Searching for Tony
Today marks the first inaugural Bourdain Day. Anthony Bourdain’s birthday was June 25th, and his longtime friends, Eric Ripert and José Andrés are “calling on everyone, anyone, to raise a glass of beer, wine, or perhaps bone marrow sucked from a straw in a Singapore marketplace, Bourdain style — and toast to the man on what would be his 63rd birthday.”
Because of this, I’ve decided to finally post something that I’ve been working on for a long time. I’ve been trying to find the right words for over a year now. I tried to have something written a few days after he passed, I tried again to have something ready for the one-year anniversary of his passing, but those days came and went and I still was never satisfied with what I wrote. Nothing has really ever stuck. I’m not sure if this really ‘sticks’ either, but it’ll have to do for now.
When I woke up on June 8th of last year, the first thing I saw when I grabbed my phone was the news. Anthony Bourdain, chef and informal anthropologist to the world, was no longer with us. Normally, I don’t get too shook up about celebrity deaths, and at first, this didn’t seem to be an exception. I recognized it as a pretty big loss, especially after reading a brief summary of the circumstances, but otherwise, I got on with my day. As the hours passed, however, the gravity and true weight of the loss really started to sink in. By the end of the day, I was pretty torn up about it. I don’t think I’ve really stopped being torn up about it, either.
The thing is, I would be lying if I said I was a huge Anthony Bourdain fan before that day. I had a healthy amount of respect for the man, sure. As someone afflicted with a persistent case of itchy feet, his life seemed like somewhat of an ultimate aspiration, something that we wish we could all do at some point: see some of the most out-of-the-way corners of the world, hear the stories of those who live there, and eat their delicious food. But, aside from occasionally stumbling across a few episodes of his show now and again, I didn’t know a whole lot about him besides that he used to be a chef and was kind of a dick, albeit in a good-natured way. In other words, I really couldn’t figure out why I was having such a reaction to the news of his passing. It was something I just couldn’t shake from my mind. I decided that I was going to learn about who this man really was.
I felt like I was in somewhat of a unique position. A lot of people that I’ve encountered who were huge fans of Bourdain, whether in person or online, haven’t been able to go back and watch his shows or read what he wrote. It simply still hurts too much. For me, however, I found myself with no other choice but to dive headfirst into the deep end. It was the only option I had if I really wanted to get to know Anthony Bourdain. I set off with the task of absorbing every bit of his work that I could come across. I wasn’t sure what my exact goal was, or even what the endpoint of this search might be, and here, over a year later, I don’t think I could tell you now.
Regardless, I took the plunge. I ordered bargain-bin, dog-eared copies of Kitchen Confidential and Medium Raw, because that seemed to be the most appropriate way to consume them. I started watching Parts Unknown and No Reservations from the beginning. I even found a link where I could stream grainy old episodes of A Cook’s Tour, his first foray into television. When I dug up old show notes stashed away on his old Medium and Tumblr accounts, I scrolled to the beginning and read every single post. I read tens of thousands of words and watched dozens of hours of his shows. I watched the lines grow more set on his face as the years passed and he grew older in what was just the span of a few weeks to me. I watched him change, even if subtly, over the years. After consuming all of this content, I developed a pretty good sense of what made Tony into the force that he became. There’s a certain voice that’s unmistakably his You notice it as soon as you start reading anything that he’s put out there, as soon as you start watching something that was produced under his careful artistic supervision.
However, with any other goal that’s as intangible as this one, the more I watched, the more I read, the more I consumed, the farther away I seemed to get from what I was trying to reach. Sure, I could easily point out something that he created, I could recognize the cultural footprint that he left behind in the food, travel, and writing worlds in any multitude of places. Despite all this, I still can’t say that I’ve gotten any closer to knowing, really truly knowing, who this guy was. I can recite his work history verbatim, the rocky road that he took to get to where he ended up being known half a world over, from college dropout to chef, to addict, to recovery, and finally to globetrotting raconteur. In some strange way, though, he still feels like some sort of figment of the imagination. Of course, he was real, but at the same time, it's hard to believe that someone like that actually existed, that someone with such a creative legacy could have been sharing a planet the planet at the same time as you, and before you know it, they’re gone just like that. All that’s left for us is to pick up what they’ve left behind try to do the work of quantifying just exactly what their impact was, what their life meant, and what it means now that they’re gone. What they would have wanted us to do, how we can best live our lives to honor their memory, and to try to keep the lessons that they taught us at the front of our minds. All of this together feels like an impossible task, but its something that we ought to at least try.
I don’t think that I’m any closer now to really knowing who Anthony Bourdain was, or realizing the true gravity of what the world lost when I first set out on this journey a little over a year ago. Just like going forth to travel the world in the hopes that you might find some kind of answer to life’s big questions, the answers, if you do find them, probably aren’t going to be where you expect them to be. What you can find, though, is a whole lot of beauty, enough to convince even a former hardline pessimist like myself that there really is good out there, that people are, by nature, good, and that most of us are just trying as best we can to get by and make it through to the next day, and maybe find a reason or two to smile along the way. I’m not any closer to finding Tony, but if this is the alternative, I think that it’s good enough. I can’t speak for the man himself, but I’m inclined to think that he’d agree.
So today, or sometime soon, cook something delicious, share a table either with those you care about, or someone you don’t know that well at all. I have, and will continue, to search for Tony in spaces far and wide, in parts known and unknown. However, I don’t think that you can get any closer to the spirit of what the man embodied than you are in moments like that. Don’t forget to raise a drink, either. It’s what he would have wanted.
Happy Bourdain Day.
*I don’t really consider this to be a finished piece. There’s still a certain element that I feel like it's missing. However, I held myself to a deadline and I’m making sure that I see it through. Maybe I’ll come back and update it someday. Regardless, I’m including the links to some of what I consider to be the best articles on Anthony Bourdain, so maybe you too can fulfill some part of your own personal search for Tony.
“Anthony Bourdain’s Moveable Feast” Probably the most complete, and well-written article taking a look at Tony’s life and impact: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/02/13/anthony-bourdains-moveable-feast
“The Last Curious Man” An incredibly moving piece about Anthony Bourdain as he was seen by those closest to him: https://www.gq.com/story/anthony-bourdain-men-of-the-year-tribute