January 16, 2019

Anthony Bourdain: The Chef Who Lost His Home

I knew something major had happened when I felt my phone start vibrating incessantly in the pocket of my apron last week. When I finally read the messages that Anthony Bourdain was dead, I was not surprised. Saddened yes, but shocked? Not in the least. 

It’s so tempting to be angry at Bourdain now, particularly for those of us who make our living by cooking. Following him on his delicious journeys, watching him being whisked to the world’s best restaurants by the greatest talents in our business was a breathtaking sight to behold. And even more exciting to us, watching him uncover the secret passages through which we could find the freshest sushi or noodles or banh mi was blissful envy. To those of us who live for food experiences, Bourdain’s final act feels like a slap in the face, or that recurring nightmare where we inadvertently give our customers food poisoning. 

How dare you be so brilliant, so talented, so admittedly grateful for your good fortune, and still have had the temerity to end it all? And in France, of all places. Why wasn’t the thought of a warm croissant from the corner patisserie, made with butter that may as well been cultured in the hands of the Gods, good enough to give you pause? Why didn’t you just ask your best friend, the gastronome extraordinaire Eric Ripert, to fry you up a duck egg omelet with shaved truffles? We know you knew it was a late truffle season in Vaucluse. That alone is surely worth living for? 

You won the lottery just by the fact that you were able to eat like an animal and stay thin, but then add to that your natural charm, your full head of gray hair that only made you impossibly cooler, your razor-sharp wit despite years of body and mind abuse, and your enchanting sense of good humor in all situations. If you couldn’t find a reason between the sake infused Tokyo ramen bar nights, the hours spent cracking crabs in Astoria, N.Y., with David Chang and the sexy romance you’ve been having with your Italian bombshell, then what chance do the rest of us have?

The photos of you downing a cold beer from the bottle with then-President Barack Obama in Vietnam, a tiny table heaving under the weight of the delicacies before you. What part of that experience and the conversation that must have gone with it didn’t fill your heart with lust for life? On top of that, we are positive that the former leader of the free world counted that meal as one of his top 10 good times — ever. 

To people outside our industry, it may seem impossible that this incredible life just wasn’t enough to keep Bourdain out of danger. It looked as if he had everything he ever could have wanted and then some. But I have a feeling he was missing something crucial to his survival.

Bourdain once wrote, “There’s us — the kitchen crew — and then there’s everybody else: the patrons, management, owners, waiters. Everybody should be so lucky as to be us. We’re the best.” 

Those of us attracted to the interesting things that happen when the sun goes down understand. The wanderers, jokesters, action junkies and troublemakers. The roller coaster riders and insatiable ones who live on immediate gratification. The ones who couldn’t cope with the fluorescent brightness of the 9-to-5 for long no matter how hard we tried but get our kicks from being immersed in a complicated tagine that requires 20 steps and as many hours. 

Those of us attracted to the interesting things that happen when the sun goes down understand. The wanderers, jokesters, action junkies and troublemakers. 

We’re the ones hiding in the kitchen who often feel alone, even in the middle of an adoring crowd. We’re keen observers but sometimes feel as if we’re watching a different species from ourselves. They look like us, we think. Why can’t we understand what they are saying? We are the ones who are told we have arrived while we’re thinking about leaving. Comfortable makes us nervous. Don’t bother telling us how great we are. We won’t believe you anyway.

Chefs, writers, actors, musicians, artists and other hedonists tend to live our lives with headphones on and the volume turned to full blast, all the while waiting for the next sound mix, flavor or experience to transport us out of a chilling sense of impending failure. It’s not that we’re paranoid, it’s just that we know that the saying “If it seems too good to be true, it probably is” was written specifically for us. 

Cook or not, a fan of his sometimes seemingly arrogant, bad-boy bravado or not, I think most people who watched Bourdain lovingly praise a grandmother’s stew in Tehran, or greedily slurped up his words, were captivated by him. Bourdain’s story has a universal message of ultimate highs and devastating lows, of failure, angst, disappointment, serendipity and redemption.  

In 1999, at the age of 44, the bored, inebriated and sleep-deprived executive chef of the New York power lunch spot Brasserie Les Halles noticed a box that housed the free paper called the New York Press on the corner outside his midtown workplace. On a lark, he went home and wrote a scathing expose of New York’s fine dining scene. He sent it into the paper, and it caught the attention of the then-Food Editor Sam Sifton. 

Although Sifton told him he loved the piece and assured him it would go to print, week after week Bourdain excitedly ran to the box, opened the paper and saw that even his attempt to make a quick $100 and give his line cooks a giggle had come to nothing. Disappointed and frustrated, he called his mother for comfort. Her solution, one that should go down in the annals of history under the heading “Stereotypical Jewish Mother Advice”: “Just send it into The New Yorker. I know somebody there will read it.” 

But sometimes, as the lucky few of us know, the unbearable level of caring in a mother’s words uttered at the right time, however off the charts absurd they may seem to pessimistic and fragile ears, are just hubris-inducing enough to cause a tectonic shift in all reason and logic. 

And so, Bourdain, figuring it was the last he would ever hear of his lame attempt at being a hero to his fry cooks, printed out his article and stuffed it into an envelope with The New Yorker’s address on it and mailed it, never expecting it to come to anything. 

A month and a half later, his kitchen phone rang. It was David Remnick, publisher of The New Yorker, who said, “We’d like to run this piece.” 

“Don’t Eat Before Reading This” went to print in The New Yorker’s April 1999 issue. The article that made half the food world stand up and take notice of Bourdain’s genius storytelling abilities made the other half rebel against his ego-shriveling admissions.

But what he brought out, the thing that his intended audience of cooks could relate to the most, was the camaraderie he’d found in the army of military combatants in what he called “the culinary underbelly.” It turns out, he told us, that many of the folks behind the world’s most expensive and storied restaurants, were graduates not of the Culinary Institute of America, but of our nation’s prison system. 

A book deal for what was to become “Kitchen Confidential” landed in his lap just two days later, and along with it an almost 20-year run as the man widely recognized as having the most enviable job on the planet.

But perhaps he paid a price for that most enviable, globe-trotting job.

Maybe, just maybe, it is the ridiculously repetitive, sometimes perverse in its sheer physicality, often glorious, intense little subculture of a kitchen that tethers us firmly to reality.  In the kitchen, there is a focus and a discipline required to do the mental gymnastics necessary to succeed in prioritizing what’s most important. On many levels, to cooks, the kitchen is home, and we need to spend a lot of time there to stay grounded. In stepping so far away from it for so long and globetrotting in the limitlessness of the outside world, maybe Anthony Bourdain forgot he was one of us.

Yamit Behar Wood, an Israeli-American food and travel writer, is the executive chef at the U.S. Embassy in Kampala, Uganda, and founder of the New York Kitchen Catering Co.