I woke up this morning to the news of Anthony Bourdain’s suicide. I’m not usually affected by celebrity deaths. Robin Williams’ hit me, and I always feel a moment of sadness for the friends and families of those who have passed, but celebrities are — almost by definition — people I do not know. I know of them. I know about them. But I do not know them.
A lifetime ago, I was a cook in a good restaurant in a sleepy college town. My chef recommended Kitchen Confidential to me. And I devoured it. I wasn’t planning on cooking as a profession. Like many people in restaurant kitchens, it was something I was doing to bide the time while I waited for the next thing to come along. Cooking for other people was what made things like eating, drinking, and living indoors possible for me. Reading Bourdain’s book didn’t change that.
But was there any young cook — professional or not — who didn’t want to be Anthony Bourdain? A rising star sure, but also a well-loved scoundrel and a damn fine cook? Even if we didn’t live that life, we knew it… at least a little bit. I never did cocaine off a cutting board, but I was part of the kitchen culture of yelling and teasing and swearing and drinking too much. And I know that there were other people in that restaurant who were doing far worse things. We were all embroiled in the simple self-destructive behaviors of a kitchen. And those behaviors were, in a strange way, done in the service of making something beautiful. That steak tip pasta has just a few ingredients, but one of them is a little bit of zest from the soul of the person who cooked it.
And here was Bourdain, putting that life — and so much more — into words. He wrote with the same visceral intensity that he cooked with. He made it look like he must have picked over each word with great care, like a tv chef at a farmers market carefully inspecting every apple and asparagus before putting it in the basket. But I suspect that it was a little more like the kitchen life he wrote about: careful and hurried all at once, an ounce of linguistic sauce covering a multitude a sins.
I didn’t follow him much after I left the restaurant. I caught occasional interviews and episodes of A Cook’s Tour, No Reservations, and Parts Unknown (did anyone watch The Layover?). I saw the other side of the cook. The gastronome, yes, but also someone who just loved food. It didn’t have to be fancy. It just had to be good. And ‘good’ was a big category, ranging from mom’s homemade meatloaf to weird stinky cheeses to cobra heart. His work was a reminder that we are all united by food — by that need to consume something else — even if some of us wouldn’t even entertain the idea that what some of the rest of us eat qualifies as food.
As I said at the beginning, I was a restaurant cook a lifetime ago. Since then, I’ve worked plenty of odd jobs. But, mostly, I’ve been a student, a fundraiser, and a pastor. Some of my favorite images from the Bible are of food. The feast of rich foods and well-aged wines at the end of days, the last supper that Jesus shared with his disciples, the fish that he shared with a few of them after his resurrection, the fruit of the tree of life in the book of Revelation. The Bible is full of reminders that God feeds us, and that we imitate God when we feed each other… especially when we feed those who do not have enough to eat.
Tony — if I can call him Tony — Tony’s life and death is a reminder of things that unite us all. He completed suicide at the age of 61, a sad reminder of the fragility of human life. Even a successful celebrity chef who gets to travel the world and eat great, and occasionally disgusting, food can be broken broken enough to end his life. And if that’s true for him, then it is also a reminder that everyone is struggling with a brokenness we know nothing about.Everyone is struggling with a brokenness we know nothing about. If you or someone you know is considering suicide, please 1-800-273-8255. Click To Tweet
But those 61 years are a reminder of something else, as well: food can bring us together. Our way out of that brokenness can include the small kindness of sharing a meal, of being at a table together with friends and family and strangers, of breaking bread or weird stinky cheese or cobra heart together. In the midst of all of the terrible things in the world, there is the beauty of a medium rare steak, the sublime flavor of garlic soup, the warm comfort of a reasonably priced merlot, and the joy of good company.In the midst of all of the terrible things in the world, there is the beauty of a medium rare steak, the sublime flavor of garlic soup, the warm comfort of a reasonably priced merlot, and the joy of good company. Click To Tweet
As a Christian, I have faith that there are more things in heaven and earth than we can dream of. I don’t know what is next for Tony, but I entrust his soul to God. And I will choose to believe that he has pulled a chair up to a great table and is enjoying a feast of rich foods and well-aged wine, of rich foods filled with marrow and well-aged wines strained clear.
Go in peace, chef.