I was beginning to write my weekly blog article when the news came regarding the apparent suicide of Anthony Bourdain. Shock would be an under-statement. I am still trying to digest the news and felt that it was maybe important to talk to you through this medium as a way to digest this sad event.
Those of us who work in the restaurant business and the many generations of cooks and chefs that came before had a very private, somewhat underground life before Tony Bourdain. We were part of a private club, so to speak, of hard working, downtrodden, somewhat abused workers who felt a sense of brother and sisterhood that was only known to those who wore the uniform. It was a life of sub-basement work in windowless environments filled with danger, heat, and unrelenting demands that were rarely, if ever, recognized. We had a story to tell, but no one was really interested.
All over the world there were professional and domestic cooks who were expressing their craft, protecting their cultural food influences, working under difficult conditions, nurturing the ingredients of that culture and producing delicious dishes that reflected history and time-tested talent. Food is, after all, a unifying component of life, a necessary product that in the right hands can be a statement of who we are and what we hold as important. Well-prepared food has the ability to break down barriers, set aside differences of opinion, give people pause, bring a smile to everyone’s face, and overcome differences in language. Food is the universal language. The only problem was that no one was really talking about it. We felt it, but we didn’t express it.
Then came Anthony Bourdain. A line cook and chef, a fast living, hard drinking, drug using, crusty kitchen pirate who although he passed through the halls of culinary education was, at heart, just an ordinary cook who lived the same life as tens of thousands of other line cooks with demons to control and stories left untold. Tony lived on the edge, but always maintained his passion for the environment of the kitchen and knew that his skills would help him to hang on and survive. He apparently enjoyed storytelling and writing and made a few attempts at being an author: “Bone in the Throat” and “Gone Bamboo” were both entertaining and refreshing mysteries that gave us a taste of kitchen life, but did not reach critical acclaim. I found them in the back section of a Barnes and Noble when visiting New York one year and picked them up simply because they were written by a chef (unheard of). I read them quickly and made note that I would certainly read anything else that came from the pen of this unknown line cook with a gift for telling stories.
Later an article of Bourdain’s was picked up by The New Yorker Magazine – an article that told a realistic, yet fairly shocking story of life in the kitchen (shocking to everyone except those of us who spent years in the kitchen). Why they picked the story up – who knows, but it struck a chord and lead quickly to the writing and publication of “Kitchen Confidential” in 2000. Some were dismayed at the telling of our secret kitchen life, others were cheering, but most importantly the book took off and by 2009 had sold well over 1 million copies. Since then he has authored a number of novels and cookbooks, has co-authored just as many, become a major television documentary personality, and an advocate for some necessary changes in the restaurant business.
What is most important is that he gave a voice to millions of cooks and chefs and brought to light some of the excitement as well as some of the serious flaws associated with life in the kitchen. Countless cooks and chefs have followed as writers – telling their stories, but none quite as effective as Bourdain. He was always self-reflective and pointed to many of the flaws in his character and the wrong turns that he took in his life. He never apologized for these wrong turns but simply used them as stepping-stones and lessons as he matured. What he was made him what he became and he always looked back at these bumps in the road with a level of fondness – something that we could all learn from.
As a TV documentary storyteller Anthony brought us to some of the great restaurants of the world, but more importantly to the neighborhoods and people who many misunderstood and areas where most of us would probably tend to avoid. He took us to the heart of the culture of many countries and to the real people who made up those cultures. We were guided through the most dangerous sections of Nicaragua, Beirut, Cuba, and Russia. We were introduced to the neighborhoods of Detroit, Chicago, New Orleans, Los Angeles, and Buffalo – places where TV crews would rarely venture. While there he became part of the people and exposed the fact that they are all just like us. They have families, history, desires, sorrow and joy, and importantly – traditional foods that bring them all together. Anthony was an ambassador for the culture of food and an advocate for people to break bread and set aside their preconceived ideas and bias. This was his greatest gift to us all.
Personally, I had the opportunity to meet Anthony Bourdain shortly after Kitchen Confidential hit the bestseller list. At the time he was the Chef at Les Halles in New York City and as I approached the now famous restaurant I saw him standing outside, one foot balanced against the wall of the restaurant, stained kitchen apron, cigarette in hand and beads of sweat on his brow. He was, like any other line cook – taking a break before the swell of tickets charged off the POS printer in the kitchen. We chatted a bit, shook hands, and he walked back to the range for another opportunity to get beat up during service. He was our storyteller – the person who let the world know about the joys and pains associated with a life in the kitchen.
Some took his book as an affirmation that working in restaurant kitchens was a cool job and that the life of a cook with drugs, alcohol, sexual exploits, and demeaning interactions was something that was admirable. I never looked at it that way – I always felt that Kitchen Confidential was a cry out, a way of saying the life of the kitchen is not always glamorous – it can be destructive and crude. I would hazard a guess that enrollment in culinary schools went up substantially as a result of Kitchen Confidential – it compared a career as a cook in the same vein as the rock stars that all 18 year olds wanted to become. Once many of these young, debt ridden cooks found their way into a steady diet of kitchen life they lost much of the sizzle and excitement that they had and realized that it is hard work, unrelenting work, and work that in so many cases that doesn’t pay well or treat people with the normal respect that they are due. Bourdain worked to try and bring attention to this and helped to begin the process of change that we see today. If the environment continues to improve, if wages continue to rise and benefits become something to expect then we can certainly thank Bourdain for starting that movement.
We may not find out what demons he held too close to himself, what finally drove him to take his own life and leave behind his important legacy and a family and friends who certainly adored him, but we do know that he tried to channel his energies toward bringing forth a message that is important. I think, in his own way, Anthony Bourdain made an impact – he tried to change the world of the cook and we thank him for that.
Rest in Peace chef – thanks for the stories, you will be missed.
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
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