By Jesse Brooks
As I write this, we are at the end of the second day since we learned that we lost Anthony Bourdain, world-renown chef, television host and author. He took his life at the age of 61.
On Thursday night, I was preparing to go to bed and I was bored. My wife, a nurse, was working a night shift at the hospital and I needed to pass the time. I opened my laptop and decided to stream Bourdain’s show Parts Unknown. I watched an episode where he visits the wild picturesque southern coastline of Italy’s heel. The lasting image I had of Bourdain before I fell asleep was of someone incredibly alive, engaged and fearless.
Imagine the confusing shock when I woke up at 7 a.m. the next morning to read the terrible news. I checked every avenue to make sure it was not a social media hoax. In the most abrasive way, I was introduced to a new reality about someone I had felt connected to ever since the beginning of my self discovery period as an young adult.
There was a lot to unpack that morning emotionally. I had a day full of duties I had to carry out but I felt I was moving slower and out of step. I have seen celebrities come and go in my lifetime, but this one stuck with me.
I remember when Prince died a couple of years ago I found it sad, and I understood his status as an icon and the influence he left behind. But I felt a kind of grief for Bourdain I had never felt for someone I never actually met. Why?
I enjoy cooking, but I have never been a chef. I grew up rural and have never been a resident of a mega city. I have never had a drug habit that I needed to rehab from, and though I have been known to enjoy a drink or three, my consumption of alcohol has never resulted in an addiction problem. I have been outside of the U.S. on three short, very controlled trips. So how is it that I could ever see a version of myself in him?
I started watching a lot of things on the Food Network and Travel Channel out of boredom when I was high school if nothing was on MTV or Comedy Central. My family planned a lot of summer road trips, and I would be curious about possible new destinations. In the mix of programming, Bourdain was there. It felt like he was always there. In keeping in the spirit of my family’s “do as the locals do” road trip attitude, Bourdain’s narratives always stood out to me as better than ones found on other shows. Not only was he someone we got to know, he was someone we trusted.
So the more familiar with culture programming I became, the more I sought Bourdain out. As I began to develop as person, I was observing his techniques, his takes, his swagger and his narrative. I was a young garage rocker coming up in the post-9/11, post-Katrina South, that began to feel that there were social, economic and political rules that needed to be challenged. I found that freedom in Bourdain and I wanted it for myself.
Bourdain also loved my native state of Louisiana, a place my early 20s self wanted to run away from. His love for New Orleans was immense and it was not a “city after the storm” kind of love. He had visited The Big Easy as far back as his 2002-03 show A Cook’s Tour, in an episode that featured him staying in the rooms above the R Bar on Frenchman Street and ordering take out from the Verti Marte food store. When it came to New Orleans, he just “got it”. Bourdain also visited Louisiana’s Acadiana region on No Reservations, and it reintroduced me to the cultures I have grown up with and taken for granted in my life. Bourdain recently returned to Southwest Louisiana to film a Cajun Mardi Gras episode of Parts Unknown, again, he got it.
I began to notice Anthony Bourdain, not the celebrity chef, but the populist. Through his populism, it was becoming abundantly clear that untold narratives are everywhere in the world. At the end of the day, no matter if you live on the bluest of coasts or in mid-land red, you will find that most of us represent shades of purple when we sit together and break bread. You will not experience this in a comments section or message board. Understanding requires entry into reality and experiencing the world of fellow human beings.
Many hipsters will compare him to Hunter S. Thompson, and I suppose that’s fair enough, but to me Bourdain and his narrative reminded me of Ernest Hemingway, if he were a less violent and balanced character with the charisma for the television screen. His tales of beating addiction were inspiring and made people feel hopeful about themselves. If he could do that, you can do anything. I watched all the shows and read all his books.
When I began writing professionally, I would relate everything I did back to him. I wanted my voice to have his rhythm because Bourdain sounded like smooth jazz, just enough improvisation to be interesting and enough control to hold attention. When I started writing about culture, I realized that I don’t have an awesome budget, but what is in my backyard can be interesting because it’s foreign and exotic to someone out there. I learned that from him.
In 2016, I started a column as a staff member at the Amite Tangi Digest newspaper called “Hwy. 51: Revisited”. It focused on non-interstate highway travel from where I live in Tangipahoa Parish all the way to Memphis, Tennessee. All of these stops, mere hours away from my home, had surprising moments in the great timeline of American history. It was a journey of the bygone timber industry, development of the railroad, food, civil rights, blues and rock-n-roll. It was the story of us. I received a third place mention for the Sam Hannah Award for this column at the Louisiana Press Association Awards Ceremony the following summer. The project was completely inspired by the Jackson, Mississippi episode of Parts Unknown.
I am completely aware that Bourdain motivated me to work. As I started to get recognized professionally for the first time in my life, people noticed this, mostly friends and readers, and I wore that badge proudly.
Now in the wake of his passing, the void feels odd. Everything reminds me of him. In my small town of Hammond, Louisiana, there are now two pho restaurants, an Indian restaurant (in a gas station) and a ramen restaurant currently in construction. I honestly believe this incorporation of culture, once seen as foreign, in Small Town, U.S.A. does not happen without him. He changed the way we eat, and he changed the way we saw each other.
I feel losing him is different because it probably scares the hell out of all of us that saw a version of us in him. We wanted have his life that seemed to be free from darkness. However, as much as we may see our selves in him, or strived to be him, we need not to fear to live life with freedom and the understanding and care for others that he possessed. Bourdain fought a problem privately that is more common than we are willing to admit in America. To honor him, we must have empathy for those dealing with depression and advocate for them as he always did with cultures in need.
His mark on the world will live on. The best gift he gave to the world was confidence in his narrative, the outsider’s inside view, and may it stay alive for those seeking adventure.
“I don’t know any other way and by now I wouldn’t have it any other way,” Bourdain said in his last interview with Fast Company. “Life is good. Why settle for anything less?”