No One Lived Like Anthony Bourdain. But All Hope to Write Like Him.
“My advice is, do not try to inhabit another’s soul. You have your own.”
—Jim Harrison, from “A Part of My History”
As news spread Friday that Anthony Bourdain had taken his own life in France—the country where his family had roots, the country where in his childhood he had slurped down a raw oyster that would define the course of his life—a friend of mine from college posted the following thought on Facebook: “The next time you think ‘I would love to have that person’s life,’ realize you only see the surface.”
Bourdain’s life was the one we all wanted. Life—life itself—was what he embodied, emboldened, emblazoned across every book he wrote and TV episode he generated, which is why his final act, his negation of life itself, seemed so preposterous to contemplate. Following the breakthrough publication of Kitchen Confidential in 2000 (an instant classic, his Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, his Down and Out in Paris and London, but with more salmonella-laced eggs benedict), Bourdain took to the road and converted the fustiest of genres—travel writing, often the province of lazy graying British deadliners taking a final victory lap around the track—into a global gonzo marathon of appetite and adventure, beautiful bites and ugly truths, the coolest beat of all.
The way Bourdain lived appeared to represent the purest fulfillment of “carpe diem.” He was a former drug addict and stovetop misfit who wound up chomping down bun cha with Barack Obama in Hanoi. He went everywhere. He ate everything. Consider this list of some of the recent episodes of Parts Unknown: Budapest, Madagascar, Manila, Tbilisi, Senegal, Buenos Aires, Hanoi, Nashville, Houston, London, Rome. That’s just the tip of the iceberg, and by the way, he went to the iceberg, too.
"If I'm an advocate for anything,” Bourdain was quoted as saying, “it's to move. As far as you can, as much as you can. Across the ocean, or simply across the river. Walk in someone else's shoes or at least eat their food. It's a plus for everybody."
Sometimes you move because you want to go somewhere; sometimes you move because you want to get away from something. I met Bourdain numerous times. I had lunch with him once. But I would feel like a cresting, foaming geyser of bullshit if I were to try to pretend, here, that I somehow knew the guy or had any proprietary insight into his twisted, beautiful soul—especially now that the phrase “parts unknown” has taken on a dark undercurrent of significance.
I vividly remember the first time I ever spoke with him. This was in 2003 or 2004 and I was writing a forgettable essay for Details magazine about lunch—about how to make your lunch something life-affirming, instead of succumbing to a sad turkey sandwich at your desk. Bourdain loved this topic and got on the phone with me about 10 minutes after I had put in my request, even though he was on vacation somewhere in the Caribbean. And 10 minutes after that, thanks to his downed-power-line wit, Bourdain had delivered into my recording device some of the most insightful, vulgar, hilarious, incandescent quotes I had ever scored for a piece. He did it off the cuff. There was no pause, no groping around for a phrase. Chop chop chop—his mind was as fast and sharp as his knife work.
We recently lost two lions of American letters, Philip Roth and Tom Wolfe. Although a few academics might clutch their pearls at the mere suggestion of this, over the last decade or so Anthony Bourdain was as influential as Roth and Wolfe ever were, as a prose stylist. Consider these lines of his from Kitchen Confidential about the briny gulp that changed his consciousness:
My little brother recoiled in horror.
But I, in the proudest moment of my young life, stood up smartly, grinning with defiance, and volunteered to be the first.
And in that unforgettably sweet moment in my personal history, that one moment still more alive for me than so many of the other "firsts" that followed—first pussy, first joint, first day in high school, first published book or any other thing—I attained glory. Monsieur Saint-Jour beckoned me over to the gunwale, where he leaned over, reached down until his head nearly disappeared underwater and emerged holding a single silt-encrusted oyster, huge and irregularly shaped, in his rough, clawlike fist. With a snubby, rust-covered oyster knife, he popped the thing open and handed it to me, everyone watching now, my little brother shrinking away from this glistening, vaguely sexual-looking object, still dripping and nearly alive.
I took it in my hand, tilted the shell back into my mouth as instructed by the by now beaming Monsieur Saint-Jour and with one bite and a slurp, wolfed it down. It tasted of seawater . . . of brine and flesh . . . and, somehow . . . of the future.
Everything was different now. Everything.
People often insisted on categorizing Bourdain as a chef, but I always thought that was weird. By his own admission the man was a mediocre chef. What Bourdain excelled at was writing. Through force of will and talent and charm and sweat and hunger, Bourdain became the preeminent food and travel writer of his age. His rise coincided with the moment in American culture when chefs suddenly became far more interesting (more authentic, less manicured, more voluble, less manipulative—or so we thought) than movie stars or musicians. Bourdain became the anointed bard of that moment, like Hunter S. Thompson on the campaign trail in 1972 or Pauline Kael covering revolutionary films in the '60s and '70s.
Thanks to bizarre luck (and probably the freshly machete’d career path that Bourdain himself had blazed for so many of us), I’ve been able to take a handful of similar trips over the years: to Italy to meet Massimo Bottura, around Mexico with René Redzepi, to South Korea to learn from Buddhist nun Jeong Kwan. It invariably happens that whenever I describe these trips to another person—my seatmate on a plane, the person sitting across from me at a dinner party—they will say, “Aha. So you’re like Anthony Bourdain!”
THROUGH FORCE OF WILL AND TALENT AND CHARM AND SWEAT AND HUNGER, BOURDAIN BECAME THE PREEMINENT FOOD AND TRAVEL WRITER OF HIS AGE.
Oh, no. Not even close. No one was like Anthony Bourdain. No one else could write like him—that voice, the unforgettable sound of it, the seen-it-all Jersey Turnpike tones flecked with shards of punk rock and cigarettes and chili dogs and Apocalypse Now. My friend the photographer Melanie Dunea captured a famous (nay, notorious) image of Bourdain for her 2007 book My Last Supper: 50 Great Chefs and Their Final Meals. He posed naked with nothing but a massive bone that he held in front of his private parts.
It’s haunting to look, now, at what he wrote in .
Q: What would be your last meal on Earth?
A: Roast bone marrow with parsley and caper salad, with a few toasted slices of baguette and some good sea salt.
Q: Who would be your dining companions?
A: Given that I’m ostensibly facing imminent death, I’d probably prefer being alone.
Bourdain also composed the introduction to My Last Supper. I am leafing through the book now and just noticed this: “And yet, when we ask ourselves and each other the question, what—if strapped to a chair, facing a fatal surge of electricity—would we want as that last taste of life, we seem to crave reminders of simpler, harder times. A crust of bread and butter. A duck confited in a broken home. Poor-people food. The food of the impoverished but (only in the abstract) the relatively carefree.”
Simpler, harder times. The man traveled everywhere in the world, but the episode of Parts Unknown that sticks with me is the New Jersey one, the one in which Mr. Carpe Diem headed back home to the Garden State, “the enchanted land of my childhood, a cultural petri dish from which regularly issues forth greatness.”
His first stop? Hiram’s, a hot dog spot in Fort Lee that’d stayed open since 1932—a place he used to visit with his brother and their father.
“My happy place,” he said, surveying a feast of chili dogs and beer and french fries with toothpicks. “I come here to feed my soul . . . the antidote to every other place.”
As a storyteller, Anthony Bourdain showed us parts of the world that most of us will never get a chance to visit. But it seems there were still many places that we missed.
This story originally appeared on Esquire.com.
* Minor edits have been made by the Esquiremag.ph editors.