Remembering Anthony Bourdain, My Favorite Storyteller
There have been countless articles written about chef, writer, and self-proclaimed “enthusiast” Anthony Bourdain since the news of his death was announced on Friday morning, June 8th. While the news has no doubt been devastating, I’ve been trying — and I mean really, really trying — to find some kind of silver lining to this dark and heavy cloud.
Let me start by saying I’ve never met Anthony Bourdain. I’ve never attended one of his live events (and I am officially slain because he was here at TPAC in 2015 for his “Close To The Bone” tour and I can’t f***ing believe I didn’t buy a ticket); I’ve never been so lucky as to spot him on the street or in a restaurant; and although I knew he was in Nashville filming Parts Unknown about a year ago, (which was before I was working with Strategic Hospitality...and he filmed at three of our spots, dammit!) I was unsuccessful in finding out his real-time locations and “accidentally” bumping into him. I mean, of course he was at Dino’s...
Regardless of my lack of interpersonal interaction with him, I cried when I learned the news. I cried when I was driving home from the gym and first saw the New York Times alert pop up on my phone; I cried when I read the endless posts on social media and while also posting one myself; I cried at the beginning of a yoga class (which I was teaching, by the way) when I admitted to my students that I had been struggling with his death. Again, I didn’t know this man. But somehow I knew him.
I can clearly remember the first time I watched an episode of Parts Unknown. I had gone to the beach in South Carolina with a group of friends for a long weekend. A worshiper of the sun and a whore for a tan, I intelligently elected not to wear sunscreen on our first day and thus rendered myself more or less useless for the remainder of the trip. Bright red, steaming hot and filled with remorse as I was, I wasn’t so keen on hitting the sand and surf when I woke up on day two. Instead, I cranked up the AC and settled onto the couch for some good old fashioned television. One of my friends suggested I watch an episode of Parts Unknown, and it was all I could do to peel myself off the couch after I pressed play. I went through the first two seasons in one and a half days.
Maybe it was his eloquent and pointed narration that drew me in — with verbose and powerful language; with plenty of seriousness and the right amount of humor; and always with a hearty dose of sarcasm and self-depreciation. Perhaps it was the content that he presented — the seemingly obscure cuisine, enjoyed with a wide range of people from diverse cultures and backgrounds, often in a far off place and sometimes closer to home than expected — that appeared so exotic and yet familiar. Or maybe it was just the theme song that played at the beginning of each episode that got me jacked up and excited to embark on a new adventure and add notes to my travel wishlist. But after thinking and marinating and rolling it around in my brain for the past few of days, I’ve realized what I felt so strongly then, and what I’m still grieving now, is the sense of connection I felt to him.
And to be honest I feel ridiculous about it. I’ve never been this emotional about the loss of someone I’ve never met. I was not his friend, I was not his colleague, and I never even had the opportunity to take a photo with him at a book-signing. He didn’t know I existed. But I was a follower and a fan, and because of that I felt allied to him.
Anthony Bourdain had a way of getting on your level. He was able to connect with people both on the screen and off. When he visited the Congo and Libya — countries that to us seem so distant and different — he had the ability to relate to these people with the same sense of ease and nonchalance that he did with the people he met in Brooklyn. He spoke with them about their lives and their hardships. He met them where they were. And then they typically shared a meal and a drink and a laugh — but the food wasn’t necessarily the point. The people were. Their stories were.
At least, that’s how it seemed to me. And based upon what everyone who actually did know him has been saying recently, that’s how it really was.
There are so many food and travel shows and most of them are bad. It’s always a challenge to try find new perspectives. I certainly don’t want to do a ‘Top 10 Spots to Eat in Nashville’ sort of Show. In fact I don’t even want to be useful to someone planning a trip to your city. I just want to tell a compelling story.
And by Jove, I think he did. He told lots of compelling stories. He wrote books where he told stories about restaurants, about his life, and about his experiences. In Parts Unknown alone, he told the stories of close to 100 different cities across the world and, more importantly, told the stories of the people who populate them. He got to know people, he got to know places, he shared their stories, and in doing so he made connections with people all over the world.
And that is what I’ve found to be the silver lining: that he had the opportunity to be a part of so many people’s lives...and in essence, I have too. My horizons have been broadened and my eyes have been opened, and now I’m ready to flop back down on the couch and do it all over again.
Anthony Bourdain, you were long one of my favorites and you will not soon be forgotten.