I didn’t know Anthony Bourdain. He didn’t know me. Yet, I loved his work. He was a breath of fresh air in a seemingly vapid television landscape that was only filled with pretenders. Bourdain was the real deal. He was honest to a fault. He could cut through all that nonsense of others and get straight to the heart of a subject. He adopted a “bad boy” persona, which was true because he didn’t try to be something else for the camera. it reflected on screen what he had written about in his books.
I became acquainted with him quite by accident. I had never heard of his book, “Kitchen Confidential,” but stumbled on to his show “No Reservations” on the Travel Channel one day, and I was hooked from the beginning. Here was a different kind of cooking show. He didn’t simply stand around a stove or prep table and show you how to do things. No, to simply call it a cooking show was a misnomer. This was a show about how food, life, and culture intersect. Here was this brash NYC chef, bringing to perhaps a largely uninformed American public how other cultures are more like us than we think. We all eat, sit around a table, and discuss events. That’s when I think he was at his best, when he would go into people’s homes in different countries and simply talk around the table with families.
He was a risk taker. Beirut, Iran, Istanbul. Places that were not always friendly to Americans, he would go to try and open up the lens on them. He would never try to impose his views on the people there. He merely asked questions, often very pointed, direct, but never with any kind of superiority behind them.
His show, “Parts Unknown” is a staple of my TV week. I look forward to every Sunday, and even will occasionally binge on previous episodes on Netflix. His friendship with fellow chef Eric Ripert provides some of the best in both entertainment and knowledge. He loved to terrorize Ripert with spicy foods. Just watch the episode where they travel to Sichuan province in China.
I have Bourdain’s cookbook, “Appetites.” I had been thumbing through over the last few weeks to try to select a recipe that I could make (and that Patti would eat), and settled on the bluefish recipe. I’ve yet to tackle it, but feel compelled to do so now. It’s just hard to fathom that Bourdain won’t be around for me to at least send him a tweet on how it turned out, even if he never might have acknowledged it.
Bourdain was candid about his personal demons, including being a heroin user, and having depression. Given his success, one might have thought that he had them conquered. His suicide shows that perhaps, the demons never really leave you. They lurk in the background, whispering in your ear all the time. For Bourdain it would seem, for whatever the reasons, he chose not to ignore them this time.
We are all the worse for not having him here anymore to keep us honest. As my friend Dan Ryan noted, he was truly an example of American exceptionalism, especially when there’s so true little of it around.