"Seeing" Anthony Bourdain

James Gribbon
 Photo: Courtesy of Travel & Liesure

Photo: Courtesy of Travel & Liesure

Grief, as often as not, contains anger. The acknowledgment that terrible people behave that way because they are hurting is one of the primary, and most difficult, gears to turn in the machinery of compassion. If there is anything simple, it's that pain and anger are easy to spot when they present themselves openly. It's when grief turns inward, kept afloat and insulated from society by a perceptual blanket of zest and joy, that its revelation can be so unsettling. Anthony Bourdain, for as brash and shouty as he was, especially in the early seasons of No Reservations, was cognizant and open about many of his personal demons. It's often said that poor people are the most generous because they know how it feels to go without. One of Bourdain's gifts, in himself and to the world, was his ability to see through outward perceptions to the person within. He could connect, across social strata and cultural divide, with seemingly anyone. The rarity of that gift is readily apparent in our collective shock at the news of his suicide. 

We all saw his amazing story. Bourdain went from the lowest rung of one of the harshest environments in the American workforce and thrived. "Most of us who live and operate in the culinary underworld are in some fundamental way dysfunctional," he wrote in 1999. Like Kerouac, his people were the mad people, the ones who filled out a peculiar far end of the spectrum, in a place odd parts actually fit in. He rose up difficult, tribal ranks, and then failed - hard - with his own restaurant in Times Square, before letting anyone, everyone into the place he loved. America was enraptured, first in small numbers by his first piece, "Don't Eat Before Reading This," and then sensationally with the publishing of Kitchen ConfidentialNo Reservations, as much as any source, deserves credit for raising the standard of American discourse on food. The question of where our food comes from, the meaning of that question, and why it was important, existed in many minds where it hadn't before because people watched him on television. He cared so much about people who thought like he did about food, and expressed his joy through their voices and experience. We traveled with him and returned to our own worlds and tables with reexamined perspective. 

So that's what we saw: an immensely cool, sarcastic, sometimes caustic personality who could nonetheless reach the hearts of people he had only just met - or never did, in the case of many viewers - with turns of openness, caring, and the absolute faith that food could bring us together. What he had done, what he was actively doing, made him the subject of respect and adoration. He was an inspiration.

I saw Bourdain in person when he came to Stamford in 2011. He stood alone on the stage at the Palace Theater and spoke without notes for an hour, and then talked to anyone who reached out for the microphone for another hour. He said people would always remark to him about how comfortable the people on his show, from chefs to home cooks, looked with him. "That's because," he said. "We've usually been drinking with them for hours before we even turn the cameras on." And booze, as anyone who's watched knows, was a big part of his shows. His answer, slightly flippant if undoubtedly true, was only a fraction of that truth. I think something more complete would include the fact that people react in a more open, genuine manner when they can sense honesty and good intent. Food was his love, and that love extended outward. His often spoken streak of misanthropy was a thin shell of protection. The real Tony we saw used food as a medium to display our shared humanity. One of my enduring mental images of Bourdain is him laying down, spooning, three to a small bed, for a post feijoada and cachaça bliss-nap in Brazil at the home of the woman who cooked for him and the cameras. That wasn't a result of the booze, it was a state of joy.  

It was a small thing, but something he said that day on stage changed my life. A member of the audience asked him about getting sick on the road, and specifically mentioned the infamous trip to Liberia which nearly killed him. "I was going off like a lawn sprinkler at both ends for days," was his summation of the experience. "But," he responded. "it's not the shady looking places or the late night street food that usually get you. It's almost always something served with no care being taken at the three star hotel's buffet. They just shovel it out and they know if anything's wrong you'll probably be on a plane six hundred miles away before it hits you, so it doesn't matter to them where they are. The guy on the street corner in a place where no one who grows up there has much hope of ever leaving, the guy with the rusty, dented, possibly leaking push cart, he has to stay and deal with people if something goes wrong with his food. He doesn't stay in business by poisoning his neighbors."

Two years after that talk I was standing on a sun blasted, rust streaked ferry dock in Costa Rica, and nearly hollow with hunger, when I saw Bourdain's man with the push cart. He, and a stray dog or two, had found a puddle of shade under a tree on a street corner, and was beginning to sweat profusely over smoldering charcoal, tending to moderately identifiable meat chunks on a stick. I walked over and, summoning all the powers of my rickety-ass Spanish, asked what he had, and how much it cost. Cheap, even at what were probably inflated gringo prices, I only knew the word for one of the meats, res, or beef. I know the words for chicken, pork, veal, different species of fish, and several other foods and cuts of meat, but I did NOT know the animal name he said to me, repeatedly, while pointing at the other skewers. I took two of each. They were delicious. My friends stood by and watched with pointed suspicion as I ate, then gave in to their own hunger, bought some, and made it back for seconds before the ferry wheezed into port. I had that specific experience, I hold that memory, because of Anthony Bourdain. 

We watched Tony Bourdain grow. We saw him gleefully munching coca leaves on an Andean mountainside as the closing credits rolled, we saw his hair turn, well, more grey, and we saw his evolution from a sort of strutting, look-how-punk-rock-I-am, ex-junkie, all-edge Truth Teller, to a more thoughtful, unavoidably worldly and more complete person. We saw him slaughter an animal and then look us right in the eyes tell us, yes, this is what it means to be an enthusiastic, or just breezily thoughtless, omnivore. It wasn't about judgement, but it was about responsibility. Caring about food was to mean caring about what you ate. He had the coolest job in the world, and episodes were shot through with partying and glamour, but it was the poignancy underlaying his work that made you appreciate what he showed you, what he had to say.

We saw Bourdain, furious at the Travel Channel's use of his image in a car commercial, storm off the air and out of his contract. It was during this period when I saw him in Stamford. We saw him get picked up from CNN and, in Parts Unknown, we could see him striving to live up the legitimacy inferred by the trust of a major news network. At times in this new format he became overtly political. Instead of observing a culture and sharing the dinner table, he began to make slightly forced points. In the Iran episode, a nakedly manipulative opening leads to segments of Bourdain asking his hosts in a leading manner if it wasn't really America that's the problem with Iran? Traveling in new circles seems to have engendered some misplaced sense of guilt in Bourdain. His hosts, through exactly no fault of his, or America's, were rounded up and imprisoned by the Iranian regime shortly after the episode's air date. Several of the episodes which followed were some of the most brilliant of his entire career, including, it must be said, the political ones. CNN gave Bourdain access no Travel Channel exec has ever possessed. His interview in Russia with Boris Nemtsov is the only reason most Americans knew the opposition politician's name until he was murdered, in full view of the Kremlin, shortly thereafter. His programs showed the best of wide-eyed exploration, the pleasures to be had in living, by people all over the world. Unmistakable, though, was the spectre of darkness. 

Bourdain was completely open with his history as a street addict, hopelessly in the grip of twin addictions to heroin and crack cocaine while a line cook in New York. The knowledge of his painful past was part of what made the appearance of his wife on air, and the mention of his daughter, such happy ones for the viewer. It was his wife who got him into Brazilian ju-jitsu, which he directly credited with his newfound health and extended lifespan. "Before ju-jitsu, I never would have been able to do this," he tells his hosts on a strenuous hunting foray into the Scottish mountains. Anthony Bourdain, it was easy to think, had finally got life all figured out. He won awards, appeared in public and, clearly thrilled, sat down to a meal with president Barack Obama.  

So that's what we saw. We didn't see the pain. There were dark cracks to the personality, but the depths of those fissures mostly escaped us, or were only known to those who knew him best. The man who seemed to be the walking, laughing, all-consuming embodiment of living one's best life took his own today, at scarcely more than 60 years old. I think of his ex-wife, and daughter, and he and his brother fighting over the pope's nose on the turkey in his Christmas episode. The one where Queens Of The Stone Age played a song in his family's driveway.

The lesson is: we don't know. We don't know what's going on in people's lives, in their minds, their hearts. Tony, though, he tried to show us.