We Needed Bourdain
150 years ago, Mark Twain was America’s cool uncle gone abroad. He traveled extensively, wrote with comic honesty, and presented his stories to live audiences. There will never be another Mark Twain, but Anthony Bourdain was as close as we came in the last century.
His early shows felt like the results of a clerical error. It’s easy to imagine a strung out TV executive saying “Johnson signed the wrong form, and now this weird guy who cooks steaks in Manhattan has a budget and a crew and is drinking himself to death all over the world.”
Bourdain experienced cultures most people only dream about, but he didn’t stop there. He poked fun at things he saw. He poked fun at his producers. He made travel sexy. He and his camera crew experimented with varied storytelling techniques, often borrowed from their favorite films. Bourdain and Co. closed the door on the “Rick Steves in a sweater” era and dragged documentary television into the 21st century with a meat hook.
Bourdain’s books entertained me, but his approach to travel inspired me. There’s a difference between experiencing other places and learning from them. Bourdain taught me always to learn, and to never, ever be intellectually lazy or dishonest when evaluating thoughts at home and abroad.
I pushed through a tedious final year of school, and among all of my potential career routes, I always thought the apex of any job in the photography world would be with the production house that shot all of Bourdain’s shows. I followed the odd little Tumblr blogs that Bourdain and his producers wrote in as they traveled. I was awestruck when his crew literally built a new kind of camera for an experimental episode in Seoul. For lack of a better term, he was a hero.
Parts Unknown cemented this feeling. The show was a clean restart after No Reservations, one that captured Bourdain’s growth from a snarky anti-tour guide to cultural conversation starter and documentary innovator. Instead of show where conversations led to meals, the meals led to conversations.
The conversations he started carried real value. They opened doors to hear the reality of each place and the people therein. My excitement was genuine when I saw him visit my parents’ hometown of Greeneville, Mississippi, not only eating at Doe’s, but dining there with an old classmate of my mother's who had carved her own path as a journalist. Further afield, his conversations in the Middle East were uncomfortably raw, and made me ask more questions about foreign policy. The human experience took front and center.
Inwardly, I hoped that Bourdain had found his peace. To that point, one on-camera conversation, between Bourdain and Iggy Pop, stands out in my mind. Standing on a quiet beach in Miami, the television persona, which I’m fairly good at detecting through my own videography experience, seemed to fade away, and the conversation drifted very honest.
It was Bourdain 3.0.
Roots of Fight hoodies had replaced the band tshirts.
Jiu jitsu Bourdain.
“Drinks less” Bourdain.
The humor and the winking remarks remained, but Bourdain as a human seemed both grateful and… awestruck. He stood there, next to one of his own heroes, and together they mused in wonder at their both still being alive, and expressed gratitude for a second chance at a full life apart from substances.
But the minds of writers, while fruitful, are dangerous landscapes. History is full of brilliant writers who chose to end their own lives in moments of depression and despair. In both appreciation of his work and my own selfish hope to actually meet Bourdain someday, I was always a bit fearful that some old demon would chase him down, no matter what he expressed on camera.
Today I woke up to that fear fulfilled. It’s been eleven hours since I saw the news and I’m still in a fractured state of mind. I want to write while this is fresh, but, God in heaven, it is difficult.
I don’t hesitate to think tragically of Bourdain as among the ranks of Papa Hemingway, Hunter Thompson and Kurt Cobain: aanother brilliant writer who, to the sadness of an entire generation, chose to leave early. If anything, he was the heir-apparent to all three. He was an adventurer-writer-rocker of the first order.
With all that said, it would do Bourdain a massive disservice to remember him only for his wit and rockstar aesthetic.
Collectively, Bourdain’s life and work tell an incredible story.
Kitchen Confidential, is, effectively, his origin story; a madcap history of kitchen life in the 70s and 80s. Sex, drugs and rock and roll in chef’s whites. In an alternate timeline, Bourdain could have easily faded into obscurity as just another manchild in that dysfunctional playground. With that said, the smirks and impish remarks we saw on television belied a man who made a powerful choice halfway through a life.
In a car with four friends, he heard a statistic on the radio that heroin would claim the lives of three out of four addicts. All four of them were addicted to heroin. Bourdain wrote that, in that moment, he decided to be the survivor.
17 years after writing that book, the man who once sold his record collection for hard drugs, who used to smoke paint chips off the floor in hopes that one of them was a lost shred of crack, was clean of drugs and leveraging the full weight of CNN’s journalistic access to document fraught places like Iran, Cuba and the Congo.
The older he grew, the deeper his interest in humanity became. This is why Bourdain resonated. This is why his death hurts us.
Bourdain wasn’t just the materialization of every hipster’s travel fantasies. On paper, it is actually unbelievable that he lived past 30. Years of his life were spent making every possible choice that could accelerate his own demise.
But he escaped his own self-destruction. Not by accident, but by choice.
And we were privileged to see him introduce us to many, many special people, and eventually grow into a legend.
In his own way, Bourdain used the strategies of a drug dealer to lure in the audience and hold us captivated. The television persona pulled us in with snarky remarks about bad hot dogs in Chicago or merciless comments about tourist trap restaurants in Italy. Then, before we were quite aware of it, we were hearing dinnertime debates in Jerusalem over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And I can’t remember a single episode where he parted with his hosts on bad terms.
A younger person, a less experienced person, a less internally ragged person, could not have brought the sensibility that Bourdain brought to his documentation of the world. He knew the value of life, because he was painfully aware of how much of his own he had wasted.
The arc of Bourdain’s accidental career, from the unpolished beginnings of A Cook’s Tour, to the genre-bending work he did on Parts Unknown, was so much more than advertised.
It wasn’t about Emmys and bigger budgets.
It wasn’t just about food and booze.
It wasn’t just travel.
It was a redemption story.
Out of the slough of addiction, he found a voice, and with his crew and his words, Anthony Bourdain took us to dinner in a different city a week for seventeen years.
We don’t mean to be, but we are cynical. Our phones give us near unlimited access to data and information. We can make judgements and be reductive without ever leaving the house. Bourdain reminded us that people across the world are as layered as we are ourselves. He reminded us of our humanity.
Beyond the snark, beyond the persona, the totality of Bourdain’s life and work serve to inspire us and give us hope.
We needed him.
We will miss him.