“Context and memory play powerful roles in all the truly great meals in one’s life.” Anthony Bourdain
There are few genres in popular culture like the cult of celebrity chef. Jamie Oliver, Gordon Ramsay, Nigella Lawson all have their place in the pantheon, and all have a hook.
Then there was Anthony Bourdain.
A man who worked as Executive Chef at Brasserie Les Halles, and who wrote a famous article in the New Yorker. He wasn’t a media personality at the time. And he wasn’t the sort of person you’d anticipate to become the stereotypical media darling. But this first paragraph tells you all you need to know about his skill with words:
“Good food, good eating, is all about blood and organs, cruelty and decay. It’s about sodium-loaded pork fat, stinky triple-cream cheeses, the tender thymus glands and distended livers of young animals. It’s about danger—risking the dark, bacterial forces of beef, chicken, cheese, and shellfish. Your first two hundred and seven Wellfleet oysters may transport you to a state of rapture, but your two hundred and eighth may send you to bed with the sweats, chills, and vomits”.
You know what he means. you can see it, you can feel it. You know deep down that those delicious oysters could well spell doom, but you also don’t really care. Bourdain hits at an essential truth about food. Most good food, at it’s clogged heart, is anything but.
He became a larger than life media star after writing Kitchen Confidential. Often linked by people who didn’t really pay attention as “The American Ramsay”. And you’d be completely wrong about that. He could seem to be grouchy and abrasive. But he was, in reality, anything but.
No Reservations put him in front of a global audience. And again, if you think it was just another food travel show, you’d be wrong. His trips to places such as Cambodia demonstrated his heart, and his passion for meeting new people and learning about life in their world. As he said in that episode “Once you’ve been to Cambodia, you’ll never stop wanting to beat Henry Kissinger to death with your bare hands. You will never again be able to open a newspaper and read about that treacherous, prevaricating, murderous scumbag sitting down for a nice chat with Charlie Rose or attending some black-tie affair for a new glossy magazine without choking. Witness what Henry did in Cambodia – the fruits of his genius for statesmanship – and you will never understand why he’s not sitting in the dock at The Hague next to Milošević.”
His food tours of Italy and possibly in my mind his most legendary trip to the Greek island, with copious amounts of raki being consumed demonstrated a passion and love for real food. His trip to Australia (and hanging out with Matt Moran) showed his appreciation for developing food culture. And the final scene of that episode said it all. Moran and Bourdain, outside a pub. Beer in hand. Pondering if the day needed to be more than that.
Bourdain was also passionate about social issues. He famously called out Trump on his immigration stance, talking about the blending of cultures found in kitchens all over America. As he said in Kitchen Confidential ““No one understands and appreciates the American Dream of hard work leading to material rewards better than a non-American.”
He was a key ally in the #metoo movement, one of the first male celebrities to publicly back everyone coming forward with their stories. But maybe, more simply, he was a key advocate for humanity.
And his serious nature was always punctuated by a fantastic humour, always designed to make the point more salient. As he reminded us all, “your body is not a temple, it’s an amusement park. Enjoy the ride.”
How to sum this all up? I’m numb, and I don’t really know what I set out to do. all I know is I was moved to write, well, something. I’ll give the last word to the great man.
“Maybe that’s enlightenment enough: to know that there is no final resting place of the mind; no moment of smug clarity. Perhaps wisdom…is realising how small I am, and unwise, and how far I have yet to go.”