The Loss of a Giant

The news of Anthony Bourdain’s suicide devastates on a near-incomprehensible level. It will probably continue cutting for several weeks, whenever circumstances demand we refer to him in the past tense. I never met him, yet the loss I feel is palpable. That’s because Bourdain mattered.

I’m sure a lot of printed and online memorials will focus on Kitchen Confidential, his TV shows, and his outspoken “bad boy” attitude. These things should be mentioned. They built his mystique. Yet they don’t tell the story. At least, they shouldn’t be left alone to tell his story in total. Underneath the layer of admirable badass was an ambassador and a barrier-breaker, one that perpetually demonstrated that people in other communities and cultures were something to embrace, not to fear. He accomplished this by teaching us how to eat and drink in a manner that transcended picking up a fork or a glass.

The best moments of food, drink, and travel are the “Bourdain moments.” These are the times when the curtain is peeled back to reveal the human element through conversation and stories. The passion of a chef. The encyclopedic knowledge of a bartender. The traditions of culture down to a hyper-regional level. Even the random dialogue with the patron sitting next to you. This is Anthony Bourdain’s true legacy. These are the moments that fuel our adventures and broaden our horizons. It’s the stuff that drove his mantra of “be a traveler, not a tourist.” It’s also the best parts of dining out or grabbing a cocktail regardless of where you’re located. These are the moments that ultimately stick with you for decades, much more than the details of that five-course meal you once considered “unforgettable.”

Bourdain was not without a few detractors, although most of this derision comes from highly stupid places. I’ve already seen someone subtly accuse him of appropriation because he was a white man that documented life in depressed areas populated by not-white people. It’s nearly impossible to fathom anyone willingly taking on such a position. One of the ongoing themes of his show was to make the viewer more conscientious of life from a global perspective. Never once did Bourdain use who he was or the color of his skin to lord over people. He always put himself equal or lower than his hosts out of honor and respect. This humility was integral to his career, perhaps best exemplified by how much he advocated the role of the Latino in the kitchen. (One of my favorite quotes from Kitchen Confidential: “The very backbone of the industry, whether you like it or not, is inexpensive Mexican, Dominican, Salvadorian and Ecuadorian labor-most of whom could cook you under the table without breaking a sweat.”). This was a man that didn’t look to exploit, he sought out to champion. Anyone that doesn’t realize that probably formed their opinion on the noise of select sound bytes. These people should keep their mouths shut for the next few weeks.

As days and weeks slip into years, it is my hope that Bourdain’s suicide is somehow not romanticized. This seems like an odd, if not terrible, thing to state now – particularly since he left a young child behind. Yet it’s not without precedent. There are some that have done this with Ernest Hemingway and Hunter S. Thompson, two larger-than-life writers with a thirst for experiences. These people point to their suicides and say, “those were guys that weren’t afraid to check out when they were done having adventures,” as if to say their self-inflicted demise was the grand, final act of bravado. Bourdain may not necessarily have the writing legacy of Hemingway or the gonzo approach of Thompson (although the latter may be up to debate), but his DNA was made of their same essence, which makes adding his name to this ill-begotten list possible. Sadly, I’ve already started to see talk like this bubble up to the surface, with people mentioning Bourdain had dropped hints that his life would end at his own hand. (The fact that Bourdain took his life at the same age as Hemingway might even pour more fuel onto this narrative over time.) If you hear someone take this position, speak out. This is a horrifying sentiment. Suicide is never romantic, and should never be viewed as an act of machismo. We should feel compelled to make sure this does not ultimately become part of his legacy. To do so would be a slap in the face not only to him and those he left behind, but also to those who are battling similar demons. Those that need our help. Those that we still can help.

There are options that can help you if you feel have nowhere to turn. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24 hours a day, and can be reached at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). They also offer an online chat option if you prefer to share your feelings through text rather than voice. Don’t be afraid to share your struggles with close friends or loved ones. Those dearest to you won’t treat you as insignificant. They will make time for you. If you’re reading this, and if I fall into this “dearest to you” category, I assure you this is no lip service. I’m here to talk. I’m here to listen. I’m just here.

RIP, Anthony Bourdain. You will be missed, and you will be remembered.