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Reflections on Anthony Bourdain and his demise

Posted by cmh gourmand on June 8, 2019

June offers several of memorable dates for me. My dad died on Fathers Day while I was talking to him on the phone. He was in a country far away and there was nothing I could do about it. It was not how I wanted him to go and at the time, in his mind, he was still just one winning lottery ticket away from changing his life. In my mind I needed to refine a covert operation and deliver another big bribe save him. I will never forget that day.

My beloved CMH Tobias died on June 25th, 2018. It was my choice to pick the time and the day of his demise, that did not make it any easier. I knew his time was coming but I wanted it not to be my birthday and I wanted it to not be be Father’s Day. He held on long enough to get me past those days but more importantly, I gave me his company for one more of each.

Anthony Bourdain died on June 8th 2018. June 8th is my birthday, a date I never willingly admit to or share with anyone. I have often fled the country to avoid conversations about or observances of, said date. It is a day I go to lengths to try to live unobserved and avoid being “bothered”. When I woke up on my birthday in 2018 the first words I heard were….”Anthony Bourdain killed himself”. For many, many reasons, I will never forget the date of his death. On the flip side, it certainly took some attention away from me, which is always my goal. Thanks for the favor Tony but you took it too far. June seems to be the month for my own personal ides of March more often than March, et tu, fate?

To the best of my knowledge, no tell all book has been written yet, dissecting his life and presenting a theory of what caused him to kill himself: was it a shattering relationship; the burden of success; doing too much and too often for too long; did he drift back into drugs; did he just have a really shitty day? Again we will never know. I can’t speak for every person that has ever killed themselves nor can they, but I can say, at least observationally, no one ends their life for one reason. Most often it is an accumulation of bad things. Or it can an accidental pushing too far on a bad idea or their brain literally turned on them at the wrong moment, maybe even for split second. It could be he changed any meds he was on and the meds turns on his neurochemistry like a hairpin turn. It happens more often that we are told – listen to the disclaimers on pharmaceutical ads on TV Don’t try to understand it. If you have been lucky enough to be sane all of the time, you will never be able to understand what a misfiring brain feels like or the loss of logic and reason it creates.

When Bourdain died he was in France, one of his favorite places, with some of his favorite people, eating some of his favorite foods and truly on top of his game with Parts Unknown. And then, he killed himself. What unknown part(s) of him took him to that dark place so quickly and destructively? We will never know and he probably did not know even up until the very last seconds that he would take himself that far into the darkness.

Reflections on mental illness: If you are smart, creative and have a “heavy heart” the ways of the world will chew you up. You can be surrounded by people yet feel isolated and alone because few if any, even those in your current circle can see the world as you do. And most often not one of that circle can comprehend seeing it through the same lens. We can live similar lives but not the same life so the combination of DNA, life experiences, luck or lack thereof, privilege or lack thereof, etc., can not be replicated well enough for one person to understand another person’s life or how their brain has processed it. Explaining mental illness to someone who has not experienced it is like speaking in two unrelated languages or for a sighted person trying to decipher braille without a guidebook. It is a recipe for frustration on both sides of the conversation. Everyone has bad days, sometimes people feel down in the dumps but most do not understand hardcore, bona fide depression. Bourdain once mentioned that if he was not doing what he was doing he would probably have been a good air traffic controller – my intuition is that his mind was attuned to seeing many things coming at him at the same time and the interconnections between things. That is a great skill for a chef. However when your brain is wired this way, you can see the infinite possibilities…you also start to see the infinite challenges, and then the infinite problems and finally infinite barriers….and it can spiral from there. Even a great air traffic controller can have a day with one plane too many or too few that throws everything out of synch, starting an unrecoverable spiral. When all the dominos fall at once you can’t stop it. That may have been what happened to Bourdain, some random thing took his brain from 100 mph to 666 mph in a flash and he could not stop it, or he did, but too quickly.

What should we remember about Anthony Bourdain one year after and all of the years after today? First, that he loved his daughter. Second, anything else he did that you valued. For me, it was his book Kitchen Confidential, a refreshing voice in the world of food writing. Refreshing because it came across as authentic and genuine – a rare thing in our food celebrity culture. I think each of his shows had value but his great work was Parts Unknown which fused food with culture and personalities with a narrator’s voice that could ask questions he had not already determined the answers to before he asked them. Most food celebrities focus on themselves, or technique, or the superficial aspects of food but Bourdain saw that food was secondary to the stories and experiences of the people that create it and the passion they have to use it as a way to connect with others.

Here are some other memories. I think this article -> article from the Guardian did the best summary of Bourdain to be found out there in the cyberspace.

Here are some of his better quotes:


It’s a lethal error to always critically evaluate meals. I’ve certainly learnt to take food less seriously and try whenever possible to experience it emotionally rather than as a professional or critic. I like nothing more than seeing my daughter Ariane eating and liking food.

When you’ve seen what I’ve seen on a regular basis it changes your world view. I’ve spent such a lot of time in the developing world, I was caught in a war in Beirut, been in Liberia, the Congo, Iraq and Libya and realised how fast things can get bad, how arbitrary good fortune and cruelty and death. I suppose I’ve learnt humility. Or something.

The great Warren Zevon was asked, close to death, whether he had any important words of wisdom to pass on and he said, “Enjoy every sandwich.” I definitely enjoy my sandwiches, given how low I fell and how likely it was that there was going to be a different and tragic outcome. I’m a pretty lucky man. I enjoy my food and presenting Parts Unknown. I have the best job in the world.


This is the Best of the Best of lists:

And this is something I was not aware of but found to be fascinating, his special connection to -> Cajun country,

Reading through scores of articles and information after his passing, I came across an obscure source where he listed his favorite Paris picks. I think he would want others to have them as a reference. I am lucky to have willed myself to travel the world extensively (but not to the Bourdain level which was my ideal). One of the final fifteen places on my bucket list is Paris. If I make it to “la Ville Lumière” I will think of him as I experience a few of his favorite foods there.

La Comptoire

LAvant Comptoire (next door)

Le Dome – shell fish tower

Rue Mouffetard (markets)

sandwiche Jambon

As a final consideration, what Bourdain understood or at least figured out later in his career, is that food is not the most important thing. Food is a bridge to conversation – we all have to eat and most of us have a passion, at least at some level, about at least one type of food. As a bridge to conversation, food gives us a commonality with the person on the other side of the table. This can open up the possibility of a conversation, a friendship or even a better, an understanding of a person, community or culture. This is what Bourdain used food for in Parts Unknown and that is a lesson about food few people learn in their lifetime.

R.I.P. Anthony Bourdain, may you know a peace in your passing that you could not sustain in your life.

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2 Responses to “Reflections on Anthony Bourdain and his demise”

  1. Janice said

    Thank you so much for your beautiful reflections. I think about Anthony Bourdain a lot. After his death, I again watched his Parts Unknown episodes. At first I watched them thinking that I just didn’t understand–he was seeing so many amazing things few of us will ever lay eyes on, and meeting so many different people and hearing their stories. How had it come to this? (The episodes with him and Eric Ripert were especially excruciating. Watching their playful, deep friendship gave me so much joy but then the thought that Eric had been the one to find him after his suicide … “Bittersweet” does not begin to cover the mix of strong and conflicting feelings.)

    But as I continued watching, especially in the later seasons, I began to see it differently. Having spent a lot of years battling depression myself, I can understand how experiencing great things and meeting people who love their lives can leave you with a strange mix of feelings–happy for them, grateful to know them, and at the same time profoundly aware that you just aren’t feeling the same connection with the world. I noticed things he said bits and pieces about how fortunate he was, yet not managing to be happy, especially in the Buenos Aires episode. (I am very much paraphrasing; I didn’t write down his exact words. But they stopped me in my tracks, because he was speaking to something very painful.) Still, I will remember him far more for the openness and curiosity with which he approached new places and people and their foods and cultures.

    Anyway, thank you again, and may your birthday and the rest of June land gently for you.

    • Thanks for your comments. Your observations on the Buenos Aires episode are astute. Buenos Aires is one of my remaining bucket list travels so I will be using that episode as a guide when I make it there some day.

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