What I Learned from Anthony Bourdain

by Patrick LeClerc

Anthony Bourdain’s death hit me hard. He was an inspiration to me, through his writing and his television shows, making an impression on both my writing and my outlook on life.

As a writer, I have to say his prose connected with me on many levels. His style was conversational, simple, familiar. But then he would drop in similes and witticisms that changed a simple sentence to poetry, without ever becoming florid or overbearing. When Bourdain got deep, you felt that it was to rip off a scab, to expose the truth, not to show off. There was a spare beauty and subtle grace to his writing. Maybe Hemingway could have pulled it off. Maybe not. Maybe Twain, if you correct fro a century and a half. I tried to take a lesson there, and I’m grateful to have stumbled across Kitchen Confidential when I did.

More than that, his words spoke to me because he was unapologetic about his opinions and beliefs, but never afraid to admit he was wrong or to take his lumps for it. I will admit that I saw something familiar in the stories of his early mistakes, his “wilderness years” of irregular employment and poor life choices. He never blamed his misfortune on his past or his upbringing or society. He knew he had come from upper middle class comfort if not luxury, and he knew that his start was one of privilege compared to many of the people he worked alongside in various kitchens. He knew that he was there by choice, a choice not everyone has, and he seemed grateful to have found a lifestyle that fit his psyche in a way probably no other job would have.

He acknowledged the fact that he got lucky with the success of Kitchen Confidential. Not that it was without merit. The book is an entertaining read by any objective standard, and I found it brilliant, but success in publishing often comes down to luck and Bourdain seemed to understand that he’d caught lightning in a bottle. I’m sure he never expected the level of popularity it achieved. He just wanted to write a book that cooks could relate to. But that success — coming when he was in his forties, starting to feel the effects of age and youthful excess catching up, making long days on his feet in a hot kitchen seem like something that maybe wasn’t going to be sustainable —  was a lifeline, and he knew it. When fame gave him a forum, he spoke out against injustice where he saw it, and later in his life he wondered openly about how much his own work had glorified the testosterone driven toxicity of restaurant culture.

His other great quality, though, the one that I fell made him a great man, was his openness to other people. His career coming up with dishwashers and cooks, often immigrants, and often undocumented ones, impressed upon him a sense of solidarity with people from other backgrounds, and helped him see that we’re more alike than we are different. In his later career, when he was making travel shows, on his journeys to distant lands and to parts of his own country so different from the New York where he spent most of his life, he was always respectful of the locals, open to the experience of meeting them and deeply grateful for the hospitality shown him. His food shows took place more often in duck blinds or a firepit in the desert or a food stall on the street or a blue collar home kitchen than a Michelin starred restaurant. But he still seemed deeply honored by every meal served him.

If Bourdain tried to teach us anything, I think it was this. To go out and experience the world with an open mind, not to close yourself off out of fear. To take those risks, to experience life and be thankful for the opportunity.

The manner of his death hit me hard as well. I’ve seen more than enough of that, and seen too many of my comrades go down that road. This should also teach us that you never know what someone else is going through. Don’t judge. Plenty of us wrestle with our demons. Some times the demons win.

So I will try to learn from Bourdain. Be honest with yourself. Admit your mistakes, but don’t run from them. Be open to new experiences. And look for connections with your fellow humans, not divisions.

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