Anthony Bourdain? Dead? The reaction Friday 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,” exposing viewers to tastes and lands they’d never seen before. 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 in an Alsace hotel room.
His death brings into focus the brutalizing disconnect between the supposed glamour of restaurant life — hedonism! food! adventure! — and the despair that often simmers beneath the surface: long hours, easy access to drugs and alcohol, the constant pressure to succeed. As Jody Adams said in a 2016 Boston Globe piece about restaurant work and mental health: “There’s a glorification of a terrible culture.”
Bourdain seemed to easily embody both worlds. He enjoyed celebrity status as a raconteur and rambler, in books and on television. He moved nimbly between high society and the counterculture, dining in Hanoi with President Barack Obama and rhapsodizing about punk rock in Spin magazine. But he also wrote candidly about his struggles with drug addiction in his culinary memoir “Kitchen Confidential” and about his succession of lowly kitchen jobs before rising to fame. He was unabashedly flawed. He celebrated booze, indulgent food, late nights. It seemed that he had no hidden demons; they were always devilishly exposed, for all to see. His brand was outsized honesty.
“One thing I can definitely say for myself is that he’s a mere example of what it is to be human. His struggle with drugs and then overcoming those; his irreverence. He was bigger than a chef to me,” said Kay Smith, a chef at Ashmont Grill.
But, in the end, he was only mortal.
“Too many chefs die too . . . soon,” tweeted food writer Kat Kinsman, the New York-based author of the mental health memoir “Hi, Anxiety,” after his death. Kinsman launched Chefs With Issues (www.chefswithissues.com) to offer mental health support to workers in an industry that frequently celebrates long hours, toughness, and bravado above all, where image often trumps any show of vulnerability.
“It’s an industry full of tough, driven, generous people, so many of whom are in pain and feel isolated,” she told me. “I wanted to make a place where they can talk freely and without judgment and find a way through together.”
Several Boston chefs reflected on Bourdain’s legacy after his passing. Many fought tears as they spoke, expressing the hope that his death serves as a wake-up call for mental health awareness in a business that thrives on gloss, image, and swagger.
“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,” said The Smoke Shop’s Andy Husbands.
“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 an Instagram post. It’s more than Facebook. This is something that actually needs to be tangible,” said Matt Jennings, the chef/owner at Townsman in Boston. “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.”
Tony Maws, who runs Craigie on Main and Kirkland Tap & Trotter, said Bourdain’s passing caused him to reflect on his own mental health struggles.
“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,’’ he said. “I don’t care if you’re a line cook or a banker. Everyone has their own [problems]. Everyone needs help. Life is a complicated voyage, and it’s hard to do it by yourself.”
But the business can be alienating — and the pressure is sometimes stifling. Cultivar’s Mary Dumont lamented the ongoing barrage of negative comments about restaurants on websites like Yelp. While most people conduct their careers in private without constant evaluation, chefs perform anew every day, and customers are free to criticize online, often in the most insensitive terms. It’s easy to forget that there’s a human on the other end.
“It takes such bravery to put your feet on the ground and be so readily judged,” Dumont said.
‘He was bigger than a chef to me.’
Meanwhile, Bourdain didn’t care what others thought, or so it seemed. He was gleefully outspoken about everything from Hollandaise sauce to the MeToo movement to Billy Joel. He was confident. He was idolized. And, as such, others fear that he might set an example in death, too.
“I’m worried that he was so revered, and rightly so, that there will be people in our industry that think this [suicide] is OK. I’m worried about that,” said Tiffani Faison, a chef from Sweet Cheeks and Tiger Mama restaurants, who said she was “heartbroken” by the news of his death.
On the other hand, Bourdain could serve as a pioneer in death as he did in life.
“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,” said Jeremy Sewall from Eastern Standard, Island Creek Oyster Bar, and Row 34.
And with Bourdain, we saw bravado. We saw happiness. We saw a pleasure-seeking pirate who traveled the world in search of authenticity and a good burger. So, for now, the culinary world grieves.
“We’re losing that guiding light that so many of us saw in him,” said Puritan & Company’s Will Gilson. “Now that he’s gone, who takes up the reins?”Kara Baskin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @kcbaskin.