Anthony Bourdain? Dead? The reaction this morning was disbelief. He was the culinary industry’s great leveler, a witty and quotable outlaw who roamed from Lebanon to Southeast Asia on his food-travel TV shows, “No Reservations” and “Parts Unknown.” He had a stomach of steel, eating seal and shark’s eyes. He made the world safe for others, but it seems the world no longer felt safe for him. His Twitter bio lists his occupation as “enthusiast”— a wrenching counterpoint to reports of his suicide by hanging in an Alsace hotel room.
In recent months, he became an outspoken advocate of the #MeToo movement, frequently critiquing powerful men on Twitter while supporting longtime girlfriend, actress Asia Argento, as she spoke out against Harvey Weinstein.
Bourdain rose to prominence in 2000 — later in life, in his mid-40s — with his memoir “Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly,” pricking the self-important balloon of fine dining by discussing what really goes on in restaurant kitchens. He reflected candidly on his own lost years in an abyss of drug addiction and low-paying jobs and discussed life as a chef at New York City’s Les Halles. This candor and unexpected fame gave hope to countless chefs and middle-aged lost souls, showing that second acts really are possible.
Several Boston chefs reflected on his life and legacy this morning. Many were fighting back tears as they spoke.
“He was the greatest ambassador and tour guide. He used his platform to make our hearts more open to people who live in different areas and experience the world through food. I remember when he brought President Obama to Hanoi. He brought him into a local restaurant, sat down, and had a beer. He understood that power.”
“When I heard [the news] early this morning, it sent me into a weird tizzy and funk. I do fight stuff. It rules me. I’m responsible for everything I do, and I continue to seek help. I can only encourage people to seek help. There are days that are really bad, but help is there. . . . Little by little, we’re breaking down that stigma, and you can see by people’s responses online. There are people who want to get you help. I don’t care if you’re a line cooker or a banker. Everyone has their own [problems]. Everyone needs help. Life is a complicated voyage, and it’s hard do it by yourself.”
“He was the everyman in the sense that he started at the bottom and worked his way to the top. He provided the perspective that this is achievable. . . . I remember reading ‘Kitchen Confidential’ for the first time, and I was leading a life very similar to how he’d come up, in Provincetown, cooking in lobster shacks. I felt like I was reading the story of how it was supposed to happen.
“I think we need to find a way to have a more substantial conversation [about mental health] and the opportunity to bring the conversation to the masses, but it’s more than a newspaper article. It’s more than Instagram post. It’s more than a Facebook. This is something that actually needs to be tangible. . . . We’ve gotten to the point where the microscope is on this business so much, where people are so concerned as to what the optics are . . . but we don’t spend enough time on ourselves.”
“He really came to fame because he had decided to not play by the rules that the rest of us are trying to figure out how to play by. He became someone who spoke his mind, and that’s the hardest part about this — losing that guiding light that so many of us saw in him. Now that he’s gone, who takes up the reins?”
“I love that he was real. He said what he felt.”
“ ‘Kitchen Confidential’ was the first time I had read about my world, the cook’s world. It felt like he was the cooler, older line cook telling stories over an after-work beer. Whenever I traveled, I would check to see if Bourdain had gone there in one of his shows. I would study that episode as a primer. I think he’s responsible for making an entire generation of cooks want to go eat and drink in Southeast Asia. He reached Hemingway status, telling Americans about ourselves and the rest of the world, in a blunt, plainspoken yet sensitive way.”
“I always thought it was so cool how much respect he gave to Latino cooks. He said, ‘No. New York is run with these guys — [screw] these culinary students. I’ll take the kid from Mexico who’s been slinging steaks at Les Halles over this other dude all day long who can cut a perfect chiffonade.’ ”
“Getting into the restaurant industry when I did, ‘Kitchen Confidential’ was required reading, and whether you thought his depiction of professional kitchens was cool and appealing or seedy and disturbing, he shined a light on the industry and opened up a conversation about this unique workplace. And one thing was undisputed: He was a hell of a writer.”
“My wife bought me ‘Kitchen Confidential’ when we were dating in 2003, and that book changed my life. During my time at Le Bernardin, I used to see Anthony all the time. He and chef [Eric] Ripert would joke around and have so much fun. I loved when they came to town and did ‘Good Versus Evil.’ He was a legend and rock star in the culinary industry and will never be forgotten.”
“He was a shape-shifter for the industry and embraced so many cultures by being on television and celebrated each culture in a beautiful way and brought it to the general public, which has been incredibly impactful, for all of food.”
“Everyone looks at social media and thinks, ‘Oh, they have such a great life.’ The reality is we all have tough things, and we don’t post them on Insta-Facebook. A guy who was known to be so opinionated couldn’t speak out about this. It makes you wonder who else is out there.”
“He was a little bit edgy. He was quotable. He was interesting, and traveled, and ate cool food. He took some of the air out of the balloon surrounding fine dining and fancy food. It can be unique and special and interesting without a lot of circumstance. It was easy to identify with him: ‘God, man, that’s who I want to be.’ I admire that. But that edge came with a price. . . . If there is an opportunity when the dust settles, maybe this is a real wake-up call for [someone] to get some help.
You see the shell and it looks amazing. You don’t know what’s on the inside. I hope he inspires as many young men and women whom he did in cooking to look at their own mental health and shake that up. You don’t know what people are made of. You only know what you see.”