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What made Anthony Bourdain distinct as a writer was what made him a great television personality: He unprettified reality and found a deeper truth in the lives of people who made food. He did not so much glorify the hot line as much as talk about the grit it took to work and live there, the strangely insulated and relatively safe world it became for people who had often grown up in unsafe worlds, the barracks mentality that fostered its own language and code of behavior.
Readers loved Bourdain because he made the world of the kitchen seem an outlaw’s refuge, a place where men—it was usually men—who had felt like outcasts could be themselves, show casual contempt for customers out front, make quick money, and spend quick money on drugs and listening to the actual rock stars he made chefs seem like. No one before him had made the sweat and burns of working the line seem cool, though that world had been described—by George Orwell, whose Down and Out in Paris and London Bourdain referred to at the beginning of Kitchen Confidential, a book that established Bourdain as a literary, and then television, star.
The tensions in Bourdain’s life and persona were all apparent in that book: the need to live at the margins, to shake free the bounds of convention, to live exactly as he pleased, to taste danger and freedom and blood and offal. But there was nothing undisciplined about his life in the kitchen or as a writer. Or particularly unconventional. His mother was a longtime copy editor at The New York Times. When I was working as a restaurant critic at New York magazine, its then-executive editor, Michael Hirschorn, thought he had the first-serial rights to Kitchen Confidential sewn up, and then The New Yorker snatched them away.
And even if his persona was all tattoo and all bad boy, Bourdain was deeply moral, and deeply compassionate. His character sketches of his fellow cooks showed a humility and curiosity about the lives of others that made his television series stand far, far above anyone else’s. He had been through fire, literal and spiritual. That left him alive to not just the pain of the cooks who had practiced their trade until they were good enough to attract his attention. It also left him alive to joy: the joy of a burrito or spring roll or soup dumpling or churrascaria or squid skewer. Of living in a new landscape, spectacularly beautiful or spectacularly simple.
To be as productive and seductive as Bourdain took iron discipline, personal and physical, as a very good recent New Yorker profile demonstrated. The piece hinted at the anger that kept Bourdain constantly practicing martial arts, and the uneven passions that kept his domestic life forever impermanent, devoted as he was to his young daughter. No one can ever know, or guess, why someone takes his own life. But as a very recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study reported this week showed, suicide is rising sharply and alarmingly. Obituaries now include, as they should, information on detecting and preventing it.
What we have lost, aside from a unique talent and presence, is a voice that stood for dominance over pain, for finding sensual ecstasy in food you made or found, for respecting the humanity of every person who grew and made that food. I’ll miss that voice like no one else’s, however many people tried to write like him. It was a voice that stood for seeing what was wrong and right and calling it when you saw it. Bourdain was the first food-world figure to tweet Brett Anderson’s story about the sexual license of the New Orleans chef John Besh, and the most relentless and insistent voice telling other chefs to clear out once their bad behavior was exposed. Those chefs casually continued a kind of injustice that made Bourdain, always quick to anger, more and more outraged.
Anthony Bourdain changed the way we think about restaurant kitchens and about the people within them—the women he had recently championed, and the passionate drudges he always loved. His greatest legacy will be better working conditions for the people whose lives—complicated, grimy, painful, raucous, joyful—he celebrated.
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