Remembering Anthony Bourdain

Portrait by Henny Garfunkle

Portrait by Henny Garfunkle

CW: suicide, mental health, depression

It’s been three months since my last suicidal ideation. There is an at times overwhelming sense of survivor’s guilt with my recovery, which is its own kind of mourning. I sometimes miss the familiar lethargy of depression, the pull of darkness at my eyelids. I don’t miss not wanting to live. I don’t answer that the abyss anymore. But when someone so prominently featured in the public eye ends their own life, it reminds those of us who teeter on the brink that this is possible; that it could have been us. On the year anniversary of Anthony Bourdain’s suicide, I find myself thinking about his impact on me.

From the outside view of any curious observer, it seemed Bourdain had an incredible life. He rose to celebrity status after the overnight success of his raw memoir/exposé Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly (2000). A New York City-based chef turned media personality, he was beloved for his groundbreaking travel documentary programs, such as CNN’s Parts Unknown, and his legacy of introducing international cuisine and culture to American television. He broke the mold of traditional journalism, creating his own provocative brand of narrative nonfiction: memoir meets travel-writing, brazenly interwoven with cultural commentary, a proclivity for social justice and emphatic profanities, and of course, a sensual appreciation for food. In his time Bourdain was devoted to extolling the virtues of peasant foods and working class food culture; in this way, he was an iconoclast, making a mockery of the bourgeois concepts of gourmet kitchens and letting us all in on his secrets. He contextualized these hidden worlds, and he did it without exoticizing or diminishing the culture he was documenting. There was no shallow performativity about him; Bourdain presented honest stories of the human experience, both high-profile and humble—from sharing a bowl of spicy noodles with Barack Obama in Hanoi to eating tomato sandwiches with miners in West Virginia coal fields.

When Bourdain came to my home state, I think I can speak for all of us when I say we were a little nervous about how Appalachia would be portrayed. Would his story of us be consumed by stereotypes of grainy vignettes of poverty, the all-consuming opioid crisis, and declarations of Trump Country? But in truth, we had nothing to worry about. The episode instead explored the complicated legacy of Big Coal, the roller coaster drama of a high school football game, and our farm-to-table dining culture. While in West Virginia, Bourdain dined on traditional Appalachian foods like vinegar pie and pawpaw ice cream adorned with candied wildflowers at Lost Creek Farm. Mike Costello of Lost Creek told about the impact of his visit at his table, writing that Bourdain reminded West Virginians to “bring [our] communities together and take up for the little guy.” His visit felt like a rallying call and an eager reminder to embrace our rural heritage, despite media pressures to distance ourselves from it in a post-2016 election era. From Bourdain’s own ‘field notes: West Virginia’: “I felt at home. I was enchanted”. My home state will remember him for his appreciation of our corner of the earth.

If you’ve ever worked in a kitchen or a restaurant, there is a certain grit to your step, a gravitas, an well-earned hardassness. Like Bourdain, I was forged in the dark corners of that restaurant. It was a blip—just under a year—something so brief, I don’t include it on my resume. All I have left from those days are oyster shells I took home after shifts, an honest desire to cook, and a hunger to be in that throng again—wild, mechanic, humming. I didn’t stay long enough to earn my bones like he did. I’m not nearly as tough. Maybe I would’ve made a dreadful server in the gourmet food biz. Maybe, I would’ve caught my rhythm—felt the pulse of a full house in the middle of dinner rush, carried myself with purpose across rooms, learned about the terroir of wines. I could have been devoured, beautifully, but I left. And if I hadn’t finally accepted treatment for my mental health, I would have been devoured then, too. For some inexplicable reason, I feel an intense kinship with Bourdain. I suppose Bourdain feels like my own cautionary tale.

I consider Bourdain’s writing to be the greatest influence in my storytelling. Mesmerized at an impressionable age by his brand of punk journalism, his writing helped shape my own voice. His documentary journalism prompted me to write about pop culture and justice and to examine their inherent intersection. Bourdain inspired me to push traditional forms and challenge the ways that I tell stories, but more importantly, he encouraged my worldview: a progressive, working-class pride and keen desire to overturn perceptions. From his engagement with the #MeToo movement, to his fierce advocacy for immigrant rights, and his lifelong cultural diplomacy through food folkways, Bourdain was more than a chef or writer: he was an ambassador for the unknown and overlooked. A year after his death, I hope we never lose sight of his fearlessness and generosity. Maybe we can find a way to carry his mission on our own tired shoulders.

An excerpt of an earlier version of this essay appears in the Appalachian Food Writing Anthology, “Sloppy Slimy Eggs”, published by the Travelin’ Appalachians Revue. For resources on mental health and suicidal thoughts, please check out the National Suicide Prevention Hotline or the National LGBT Health Education Center. You are not alone.