Remembering Anthony Bourdain, World Ambassador

by: Michael Shields

A somber farewell to a writer and a storyteller, a chef and a global ambassador for humanity, Anthony Bourdain….

“If I am an advocate for anything, it is to move. As far as you can, as much as you can. Across the ocean, or simply across the river. Walk in someone else’s shoes or at least eat their food. It’s a plus for everybody.” – Anthony Bourdain

I set on a path towards becoming a writer, professionally, after reading Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential. Prior to that, writing had been a mere hobby of mine, something I kept in the closet and pursued alone in the depths of the night. In those early days, I was obsessed with food and food culture, but I elected to keep that under wraps. Food wasn’t cool, I thought. Writing about it, less so. But then a chef, as adept with words as any well-trained writer, showed me the light. “Our movements through time and space seem somehow trivial compared to a heap of boiled meat in broth, the smell of saffron, garlic, fishbones and Pernod,” Bourdain elegantly wrote, romanticizing his masterful creations in a way I had yet to come upon, in a way that inspired me and ignited a flame within my very being. I inhaled Kitchen Confidential, time and again. Years later, upon its release, I dove with zest into Medium Raw, his follow up book, where the sage chef made me feel once again at ease with my passionate relationship towards food. “You have to be a romantic to invest yourself, your money, and your time in cheese,” he explained, a premise that made all too much sense to me. Man, I thought, he gets it.

In no time flat I had a food blog and was contributing work, or attempting to, to food websites and publications. I was off and running, and spending every last cent I had on meals throughout New York City in search of inspiration and material. I eventually migrated away from food writing towards other interests, but my culinary musings were undoubtedly the foundation that my writing career would be built on, and where I began to hone my craft. While I did ultimately drift away from the culinary writing world, my fascination and appreciation of Bourdain’s work only grew. With him, and through his television shows, I traveled the world, learning about different places and cultures. He was consistently opening doors unto ways of life I was entirely unaware of. It really felt, while taking in Bourdain walking the Earth with grace and savvy, as if it were his world and we were all just living in it. It felt as if he had found the secret, and that he was passionately sucking the juicy nectar from the center of the fruit of life. Through him, our eyes, minds and mouth were opened to the ways of the world, in a way that was unifying, and entirely engrossing.

To me, and on the most aesthetic and incidental level, Bourdain defined what “cool” was. He had a swagger that was almost jarring in its smoothness, and the way in which I could relate to him was uncanny. He was a film buff, a rock and roll enthusiast, a David Simon devotee, a comic book fan and writer, and the type of individual who relished in the occasional cold beverage or stiff drink — all things I too cherish. Recklessness, something I am drawn to and employ in purposeful doses, was a way of life for Bourdain. “Your body,” he urged, “is not a temple, it’s an amusement park. Enjoy the ride.” Life was for living, he urged, and the way in which he lived his life was a constant reminder of this fact.

Beyond all this, and far more importantly, Bourdain was a larger than life purveyor of culture and an ambassador of people around the world. Apart from waxing poetically about the perils of hollandaise sauce and brunch, or expounding upon the glory of oysters, he was a true humanitarian. Through his journeys, Bourdain opened my eyes to the potential the world held while shining a light on cultures in a way that was relatable and positively important. In contrast to the stereotypical narrative that too often rattles about, Bourdain characterized people from places such as Lebanon, Palestine, Afghanistan, and Iraq in an identifiable way, revealing the truth that individuals throughout the world over are not so different than us here in the United States. Bourdain showed these foreign and diverse people cooking, eating, and playing with their children — living life as normal people do, highlighting the things we all have in common rather than those that too often tear us apart.

Bourdain was a brilliant example of the transformative power of experience and of the benefits of increased interactions with peoples from all cultures and walks of life. His culinary adventures changed him, stating: “In the few years since I’ve started to travel this world, I’ve found myself changing. The cramped cynical worldview of a man who’d only seen life through the narrow prism of the restaurant kitchen had altered. I’d been so many places, I’d met so many people from wildly divergent backgrounds, countries, and cultures. Everywhere I’d been treated so well. I’d been the recipient of so many random acts of kindness from strangers and I’d begun to think that no matter where I went or who I sat down with, that food and a few drinks seemed always to bring people together. That this planet was filled with basically good and decent people doing the best they could, if frequently under difficult circumstances. That the human animal was perhaps a better and nicer species than I had once thought.”

Sadly, it wasn’t all shared meals and hope for Bourdain. He was a realist, and as much as his travels taught him empathy and understanding, he also encountered a great deal of pain. He saw, time and again, innocent and good people suffer and deal with inexplicable and needless exploitation and misfortune. He once spoke grimly of how maybe there wasn’t a reason for hope at all in this world. That “maybe in the real world — the one without cameras and happy food and travel shows — everybody, the good and bad together, are all crushed under some terrible wheel.” This quote, sourced from a voice-over to conclude an episode of Bourdain’s television show No Reservations, was a window into a more fatalistic side of Bourdain, a person with vulnerabilities and an introspective confusion about the world. With his passing we are served yet another reminder of the awful truth that we have no idea the battles others are fighting. It’s another solemn reminder that there is nothing more important than simply treating those around you right, even if it’s a simple gesture of kindness, as Bourdain suggested: “What nicer thing you can do for somebody than to make them breakfast?”

In the wake of such a loss, and in attempting to come to grips with the devastating news, somehow the world feels more dim, less fun and wondrous. But we know that’s not the case in reality, because Bourdain showed us otherwise. He showed us just how magical a place this planet and its peoples can truly be, which is something I will forever be grateful for.

3 Comments

  • Michael, lately, I’ve felt frozen inside, shut down. I recognize that I feel this way because it’s a defense mechanism against the pain of the world, that as I get older I get more sensitive, and it’s sometimes unbearable. Without wanting or meaning to, I turn things off. I can’t cry, I can’t laugh, I can barely love. Anthony Bourdain was my relaxer, my go-to guy, someone who showed the enjoyable aspects of the world. I envied him his ease, his success, his friends, but it wasn’t a grudging envy. He deserved it. The lines on his face grew more pronounced with each season, and it hasn’t been hard to guess that sometimes he stared into the abyss. When I heard, by phone, that he had taken his life, I felt like a hammer had struck me in the sternum and yes, I began to cry. I know there are more tears to come. I welcome them. Nicely done, amigo. Nicely done.

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