Anthony Bourdain Died (And There’s Something I Need to Say)

By Alan Wittenberg  


One of my heroes died today.  I know, because I woke up to half a dozen notifications on my phone telling me so.  Not from news sites or any, but from friends. Friends who were checking in to see if I was okay. I’m not, but I don’t think that should surprise anyone.  I went to culinary school because of Anthony Bourdain.  I fell in love with cultures I had never met, and places I had never traveled, and food I’ll probably never eat. I read his books, I watched his shows, I followed him on Twitter…I was, as the kids say: a fanboy.  I’ve joked with my friends that I wanted to be him when I never got around to growing up….and I probably still will. Though, that might be a while.

bourdain_food_waste.0I’ve spent very little time on social media today, because most of it is either some new horror wrought by the American kleptocracy against the world or its citizens (which I’m already pretty sick of) or it’s friends and colleagues and chefs I respect talking about Tony….which I’m not sick of, but I’m also not in a mindset to read.  I skimmed the CNN article that was on top of my news feed when I woke up this morning but stopped being able to focus after a minute or two.  I’ve seen words from my own cook and chef friends, I’ve seen articles from Munchies and AP and BonAppetit and all the other predictable media outlets.  I’ve seen chefs like Thomas Keller and Geoffrey Zakarian and Eric Rippert talk about who he was to them, and they all actually knew him.

Tony Bourdain was unique among famous chefs, if for no other reason that it wasn’t food that made him famous. He was as much a culinarian as he was a journalist, and a Gonzo journalist at that (we’ll get to Hunter in a sec), telling the story of what he saw and learned and what happened around him as he traveled the world.  Someone’s post said something to the effect of “…[Bourdain] spent his time trying to convince Americans to be LESS afraid of other cultures…” and if that isn’t a Sisyphean task, I don’t know what is. He also loudly and repeatedly called out toxicity in food and culture; whether that was stupid outdated kitchen “traditions,” abuse and harassment in the cooking industry, and spoke out when that abuse and harassment was by folks he knew. I genuinely believe he tried to make the world kinder, more considerate, less angry, more curious, and less xenophobic.

anthony-bourdain-8.jpgI’m sitting here on the same verge of tears I’ve been on pretty much since I woke up.  I flipped through his cookbook thinking about making something out of it for dinner tonight…but I don’t really feel like it right now.  I’m sure I will, and I DO want to cook, but I don’t think that’s the book to cook out of right now.  This is the part where the discussion veers toward mental health, and I won’t begrudge it if you check out and get back to your day now.

Bourdain was depressed, and if a guy with a wife and daughter he loved as much as he effusively said, with literally the best job in the world, who undeniably earned his success, who overcame addictions, and who had Eric freakin’ Rippert for a best friend…if he can be depressed, anyone can be depressed. Robin Williams, Kate Spade, Homaru Cantu, Hunter S. Thompson… (yeah, I said we’d come back) Tony’s suicide reminds me a lot of Hunter’s, in part because they both mentioned, often in supposed sarcasm, that suicide was their retirement plan.  It’s the kind of thing you totally saw coming, and yet totally didn’t think would ever actually happen. It’s the bad joke that gets made just a little too often, in a little too flat a tone.  It’s everywhere right now.

Suicide rates are up in every state except Nevada, and they’re up by about 30%.  Thirty percent!!! That’s unbelievable…except it isn’t.  It isn’t because if you look at the details of those rates, the majority of people committing suicide aren’t wealthy famous white males, they’re working class men and women, many of them people of color or queer folks, and many of them with families.

If someone with all of the success and privilege that Bourdain had can’t handle life, how can we expect the already oppressed and down-trodden to do it.  There’s no glory in poverty.  There’s no nobility in struggle.  There’s no feeling of satisfaction and success when you go to bed every night to do the same thing the next day with no hope of ever getting ahead and no time to do anything to improve your standing.  I’m (just now) deciding not to get more political than that, because I don’t want to have that discussion in this context….and because, I assure you, you don’t want that either.

So, I’ll end by saying this: be kind to each other…no, kinder than that.  Yes, to everyone.  YES, especially if they aren’t like you.  In fact, the less like you someone is, the kinder you should be to them.  BUT, don’t let people get away with cruelty or dehumanization.  Love those who aren’t like you and insist that those who are like you do the same.  Demand better from the world, and then work your ass off to meet that demand.

I’m just about finished, but there is one more thing I want to mention.  For all the craziness in himself and his world, Anthony Bourdain was ALWAYS humble, always.  He downplayed his culinary successes, he acknowledged the improbability of his circumstances, and he knew that he always had more to learn.  There’s a lot of lessons we can take from Bourdain’s life and his death, and I think if we truly want to honor him we should consider both, and in that I’ll leave you with a Hunter S. Thompson quote that I think Tony would have appreciated:

“Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well-preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn and loudly proclaiming ‘Wow, what a ride!’”


If you or anyone you know is considering ending your life,

there is help and resources out there for you.

Visit the National Suicide Prevention website or call the Suicide Prevention Hotline:



You can follow Alan on Twitter.

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