On the Death of Anthony Bourdain

“Travel isn’t always pretty. It isn’t always comfortable. Sometimes it hurts, it even breaks your heart. But that’s okay. The journey changes you; it should change you. It leaves marks on your memory, on your consciousness, on your heart, and on your body. You take something with you. Hopefully, you leave something good behind.”

 

It’s not just what Anthony Bourdain wrote that inspired me – it’s how he said it. Reading his books and articles or listening to his shows made me feel like I wanted to get out of the house and go eat, drink, do something new and worthwhile.

In fact, it was whilst watching his last show set in Cuba, and his depiction of the good, the bad and the beautiful ugly of Havana that I was moved to get out of the house, buy an engagement ring and propose to my now wife. I wanted to get life started.

Yet all the while, he’s just wanted life to end?

I’m feeling somewhat like a child being told Santa Claus doesn’t exist. I think Bourdain was the Hemingway of our time. And just like Hemingway, the apparent bon vivant, the great hedonist and traveller, Bourdain ended up doing himself in.

Are the best livers of life living life so hard because they want to mask some secret pain? I’ve always thought, liked to have thought, rather, that no matter how much ills and woes life throws at you, the best thing to do is run headlong into happiness. The simple kind of happiness, the kind that you can always find around you, whatever it might be for the individual. But is it a losing battle?

Stephen Fry, another passionate broadcaster who throughout his life has suffered from depression and bipolar disorder, once said: “If you know someone who’s depressed, please resolve never to ask them why. Depression isn’t a straightforward response to a bad situation; depression just is, like the weather.”

It is in itself a depressing thing to say about depression. On seeing a lot of the posts on social media sharing the news about Bourdain’s death containing the national suicide line, saying help is only a phone-call away.

Whilst I don’t doubt that seeking help from professionals can help a troubled individual, I wonder if it can truly save someone’s life. Bourdain had, on the surface at least, a good life, the best job in the world, friends all over the globe, a girlfriend, and even a beautiful daughter. If he couldn’t keep himself alive for his daughter, what would have kept him alive?

Bourdain did have a troubled past. As he relates in Kitchen Confidential, his early career as a cook in 1970’s New York were riddled with drug-fuelled binges and a heroin addiction you could name a planet after. Was he drawn to it because of his character or was it just the nature of his business?

I have always thought it was the latter. When he made it as an author and later a television host he moved away from the opioid-clouds and rehabilitated himself. He seemed to have gotten off scot-free too, something drug addicts aren’t supposed to manage. But maybe his lust for the underbelly of existence never really left him. Maybe some people are hard-wired for depression. And maybe it’s those people who seek out life the hardest.

Maybe for these people living is a losing battle. And yet, along the way, they seem to create and leave behind much beauty. “Courage is grace under pressure.” I don’t know if anything could have been done to save Bourdain from his self-destructive end. I never thought he would succumb to this apparent fad for suicide. But what we can do now is celebrate what he’s left behind.

Bourdain has influenced and moulded the way I travel. I’ll let him sum it up in his own inimitable words: “Do we really want to travel in hermetically sealed popemobiles through the rural provinces of France, Mexico and the Far East, eating only in Hard Rock Cafes and McDonalds? Or do we want to eat without fear, tearing into the local stew, the humble taqueria’s mystery meat, the sincerely offered gift of a lightly grilled fish head? I know what I want. I want it all. I want to try everything once.”

Wherever I go he serves as my phantom guide. Always I think: where would Bourdain go? And I follow. Blindly. Like he was some reincarnated Bacchus, a Jesus of booze and binge. Bourdain is my hedonistic shepherd. Even more so now. Although I will miss seeing new episodes of Parts Unknown and new, enlightening interviews, his death shall not be an end.

Perhaps that’s all we can do for the 21st century’s latest suicide. Maybe it’s enough. Who knows.

No matter how disappointed I was by the news I will continue to be a believer in the one faith I could truly submit to: happiness. And I don’t mean the spiritual happiness that awaits at Nirvana or the happiness a vegetarian gets from keeping his body as clean as a temple. I mean the kind of happiness you get from sharing a drink with new friends abroad, eating Cuban deep-fried pork belly in Madrid, or drinking Pisco sour with glacial ice on your honeymoon. I mean the happiness of buying a new book, or inspiring someone to do something new.

And no I don’t mean the happiness that comes with more baggage than an Escobar shipment. “The wealth required by nature is limited and is easy to procure; but the wealth required by vain ideals extends to infinity.” As Epicurus said. In fact, a lot of these vain ideals, such as success-at-all-costs, ridiculous wealth, power, ambition – these are paths that often successfully lead to depression and suicide.

No, life dumps enough baggage on our doorstep. We don’t need to add our own. And whilst I know for sure living is fraught with misery; I know just as surely living also has a few hidden gems of happiness waiting for us. As long as we don’t get too blinded by the darkness to find them.

Thank you for everything, chef!

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Heide says:

    What a lovely, thoughtful tribute you’ve written — and your comparison to Hemingway is especially insightful. What an enormous loss.

    Like

    1. justinfenech says:

      Thank you. It is indeed a huge loss. But we fight on.

      Liked by 1 person

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