I have never watched Parts Unknown, never eaten at New York’s Brasserie Les Halles, never read Kitchen Confidential, yet I’m a huge fan of Anthony Bourdain. I first heard of him on NPR’s Fresh Air. When Terry Gross introduced him as a chef, I reached for my radio to change the station.
“Anthony Bourdain, welcome to Fresh Air…”
I know the foodie movement is a thing out there in the real world, but here in the land of starch-grenades and watered-down pudding, the culinary craze never caught fire. I had better things to do than waste Duracell juice on some Yankee pontificating on the subtle art of five-star cuisine.
Then he began to speak … and I knew I wasn’t going anywhere.
Dude was a natural-born storyteller. For the length of the interview, I was transported from my tiny prison cell in the Florida Panhandle to a bustling New York City kitchen, to a raft in the Mekong Delta, through jungles, across deserts, over mountains and beyond. To some of the most remote locations on the globe. To parts unknown.
Despite the diametrically polar trajectories of our lives, it became clear as I listened that Mr. Bourdain was a kindred spirit. This seems strange to say about a guy who’s eaten lamb nuts, wart hog rectum, and raw seal eyeball (especially considering that my soft ass won’t even eat an onion). Maybe it was his early struggles with hard drugs. Or the fact that he made more than his share of horrible choices as a younger man. If nothing else, we most definitely shared in the transformative power of the written word. For him, it meant a springboard to fortune and fame; for me, an identity other than career criminal. By the end of the interview, I was a fan.
When I saw his picture for the first time earlier this year in a Men’s Health magazine, he looked exactly as I’d imagined — tall (six-foot-four), tattoos, head full of gray hair, and a craggy, lined, lived-in face. The article was about him taking up Brazilian jiu-jitsu. Check out this quote: “Look, I’m 61 years old. I have limited expectations of how I’ll do, but every once in a while, I get to feel the will to live drain out of a 22-year-old wrestler.”
Back to Fresh Air. I’ve listened to well over a thousand Terry Gross interviews during this prison bid. Musicians, rappers, actors, writers, athletes, activists, comedians, politicians, news correspondents, and other interesting people from all walks of life. Strange that my all-time favorite would be a celebrity chef. But it is. So I was pumped when NPR rebroadcast it a few weeks ago. I settled back on my bunk with a cup of coffee, ready to spend an hour with old friends… until they cut to break and Dave Davies explained that they were re-airing the interview because Anthony Bourdain had been found unresponsive in a Paris hotel room that morning, his death ruled a suicide. Just as I had been introduced to his life via Fresh Air, I was now being informed of his departure through the same program. Talk about full circle.
Mr. Bourdain was obviously a seeker, same as all of us. He overturned stones through art, food, travel, chemicals, relationships, and even jiu-jitsu along the journey. But what exactly was he seeking? What are any of us seeking? Meaning. Gratification. Connectivity. Belonging. That unnamed and ever-beckoning “it.”
I know many will judge him strictly on the nature of his passing. But the span of a human life is much too complex to be defined by a single instance. Though his suicide was heartbreaking, it was still a single instance, the final instance of a pretty spectacular life.
I continue to be inspired by him.