gliding in Patagonia, mountain climbing in Tibet, or eating blowfish in Japan. Heroes are supposed to die in the line of duty – rescuing damsels in distress, defending liberties, upholding truth, justice, and the American way. Even death by heart attack, stroke, cancer, or just plain old age can be heroic, as I have witnessed with my own eyes. My heroes die giving Death the middle finger the whole way. But the one thing heroes aren’t supposed to do is fall on their own swords.
That’s what Anthony Bourdain did, and I’m pissed about it. Yes, I know a thing or two about depression, drugs, despair, and demons. These are part of my life and livelihood. Yes, I understand that people who kill themselves are often not in their right minds, or are being influenced by demonic forces, or have succumbed to the emptiness of their ideologies, or have been sucked into a black hole of despair. But damn it, Tony! You gave us the world, and then you took it all back again. You led us on a grand adventure, and then you reminded us it is all a vanity of vanities, a futile chasing after wind. I will never again be able to watch an episode of No Reservations or Parts Unknown without that little mental asterisk that says, “but he killed himself.” That’s the unheroic legacy of suicide – you leave behind a bunch of hurt, bewildered, confused, pissed off people who feel as though they have been lied to.
Maybe we have been lied to. The lens is deceptive. It shows you what it wants you to see and leaves the rest unseen in the periphery. We see a man on television having intimate conversation with another person over a table of food. But step behind the lens and there are at least six other people hovering around the table with cameras, lights, and microphones. There is no such thing as “reality TV” because television is not reality but an electronic illusion. We saw the bon vivant, the world traveler, the bad boy chef, the gourmet, the journalist. Cool, hip, relevant, smart, defiant, funny. We didn’t see the man alone in a hotel room – tired, depressed, fighting the demons of addiction and despair, running, literally working himself to death.
I know all too well the deep introvert’s fatigue that sets in on a Sunday afternoon after a morning of “being on” for a small group of people whose names I know. I can’t begin to imagine having to be at the top of your game for an adoring public that watches, applauds, and hungers for more. We love the frenetic creativity of a Robin Williams or an Anthony Bourdain, but we conveniently ignore, or simply don’t know, the hidden pain that drives them. The facade of public life and celebrity can easily mask a horrible darkness. We lie to one another and to ourselves. “How are you?” “I’m fine, thanks for asking,” we say smiling until the pavement crumbles under our feet, and we tumble down into the abyss.
I had hoped Bourdain would settle into late middle-age obscurity, chill with his good friends in Spain, hang with his old boss in Vietnam, or just stay at home. He had a daughter late in life, whom he adored. He married her mother. He took up Brazillian ju jitsu and was in the best physical shape of his life. He wrote a cookbook entitled Appetites, a disturbingly quirky collection of things he liked to make at home for his family. But then the frenzied tarantella began to play again. The production schedule for Parts Unknown increased noticeably. Bourdain’s second marriage disintegrated. He looked tired and aging even in front of the lens. You could sense something was wrong.
I’ve often joked that I wanted to be Anthony Bourdain without the drug habit. In truth, I don’t. I’d rather be at home, working in my garden or the workshop, than traveling the world. Though I get depressed from time to time, I’ve been spared the darkness of depression. Though I flirted with drugs in college, and I still love good wine and fine spirits, I’ve eluded the demons of addiction. I live by grace, the undeserved kindness and mercy of God in Christ. Every breath, every sip, every bite of food with a friend is a precious gift received with thanksgiving. “To live is Christ and to die to gain.” “Win, win,” as a good friend who died of cancer once put it. If I’m going to imitate anyone, let it be Christ, certainly in life but most especially in death. And I do know and believe that at the bottom of the abyss, in the depths of the darkness, there is One who will catch us, who has already reconciled all the irreconcilables in heaven and on earth in His good death on a Friday afternoon.
My heroes may be tragically, often fatally flawed, but I don’t excommunicate them for not living up to my expectations. God knows, I’ve let down more than my share of people who mistakenly thought of me in heroic terms. Bourdain taught many good things about food, culture, life, people, and the world. And for these I’m grateful. He produced cinematic works of art for television, and I will continue to enjoy them and be inspired by them. He showed us beauty in this world – beautiful places, people, and food – in spite of the demons that pursued him to parts unknown. “Lord, I believe, help Thou my unbelief.
Perhaps his most important lesson was the one he unwittingly taught away from the camera’s unblinking eye. His last. Life is more than food and drink, and no amount of globetrotting can bring peace to our weary souls. St. Augustine prayed it best: “Thou hast made us for Thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in Thee.”
William M. Cwirla 2018