The news broke this morning of Anthony Bourdain’s passing. By suicide on location in France the news reports. It is too soon to know the details, so speculation is rampant. I can hardly believe it as I type the words and have not been able to stop thinking about it all day. My heart is heavy and I didn’t even know him personally, but I loved and admired his work from afar for years. I can’t believe his journey has come to an end. Bourdain had my dream job. He was an icon in the travel world, adventurous and unapologetic about who he was and his bold approach to all he did and we loved him for it. He spoke his truth and the truth as he saw it, no matter how dark or dirty.
We met him November 13, 2016 in Seattle at the Paramount on his The Hunger tour. In true Bourdain style, his show had no fluff. Just his lanky frame, strolling casually onto an empty stage in big white converse sneakers, baggy worn jeans and simple black t shirt with a tall silver can of light beer in his hand. It was the week after the presidential election so the air was thick and he talked for an hour about the things weighing heavy on his mind and the culture we live in, often dropping multiple F-bombs for emphasis. He talked about how much he loved sharing a bowl of noodles with Obama at the end of his term and how much he worried about how our new President would impact the perception of our country to the rest of the world. He made us laugh uncomfortably with his directness, calling out the harsh realities of how fucked up the fire hose of news was, how he worried about the world his daughter was growing up in, and why he believed that everyone in this country needs a passport and to travel to experience other cultures if we are going to understand each other better. He answered questions from the audience about his favorite episodes, told one guy his question was stupid and he wouldn’t answer it, and said his favorite interviews were often with ordinary people in their country of origin who had absolutely nothing material, but yet a real joy for life and sense of identity. He said he wanted to share their stories, their daily life, struggles, and perspective through each episode. Most importantly to show us through travel that we are all the same inside despite our cultural and geographic differences.
After his one man stand up show, Bourdain seemingly reluctantly made his way to a high top table, a half full beer bottle sat next to a black sharpie and a pile of his latest cookbook, Appetites, a Cookbook, with sticky notes marking the inside cover as he signed books and half smirked for pictures with adoring fans. He seemed to hate this part of the night. Occasionally, someone in the meet and greet line would say something and he would break into a forced, grumbly chuckle, but mostly he was stoic and unemotional, signing books and moving robotically on to the next eager fan in line. My husband and I observed him quietly, and a few times we saw him connect with someone in line and his face would break into a genuine smile. I watched as we got closer and noticed he showed an occasional gentle, easy-going warmth to him with people he wanted to engage with, despite his curmudgeonly, rough exterior.
Up close, Bourdain was even more tall, thin and tattooed in person, his face more weathered, his eyes dark and glossy, almost melancholy, with so many stories untold. He clearly worked hard and played hard like his shows portrayed. When my husband and I approached him for our meet and greet, he said hello, we made some small talk and he gave a small smirk and a chuckle at the name as he signed my book Hip Travel Mama. “Hip Travel Mama?” He said. “Yes,” I said. “Travel blog. No hipster beard here though.” He guffawed and we smiled with mutual understanding. I knew he’d hate the name of my blog, but I told him anyway with a big smile on my face. He hated hipsters. I once heard him rant about how cliche hipster travelers had become, bitching about all the over-filtered Instagram sharing, perfectly posing in places around the world, trendily humble bragging about exploring “off the beaten path.” I loved how he spoke this truth, as I too have grown tired of endless fashioned-posed photos of scantily-clad fashion bloggers gaining thousands of likes with no sense of depth or meaning of connecting with other people and cultures. I appreciated his candor at how ridiculous that part of travel had become. He made his life and work in traveling off-the-beaten path, and yet humbly took us all with him to corners of the world we only dreamed of exploring through his shows and didn’t need to share fancy Instagram posts to gain approval from his fans.
Perhaps more than the destinations he visited and his authentic approach to creating his personal brand, I loved the artistic sense of place and raw emotion that his show producer, Zero Point Zero Productions beautifully crafted with every episode. His deep, distinctive voice washing over every stunning shot of places and people around the world, putting into words some of the most beautiful, and sometimes, dark realities of our world. I will miss his voiceovers most, hauntingly honest and real, sometimes controversial, inviting us into a deeper journey of self exploration and understanding each other better.
Anthony Bourdain was perfectly imperfect and we loved living vicariously through his adventures. He was a refreshing departure and a bit shocking at times, like cold water in the face of the inauthenticity that has taken over so much of the Internet. We knew he had a darker side, but that made us appreciate him more, made him more real. He entertained and delighted us one meal, one country, or city at a time and sometimes with negative feedback. Today, my Facebook feed is full of friends who love to travel, journalists and fellow travel writers, sharing the impact of the news of his sudden passing, and how his work and travels made them want to live a littler braver too. I wonder if he realized how much impact he had and the hunger for travel he helped us satiate vicariously through him.
For many, he had our dream job, a promise that if you worked hard, you could achieve your dream. After working for decades in restaurants, he wrote and published his first book, Kitchen Confidential in his 40s (which is narrated by Bourdain himself and I devoured in a couple days on Audible). He showed us that success can come at any age and he catapulted himself into a coveted spot as celebrity chef and edgy travel personality no one could duplicate, fiercely protective of everything that had his name on it.
We still don’t know all the details of his death yet. But we do know that he wasn’t perfect, and I am grateful for the time he shared with us, made us think deeper about how we share a meal, explore a country, or ask better questions to understand each other better. I will miss our Sunday night ritual of tuning in to CNN Parts Unknown for a new episode of where in the world is Tony. We have an insatiable hunger for more Anthony Bourdain and we will miss his weathered tales. As we learn more in the coming days, his loss is an important reminder to be present and understand that we are not alone in our struggles and the people we love, respect or admire are on this journey with us.
RIP Anthony Bourdain.