Two weeks ago, one of the biggest chefs in the world took his life. Anthony Bourdain was 61 years old and those who know him said he was in a happy phase of life. That means something because Bourdain, in the past, had written and spoken eloquently of his struggles with depression and substance abuse. In the book that brought him into the limelight—Kitchen Confidential—he spoke of the brutal kitchens of New York, but also of his own addiction. He kicked up his habit and found a whole new avatar in his early 40s when he had assumed that life wouldn’t change all that much. But it did, and how!
Bourdain was one of the first TV celebrity chefs. His gritty, no-nonsense, profanity-laced persona was addictive. This bad boy of the kitchen was something that the general public (around the world) couldn’t get enough of.
I remember visiting the restaurant Le Halles in New York only because the great chef had worked there once. He was long gone by the time I visited, but one could well imagine a tall, lanky figure striding across the cozy, woody interiors, muttering under his breath, as he walked over to a fussy guest.
I first became familiar with Bourdain during my years as a hospitality trainee in the buttoned-up world of restaurants. He was a rebel, the kind of guy you hoped to meet, train under, even date. His impact on men and women in the restaurant business was equal. He just got away with so much! It was tantalising, as it can only be when life is divided into reporting times and not much else. Working on the clock, and around the clock.
But the younger me couldn’t quite understand just what Bourdain was doing. We were all so stuck on his “cool” factor that we had no idea of the fundamental message he was bringing into our homes and lives. He wasn’t out there in a studio kitchen, frowning down at people and tossing pasta. Instead, he was going to places that had been forgotten, meeting people who had been forgotten and, in his quintessential non-judgy way, making them familiar. Bourdain’s shows weren’t about Bourdain, they were about living and being human.
When he went to Cambodia, he spoke of the Khmer Rouge. Later, through a tweet, he stated a horrifying fact—that most (Cambodian) chefs had been killed during their reign, hence, the cuisine had suffered and was yet to recover. It was a devastating exposé of the brutality of the regime delivered in the straight-forward yet deeply empathetic way that was pure Bourdain. He seemed to never go beyond the realm of food, but in many ways, that was his greatest subterfuge. As a traveller of the modern era, he documented culture, histories and tragedy, all along making us believe he was talking about food—and wondering how he still consumed alcohol despite being a former addict. On that, he said he was one of the few lucky ones. He could drink and yet not fall back into addiction.
In the end, he submitted to another impulse, a more permanent one. In a small town in France, whilst shooting his show for CNN, he quietly committed suicide in his hotel room. His absence was noted when he didn’t turn up at the breakfast table.
This past year, he had been seen actively supporting his actor girlfriend, Asia Argento, who was one of the women who had accused Harvey Weinstein of rape. Through her, Bourdain became a friend of the #MeToo movement and one of its most famous male supporters. His support was unstinted and vocal, but that was to be expected of him. Not one to back away from a fight, he decided he was done way before it was his time. Fans across the world were deeply moved at his passing. A young kid from Jersey who fell into cooking redefined how the world engaged with chefs. In many parts of the world, where people mourned his death, cooking is not even considered a serious “profession”. Bourdain, with his life, brought dignity not only to kitchens, but to the many, many people he met during his travels. His loss is deeper than that of a celebrity who is known around the world. It is the loss of a man who cared and was never afraid to show it.
Advaita Kala is a writer, most recently of the film Kahaani. She is also a former hotelier having worked in restaurants in India and abroad