RIP Anthony Bourdain, 1956-2018
Anthony Bourdain, who died today of an apparent suicide, embodied a visceral curiosity far too absent in much of American culture. Bourdain took his readers and viewers into strange places and showed them that those places weren’t really that strange because, after all, the people there turned out to be human too. This strand of humanism sometimes evinced with bitter notes in Bourdain’s presentation, but ultimately there was a deep love for the human potential throbbing underneath everything the man did. His resolutely-cool persona never seemed like a put-on or an act. Even though he performed that persona with a ready naturalism in his shows, there was always a wonderful nervous edge there too, as if Bourdain was winkingly aware of the artificiality of show bizness but was confident that if he was just himself enough he could transcend that artificiality and make something real.
When I graduated college in 2001 I thought I would be a travel writer. I moved to Japan and did the English teacher thing and then I did the backpack around Thailand thing. Then I ran out of money. At some point in there, I read Kitchen Confidential, Bourdain’s 2000 behind-the-scenes look at the New York restaurant scene; I’d later listen to the audiobook a few times, read by Bourdain himself. Bourdain’s first show A Cook’s Tour became a favorite—particularly the episodes in Japan and Vietnam—and I watched his second show No Reservations when I could. By the time the oughties were over and Bourdain was doing The Layover and Parts Unknown, I’d settled into a nice domestic professorial life fitted out with occasional (comfortable) trips. Bourdain, meanwhile, lived the life that I had imagined for myself when I was 17, 18, 19, before I even knew who he was. I’m envious of him for that, but moreover I’m ultimately thankful that he shared what he did with all of us, and that he shared it in such a bullshit-free way. His spirit of visceral curiosity will live on.