I was a second-semester freshman in college in Tennessee, working as a cook at what can only be described as a simple on-campus food station. Mostly easy dishes, Italian favorites that could be quickly and easily concocted like Chicken Penne Pesto and spaghetti with a sad, forlorn marinara sauce. University students constructed a queue at the station and gave their request, and I’d crank out a few hundred dishes over the course of a shift.
This was far from a collection of culinary masterminds working behind similar stations, rather mostly kids like myself trying to make a buck. Few, if any of us had any real care for cooking, but I was one of them that did. I grew up with food being interesting, a place where families and friends put aside differences and concerns, if even for a moment, in congress over time-honored recipes passed down from grandmothers, aunts, and mothers. I looked at my mother, my father, or whoever was doing the cooking as a sort of masterful being in that moment. Taking individual tasks like chopping, dicing, roasting, stirring, and boiling, and turning those tasks into moments that brought people together was like wielding magic.
Being the first time in my life as the one behind the skillet, even as simple as it was, gave me a feeling of wizardry – of power. It was sometime around here that I remember first hearing of Anthony Bourdain.
My good friend Brandon was the serious culinarian of the group – the one who entertained dreams of chefdom and stardom, and he was always the guy on the fringes of finding out the next cool thing. Most of the music I listened to in those days, he found first. Most of my favorite bands and books came about because he was the pioneer finding the really good stuff – a subtle prophet with a message to give. One of those books he lent me was a well-worn copy of Kitchen Confidential, a book represented by a slender figure, a lighthouse in a white chef’s coat.
I never looked at food, or life, the same after reading that book.
Bourdain, in those years of my transition into real adulthood, represented everything I wanted to be, but wasn’t cool enough to pull off. Who was? He was raw, brazen, thoughtful, and delicate all at once. When he wrote, it somehow had levity and depth simultaneously, like some multifaceted prism that was complex, yet easily understood. As time passed and he starred on the Travel Channel in No Reservations, I had a face and a voice to put with the man behind the words, and I was hooked – we all were.
Early in our relationship, Tracy and I waxed on about both of our times in the restaurant industry, the late nights closing stations, cleaning walk-ins, tidying the mise en place, and the late nights of decadence following nerve-shattering evenings with our fellow miscreants. Drinking until the early morning hours after shutting down a shift was a common experience between us, and something with which we could bond considering Tracy’s years in the industry as prep cook, hostess, and wait staff. It’s part of the reason why we both felt like we got each other, those stories of similar insanity and debaucherous intent.
Of course, Bourdain was often the topic of conversation in those early days. He had what seemingly everyone wanted – the ideal life of endless travel, the freedom to express perspective, fame, and the prodigious talent to work his craft with power. We chased the dream he showed was more than just a dream. Tracy and I have, for years, found inspiration in this work, leading eventually to the creation of the very website you’re reading now. We planned our first excursions abroad to places he said were cool, and our desire to go further in our travels came as a direct result of his influence.
We remember streaming The Layover in Venice, and Tracy read Kitchen Confidential cover-to-cover on a train heading to Machu Picchu. We listened to Iggy Pop for a month after his Miami episode, and the band Hudson Taylor was our soundtrack during the time we spent in Dublin only because of Bourdain.
What I, and we, respected most about Bourdain was that his orbit seemed to be an irony-free, bullshit-free zone of depth and respect for the places he visited. He didn’t travel in a sterile, first-world, bacteria-free bubble that kept the culture around him at arms-length. No, rather he shed those barriers, reached out to marginalized people, expressed gratitude for being in their cities and homes, and dutifully attempted to always give something back.
When he filmed his Detroit episode for Parts Unknown, Tracy’s hometown, I remember her nervousness as the episode began and, consequently, her pleasure and excitement at his “getting it right” in telling the city’s tale. He could’ve just been another rich celebrity making a story about a city that had fallen from grace – that would’ve been the easy narrative. But, as usual, he went deeper. He told a story of pride, of grit, determination and inherent beauty, and reminded the world what’s great about being from Detroit. Perhaps most importantly, he was honest in his perspective, and gave the viewer a feeling of hope for the future of the city and the ones that still call it home.
We didn’t know him, but we felt the humanity in his work and in his voice, the completely unguarded way in which he attacked his mission, and like so many others felt as though meeting the man would’ve only confirmed what you felt he was from a distance.
He bared himself to us in his writing, to talk of the mistakes of his past and the lessons learned. He spared no adjective describing in detail his lack of perfection, but in doing so was in some ways the perfect man because of it. Real, unequivocating, but not unapologetic. He seemed to possess a decency that was as profound and rare as his talent.
Even on the night before the world found out the news of his passing, we watched Parts Unknown for hours planning our next trip, and studying the show’s videographical elements for work we plan to do in the future. It was a near-nightly study that has become almost ritual to us in the time since we started the blog.
We chatted between episodes about hypotheticals. “Name three people you’d love to invite to dinner…,” I asked Tracy. Bourdain was the first on the list for both of us. We laughed at the humor in his episode shot with Eric Ripert in the Alps, the way he humorously tested and needled Ripert’s calm demeanor as only best friends can do, his camaraderie with Zamir Gotta throughout the lifespan of his career, and marveled at the introduction to the Tokyo episode from season two, and the power with which he spoke.
“What do you need to know about Tokyo? Deep, deep waters. The first time I came here, it was like — it was a transformative experience. It was powerful and violent experience. It was as if — it was just like taking acid for the first time. Meaning what do I do now? I see the whole world in a different way.
I often compare the experience of going to Japan for the first time, going to Tokyo for the first time, to what Eric Clapton and Pete Townsend must have gone through, the reigning guitar gods of England, what they must have gone through the week that Jimi Hendrix came to town.
You hear about it, you go see it. A whole window opens up into a whole new thing. And you think what does this mean? What do I have left to say? What do I do now?”
The words of the man also describe him. Deep, deep waters. His presence – transformative and powerful. He opened windows, opened portals to new perspectives, new ways of thinking and heightened our appreciation of our world, and in the realization of his absence we search to come to an understanding.
What he gave us is irreplaceable. He connected living rooms in far-flung places to our own, and spurned a love affair with the world for so many. As travel writers, Tracy and I are acutely aware that our own medium is non-existent without his pioneering, his ability to make travel seem somehow reachable to his viewers. His ability to communicate a message of humanity made travel hip, but attainable, and gave inspiration to an entire generation of people who wanted to tell their own message of the places they’ve been, the people they’ve met, and the experiences they’ve had.
It’s perhaps only now in reflection of his life, career, and influence that we realize what the world has lost – as is the unfortunate case with most geniuses who will outlive the test of time and memory. It’s only now that we feel the true weight he carried, the depth of his presence, as the void now left is unmistakable. Our hearts truly go out to those who knew him, his friends, family, and of course his daughter, Ariane.
He will, however, live on. If you, like us, have been touched and inspired by his work then he’ll be there for every new experience you have in a strange place. He’ll be there for every first meal with strangers, and every fumbled attempt to navigate through the streets of a place you’ve never been.
He’ll be there every time fingers touch keyboards to tell a story of an experience, and every honest attempt to retell what you’ve seen, touched, tasted, and felt.