Somebody gave me a copy of Kitchen Confidential shortly after I graduated from college; I wish I remembered who. I mostly subsisted on Trader Joe’s frozen meals back then, and I’m almost certain I had never heard of Anthony Bourdain.
I got the book the same year I started to become aware of the burden women shoulder at work, the same year I found out a male colleague who started on the same day I did made significantly more money than me, the same year a colleague sexually harassed me and made me realize those times I was uncomfortable in my retail jobs in high school were sexual harassment too. And so while I devoured Kitchen Confidential, read it in one sitting while lounging on the first piece of grown-up furniture I ever owned, I also assumed the writer must be a misogynist asshole.
He described food with the kind of sexual metaphors only a straight man would ever dream of. He described kitchen culture with passages like: “Suck my dick” means “Hang on a second” or “Could you please wait a moment?” And “Get your shit together with your fucking meez or I come back there and fuck you in the culo” means “Pardon me, comrade, but I am concerned with your state of readiness for the coming rush.” As a young writer, I envied the way Bourdain’s sentences transported me to his kitchen. As a young woman, I hated what I saw as just another brash bad boy getting famous by alienating young women.
But then one night I was sitting on that same first piece of grown-up furniture flipping channels, and I landed on a marathon of No Reservations. I hadn’t heard of the show either, but there he was being fed by a grandmother in Uzbekistan and treating her like she was the celebrity. I think I binged six or seven episodes that night; almost every one had a part where Bourdain seemed awe-struck by a mother or a grandmother or a 20-something woman just starting her culinary career. In one episode filmed in Polynesia, he ate with a group of rae-rae, a local name for genderqueer individuals. He didn’t exotify them or condescend to them, he just listened to them and shared a meal. He fully acknowledged that cooking was relegated to women when it was seen as scut work, then bestowed wealth and fame overwhelmingly on men. And episode by episode, interview by interview, he worked to change that.
A decade after I first read Kitchen Confidential, I’m now an unabashed Bourdain fan who has seen every episode of his shows and read nearly every word he wrote. He inspired me to get seriously into cooking as a form of exploring cultures, and to travel in a more thoughtful way. I admired him for his writing and his thinking, but also for his ability—almost unheard of among 21st-century men—to maintain his bad-boy image without tipping over into sexism. On multiple occasions, I converted female friends who had made the same reasonable guess I had about how this swaggering celebrity from a deeply sexist industry viewed women.
I didn’t love everything Bourdain did; occasionally the camera lingered a little too long on the breasts of a beautiful woman on a beach or he made a comment that came off slightly creepy. And parts of his book still make me uncomfortable. But over the past year or so, he started to talk about how they make him uncomfortable too. “And because I was a guy in a guy’s world who had celebrated a system—I was very proud of the fact that I had endured that, that I found myself in this very old, very, frankly, phallocentric, very oppressive system and I was proud of myself for surviving it,” he told Slate last year.
He acknowledged that his self-reflection was prompted by his girlfriend, Asia Argento, coming forward about Harvey Weinstein raping her. But even that didn’t come off as “As the partner of a woman” smarm. He just saw what was wrong, thought about his own role in it, and did his best to make amends. “Right now, nothing else matters but women’s stories,” he wrote in a gut-punch of a Medium essay in December. That such a seemingly obvious line from a male celebrity feels so extraordinary is dismaying; that Bourdain was willing to scream it just as loudly as he once told sous chefs to suck his dick gives me hope.
These are hard days to be a woman, a person of color, a disabled or trans or queer person. It’s easy to feel like there are no allies left. These also are hard days to be a straight cis able-bodied white man supporting loved ones who have been victimized because they are not that. Anthony Bourdain told that first group that they matter and that second group that they have to speak up—and, crucially, to do it without making it about them. If we are going to fix what sometimes feels like an unfixable culture, it’s going to be because a growing number of privileged, powerful people take his advice.