I’m normally not the sort of person to get emotional about celebrity deaths. It’s not that I don’t care, I just have a limited reserve of emotional energy to expend on people I don’t know. But I woke up to the news that Anthony Bourdain died this morning in an apparent suicide. And this one hurts.
I probably wasn’t the intended audience for “No Reservations.” I was a young vegan working at an animal shelter when it premiered. I wasn’t much of a traveler or a rebel. But “No Reservations” struck a chord with me, and I was enthralled. In many ways, watching “No Reservations” was the first step in being free from my fear of food.
On “No Reservations,” he did a deep dive into the food and culture of a country or region. He ate at fine dining restaurants and on the street, and he did not elevate one over the other. He had equal reverence for the finest sushi in the world and the most humble street food. He saw art and beauty in all of it. He understood that both told a story – the story of the place where he was eating the food, the story of the person making it, and the story of how he and whomever he was eating with came to be eating that particular food at that particular spot.
When I discovered Anthony Bourdain, I was frankly terrified of food. I enjoyed food, but had learned that my enjoyment of food was inappropriate and too much. I joined Weight Watchers. I did not eat anything that did not have nutritional information printed on the package, or that could not be found in my little book of Points that I bought through Weight Watchers. (This was before apps allowed you to plug in any food and get the Points value. I had to carry around a book and little Weight Watchers Points calculator at all times.) I was also vegan, for ethical reasons. And I was struggling to afford to pay my bills. So, when I was eating, certain things were on my mind. How many calories are in this? How much fiber? How much fat? Does this have animal ingredients? Was this humanely and sustainably produced? Can I afford this? Will this throw off my day and/or week and prevent me for losing weight? Never did it occur to me to ask myself a simple question: Will I enjoy this?
I had internalized the idea that enjoying food was a shameful, secretive thing. I agonized over food. One time, I forced myself to eat five stalks of celery because it was a zero-Point food and I was hungry but had reached my daily Points limit and didn’t want to use my “weekly” Points and I nearly threw up because I absolutely hate raw celery. That is a picture of my relationship with food at that stage, in a nutshell. Pleasure was never part of the equation. The foods that gave me pleasure (big heaping plates of pasta, potatoes drenched in cheese, cakes and cookies and pastries, all the beautiful carbohydrates) were forbidden, and they were Bad for Me. They would make me gain weight, and losing weight was my only concern. I actively avoided pleasure. Each night, my dinner was a dry-as-hell Morningstar Farms black bean burger topped with carefully measured dollops of barbecue sauce or vegan mayonnaise on a thin, flavorless, low-carb bun. This was how I ate. I extracted zero pleasure from food. I was a food ascetic. I was devoted to austerity with food, because it was so dangerous. I feared that if I felt joy when eating, if I ate the thing I actually wanted to eat, it would be a slippery slope that surely ended with me hoovering Cheetos and ice cream in a fugue state.
Anthony Bourdain also agreed that food was dangerous, but he embraced it. In his first published piece for The New Yorker, Don’t Eat Before Reading This, he rhapsodized about the pleasures of butter, the visceral joy of blood squirting into his mouth when biting into a boudin noir at his own restaurant. He gleefully ripped apart the assumption many diners have that their expensive meals were all prepared by people in gloves. “By the time a three-star crew has finished carving and arranging your saddle of monkfish with dried cherries and wild-herb-infused nage into a Parthenon or a Space Needle,” he wrote, “it’s had dozens of sweaty fingers all over it.” To him, food was dangerous, risky, subversive. It was communal; food was meant to be handled — the type of diner who might clutch their pearls over the bread being recycled was not the type of diner he wanted to serve or eat with. Food was primal — it was meant to be touched, tasted, smelled, experienced.
This was also how I felt about food. But unlike Bourdain, I spent most of my time squashing my love of food as far down as it would go. I aimed to be one of those lithe, serene people who could eat a salad with no dressing for lunch (“because it doesn’t even need it!”) and be satisfied. In reading “Kitchen Confidential,” and watching “No Reservations,” I was able to reconnect with the part of myself that was hungry. For food, for travel, for life. Going with him on a culinary journey through an unknown land and find common ground in food made me realize that food is love. Food is pleasure, food is adventure, food is history, food is community. And food can also be rebellion.
Anthony Bourdain was the first chef I can remember who made both travel and fine dining feel accessible. Before him, there were two kinds of people. The Applebees folks and the French Laundry folks. Fine dining was a world where stuffy, classically-trained chefs served pristine, stuffy food to rich, stuffy people. But he really broke down the barriers between fine dining and food that “common people” ate. He presented the best, most acclaimed food in the world and street food you can get on a skewer from a truck with equal joy, enthusiasm and respect. There was no line for him between the foodies and the common folk; there was art and beauty to be found in both. On “No Reservations,” he frequently mentioned that he preferred humble hole-in-the-wall restaurants off the beaten path, inaccessible or unknown to tourists, because they allowed him to learn the story of a place he was visiting. How many people tried new foods because of him? How many people learned to cook because of him? I never would have dreamed of going to a nice restaurant years ago, but Anthony Bourdain taught me that I have just as much of a right to amazing food as the richest person in town. Food is for everyone, not just a select few. And, very often, there is sublime pleasure to be found in the most common of places, like Waffle House.
And he did the same thing with travel. By presenting travel not as something the wealthy upper crust does, and not staying in luxury hotels, by going out into communities and meeting and eating with people, he made travel seem approachable too. You’d don’t need to be a millionaire to travel, and if you can’t afford a trip to Tokyo, there are delights just a bus or car ride away too. (He profiled my home town, Baltimore, in an episode of “No Reservations” about America’s “Rust Belt.”) How many people traveled because of him? How many adventures has he inspired?
Personally, a lot of people have influenced me on the path to finding peace with my body and with food. But a lot of it started with Anthony Bourdain. “No Reservations” was the first time I had seen, and understood, that hunger was not something to run away from. And that food was not the enemy but a source of comfort, adventure, pleasure, pain, controversy, individuality, love, community. We didn’t always agree — I was alternately vegan and vegetarian through most of my twenties and he was a vocal critic of people who opted out of animal consumption for ethical reasons — but he never shied away from the debate, and he showed during his career that he was willing to embrace growth publicly. For all the machismo and swagger of his persona, he was one of the first prominent men to embrace #MeToo and spoke out against toxic masculinity, in the culinary world, Hollywood and elsewhere.
I’m so sorry that he was in such a bad place. Sometimes the brightest among us are the ones who burn out the hardest. And the sensitivity that makes allows people to write and live with such creativity and passion can also be our downfall. I don’t know what he was struggling with, but I do know that mental illness is a fearsome beast that doesn’t back down just because you’ve got a successful career, awesome girlfriend and everything you’ve ever wanted. I wish he had gotten help.
Check on your friends or family members, even if they seem strong. Sometimes even strong people need help and are in crisis behind the scenes. And if you’re in crisis or feeling hopeless, reach out. Call or chat online with National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Tell someone. It’s hard (believe me, I know) but it’s so necessary. The world is losing too many people who have so much to offer.
Thank you for helping me, Anthony.