From the outside, Anthony Bourdain’s life was perfect. Every time he came on the television, someone in the room would remark, “I wish I had that job.” And for almost 20 years, Bourdain showed us culture raw and unfiltered, how to enjoy duck confit with Paul Bocuse one night, then down a Tecate tallboy with the burrito guy around the corner the next. He walked the streets and back alleys in places most of us will never see. And he did it with grace and gravitas. When Anthony Bourdain left this world, we were collectively heartbroken.
Today is Bourdain Day. Instead of marking Anthony Bourdain’s death on June 8th, his best friends, Eric Ripert and José Andrés, are calling on us to remember the chef today, on what would be his 63rd birthday. Rather than dwelling on how darkness overcame our entangled idol, we should celebrate the bright glow of his life “by cheering to Tony anywhere you want, with anyone you want.”
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But it’s hard. We still miss Anthony Bourdain. We could always count on a great end to a late weekend night by catching Parts Unknown and dreaming we were on the other side of his table in a Vietnamese roadside stall, laughing with him over shots of Jameson while munching on cobra heart.
Bourdain was my hero. In his adventures, I saw everything I wanted to be: a punk rock loser who got his chance. For me, he was the patron saint. I worked in bars, I’m a writer, and I, too, love the Ramones. His death wrecked me. For someone I’d never met, I was so sure we would have met and he’d dub me a friend and we’d go on a Jameson blur together. Sadly, that didn’t happen.
Anthony Bourdain revealed the complexity in all of us, the stories behind anonymous places, and he did it by obsessively exploring our connections with food. It didn’t matter if he was sitting cross-legged at a dinner in Iran or trading barbs with Ted Nugent, he made even the most maligned people and places seem reachable. He taught us that maybe if you kept crazy Uncle Ted to strictly rock and roll stories, he might not be so bad to have a burger with.
While visiting West Virginia, Bourdain didn’t do the opioid roundtable with a concerned look, an approving nod while the locals cried. Instead, he showcased that real people are making the best of a pretty terrible situation that’s more complex than “if you don’t like it, then move somewhere better.”
In 2015, Vice reported on an extensive study conducted by scientists at Southern Medical University in Guangzhou, China, concluding that high-stress jobs offering low levels of control were markedly more stressful than neurosurgery. Researchers found that servers “have a 22 percent higher risk of stroke on average than those with low stress jobs” and that service industry folks “may also be pushed to drink and smoke — not great activities for avoiding heart problems, or indeed mental health issues.”
Without Kitchen Confidential taking off like it did, who knows where Bourdain would be now. For years, he slogged away in sweltering kitchens, knowing he was a working chef, not the guy who’d get his name on the door. He lived the darkness that plagues the service industry and wrote about that world in Kitchen Confidential — the memoir that changed an industry.
If you’ve ever worked in a bar or restaurant, then you know how hard people go, how the pressure cooker to be perfect every time overtakes even the best people. Most kitchens and bars are staffed with misfit toys who live and die by the night, who are always on their feet and are always ready for that after-shift PBR. Just like Bourdain.
Today, I’m gonna get a few drinks and raise them in his honor. I’m gonna lay down 25% or better and hope that he sees that donation to the food service arts, wherever he is.
Robert Dean is a writer, journalist, and cynic. He lives in Austin and loves ice cream and koalas.
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