Anthony Bourdain, a cook, a writer, a traveller, a TV personality and producer, a foodie at a time when food was barely on the radar screen and one of the main instigators of today’s culinary travels is no more. He sadly took his life away in what is an apparent suicide.
It’s hard to think that someone you have never met could impact you so much but that was the case with Anthony.
His two seminal books Kitchen Confidential and A Cook’s Tour where what triggered an interest in me for food, food books and food writing. He was a cook when he wrote ‘Don’t Eat before reading this’, a seminal piece in the New Yorker which was the prelude for his career as an author and TV producer.
In that article he gave tips on what to avoid in restaurants from doing the restaurant a favour by ordering a well done steak (they will serve you the worse piece of meat you can imagine), by avoiding the dish of the day (it is what restaurants needed to sell lest it is thrown away), the dreaded brunch or buffet, chicken and how you should order fish or shell-fish in a restaurant on a Monday only at your peril. He spilled the beans on restaurants reusing bread or butter left at table and recycling these back to other guests in the case of bread and to make sauces in the case of butter.
He did this not to spite restaurants or to get back at his bosses but rather to lift the lid on some of the practices that needed to change.
He brought transparency to an industry that needed it at a time when the restaurant world was starting to open itself up to stardom. The days of abuse may be over (at least that’s what most of us hope at least) but Anthony helped to put certain aspects in the spotlight.
Today, becoming a chef has a certain allure because if you are successful you are considered like a ‘rock-star’. But when Anthony Bourdain wrote the article Don’t Eat before Reading this in New Yorker and subsequently Kitchen Confidential he spoke of the weirdness of the kitchen life with the dreamers, the crackpots, the refugees and the sociopaths who work in the kitchens. He spoke of professional kitchens being the last refuge of the misfits and for people with bad pasts to find new families. He spoke of immigrants in the restaurant kitchens finding refuge there.
The kitchen can be considered the closest thing to the military where discipline and abuse are sometimes the order of the day. I remember a chef telling me in an interview that if he did what others had done to him today (in some of the top kitchens in France) he would be in prison today.
Such was the life in a restaurant kitchen. We’ve all heard stories of knives thrown at staff, tempers flaring, all sorts of abuse from verbal to physical down to sexual which have all been part and parcel of kitchen life and Anthony helped to pull the lid on some of these issues.
In his TV programmes, No Reservations, Parts Unknown and A Cook’s Tour he helped us explore the corners of the world through his travel and food experiences. He brought us different cultures through food,democratising travel by making it accessible to everyone. He was a trend setter, one of the first food influencers and maybe the first in the food world to realise that the world was about to become a global village.
Today, those reading this article because they are interested in food may find no qualms with planning a trip somewhere on the other side of the globe for food, be it to go to a fine dining restaurant or to experience the street food of a particular country. But 15 years ago, this was nearly unheard of except for the privileged few.
For those who could not travel because they did not have the means, the programmes were a way of travelling to far-flung places, of learning about food and discovering human stories. We travelled with Anthony, learning in the process and getting the travel bug which would later sweep the world.
Chefs today travel from one corner of the world to another without hesitation. Today, you might find it hard to find a chef who stays in his kitchen all year round (except on holidays). That may partly or largely be due to Anthony and his influence.
The news feeds on social media today paid tribute to this personality who was the ultimate celebrity. He has reached millions of people across the globe not just in the US through his books and later his TV shows. He may sometimes have been depicted as the ‘bad boy’ who abused of drugs when he was young and who spoke about the difficulties faced by people working in the industry but he was a pioneer in many ways.
Only today, the first video I saw on social media was Anthony speaking about Yelp and elite reviewers in a brutally honest way and how difficult it has become for restaurants to deal with social media.
He had the ability to call a spade a spade without searching for favours. The world would be a much better place if we all took a leaf out of his book.
Many have followed in his footsteps. There are chefs today from Massimo Bottura to René Redzepi, from David Chang to Alex Atala to mention just a few who have made it their aim and ambition to improve the lives of others be it their staff, the poor, their suppliers or clients.
We need to continue the conversation. We need to help each other. We need to be more human towards each other. We need to empathise with one another. And we need to listen and look out for signs. Because life is precious. And if we know that someone is suffering we need to give a helping hand. The world can be dark at times. But it can also shine and when it is dark we need to look for a guiding light.
Anthony Bourdain had a fundamental desire to connect with people. He travelled to tell the stories of others through food all over the world. He was in France working on another episode of Parts Unknown for CNN. Alas he is no more. But he lives on in the amazing work he has left behind.
Rest in Peace Anthony.
How to get help: The International Association for Suicide Prevention and Befrienders Worldwide provide contact information for crisis centers around the world.