As I’d imagine many or, who knows, maybe even most of those who admired him did, I once had the strange experience of realizing that Anthony Bourdain seemed to know a place I lived better than I did. In 2009, his No Reservations program went to Chicago, and if he didn’t get the entire city, which of course no one could do in 43 minutes, he came closer than he really should have been able to. This wasn’t so much a matter of where he went—the places he visited were no secrets, even if they weren’t all necessarily ones you’d expect to see on a food-porn show—but of what he talked about with molecular gastronomists and cased-meat enthusiasts and geneticists once he got there, and of his attempts to make sense of what tied it all together. When you live in Chicago, it can seem very much like several distinct and contiguous cities; in Bourdain’s presentation, marking off all the very real differences between, say, the avant-garde restaurant nestled in the part of the city that makes it America’s capital of design and the smoke shack set by a bridge in what may as well be Indiana, and between the people who make and eat the food in those places, were ways of describing clear and obvious commonalities that I hadn’t always seen.
Since the news broke this morning that Bourdain had died by suicide, a lot of people have written about how he lived doing all the things they wanted to do (“I wanted his life,” Drew Magary’s eulogy starts) but the more important and equally universal feeling is that of wanting to be more like him—more curious, more confident, more capable, more generous. Traveling the world eating and drinking well and making friends with seemingly everyone you come across does seem like just about the perfect life, but Bourdain’s ability to do the former was directly a function of the latter, of his willingness and desire to meet people on their terms. It’s something that would, it seems, be attainable for anyone if they were just and simply a better person. (Or, more directly, something that would be attainable for me if I were a better person.) How to be that better person is something you can spend your entire life trying to figure out; he made for a pretty good model.
Bourdain spent his life in public showing that cultural differences far more profound than the ones that mark the less and more fancy parts of Chicago obscure equally clear commonalities, and he never did it by going for any palaver about how those differences don’t matter—about how, say, the unique experiences of Iranians and Americans are just superficialities occluding the ways in which we’re all ultimately the same. The ways in which we aren’t, and in which that’s expressed in something as basic and shared as truly in common as eating, are what he sought to find out more about, especially by asking people to talk about them and listening to what they had to say. (It wasn’t an accident that he was one of the public men who most strongly supported #MeToo, and who most searchingly examined his own flaws in its wake.) What most people are most curious about is themselves; what he seemed most curious about was the way the lives and experiences of the people he met were distinct from his, and from everyone else’s. This among other things made him a journalist in a far more serious sense than just about anyone else you’d read or see on your television.
It would be easy to say that the ways in which he sought to make connections by discovering and describing distinctions was what mattered most about what he did, and in an increasingly xenophobic culture there’s little that’s more valuable, but he was, specifically and not incidentally, a cook who placed food where it belongs—at the center of good times in communion with others, not the most important thing in life in its own right but the thing around which the most important things revolve. The famous 1999 New Yorker piece that launched his celebrity was, specifically and not incidentally, about cooking and food, and it resonated the way it did because it was a startlingly vivid piece of writing that described food in the terms it should be described in, of life and death:
Good food, good eating, is all about blood and organs, cruelty and decay. It’s about sodium-loaded pork fat, stinky triple-cream cheeses, the tender thymus glands and distended livers of young animals. It’s about danger—risking the dark, bacterial forces of beef, chicken, cheese, and shellfish. Your first two hundred and seven Wellfleet oysters may transport you to a state of rapture, but your two hundred and eighth may send you to bed with the sweats, chills, and vomits.
As I’d imagine many of those who admired him did, I learned more about food from Bourdain than I did from just about anyone (I’d probably make an exception only for my grandmother), in my case mainly just by reading Kitchen Confidential over and over again when I was in my early 20s and barely knew which way to point a knife. This wasn’t a matter of following recipes or advice, but of taking him seriously about cruelty and decay and about the ways in which the anxieties of class and status that attach to food—about how to eat, and where to eat, and what you are signifying when you do so—are nothing but ways to keep yourself from enjoying life and figuring out new ways to do so.
Bourdain was no false populist—he was kind but never merely nice, which was part of what made him someone you’d want to be—and he never lost or obscured the distinction between low and high, or pretended that nearly inaccessible experiences worth having in a Michelin-starred restaurant were less valid than those you might have at a stand near a river. That was what allowed him to insist so successfully on the validity of the latter, and to demystify whole ranges of experience and do probably as much as anyone in the last 20 years to open them up to people. That wasn’t a lesser thing to have done than working to show Americans the humanity of people in parts of the world they may never have thought of. It was part of the same project.