If you’re a professional chef or cook, read food blogs or watch TV you already know the bad news. Chef and TV personality Anthony Bourdain passed away yesterday morning in a French hotel room while filming his show Parts Unknown. He was 61 year old and left behind a daughter plus a legion of fans and admirers who run the gamut from industry kin to casual TV watchers.
The response has been immediate and overwhelming. Not since Bowie has the social media collective spoken so warmly about the loss of a prominent media figure and I think it’s probably due to the fact that beyond his celebrity status, Tony Bourdain was a really great person.
Now I don’t know this for sure, I never met him. My buddy Nick did and said he was a down to earth, good guy and I buy that. To most of us kitchen slobs he was “Crazy Uncle Tony” – A term I’m going to hereby shorten to just “Uncle Tony” but you’ll get why it stuck – the patron saint of line cooks, the chef who never sold out even when he did and the punk rock poster boy for why we industry kids do what we do.
So with everyone doing their Anthony Bourdain tributes I figured I’d take a shot. This is a terrible idea for two reasons: One – I’m terrible at eulogies. I’ve got four half-written Word files about my Grandfather who died more than a year ago sitting on my desktop that I can’t bear to finish because I know I’ll never do that great man justice. And two – I’ve had a couple drinks and I’m getting kind of emotional.
But maybe that’s okay. Most of the tributes I’ve read have been from media outlets or people more familiar with his post-Food Network stuff who never knew much about his cooking career. Kitchen folk are feeling this loss in a pretty profound way and I’m right there with ‘em. I’d like to vent a bit of the emotion that I encountered when a random 40ish guy in whites I met while biking behind a local eatery looked up from his phone, right into my eyes and asked, “You hear about Tony? Fuck me.”
So yeah, I’m going to be that guy… I’m going to be the hipster who says he was into your favourite band before they got big, when they just had demos. It’s juvenile, I know… Uncle Tony would approve.
“Welcome to my world!” – Anthony Bourdain
Every episode started with the same explosive jet of flame, rush of movement and young Tony’s New Yawk snarl blaring overtop. A Cook’s Tour was one of the very first shows on the fledging Food Network back in the late 90s and into the ‘aughts. It was a groundbreaking low-fi food travelogue that featured Bourdain, fresh of the success of his book Kitchen Confidential tromping around the world’s back alleys, smoking and searching for a good meal. It was the first of a long line of this type show he would host, and it was his best.
I was 21, freshly dropped out of college and had followed a beautiful BC girl back home to live with her family and… Well I didn’t really have a plan. We had dinner together almost every night and watched Iron Chef followed by Tony’s A Cook’s Tour. It was a brief and profoundly formative period in my life.
Bourdain’s mildly snarky and easy going nature along with his constant musical references immediately made him endearing and the exotic locales and strange culinary experiences that he fearlessly dove into fired my imagination. “I could be like this guy!” I thought, while voraciously reading through every cookbook I could and watching how Lisa made such amazing food. He may not have given me the cooking bug, but Tony Bourdain fed that bug a diet of punk pop culture speed until it was all I wanted to do with my life.
It wasn’t long after that I read the book…
“I wanted to write in Kitchenese, the secret language of cooks, instantly recognizable to anyone who has ever dunked french fries for a summer job or suffered under the despotic rule of a tyrannical chef or boobish owner.” – Anthony Bourdain
For those of you like my mostly-millennial serving staff who had no idea Tony was a writer, Kitchen Confidential was his bestselling 20 year memoir of life on the line, filled with stories both sublime and grotesque. It was his first work of non-fiction (he had two previous crime novels) and was an immediate success, propelling him into the mainstream consciousness and landing him the Food Network gig I first saw him on. Without it, Bourdain has admitted he would never have ended up anywhere but a ditch.
I got a paperback copy of it right around when I enrolled in the culinary course at NIC. I can’t remember who recommended it… Nick maybe? I hadn’t met Jess yet… I ‘dunno. My evening were spent up to my armpits in brackish dish water at the local pub and around 1:30am every night I’d get an after-shifter out in the smoke pit and crack open Kitchen Confidential by lamplight. I was living the dream.
It’s one of those books that defines a whole subculture and weaponizes their hopes, fears ‘n dreams into something they (we, I) use to defend ourselves against the horrible reality that often surrounds us. It’s brash and filled with stories too criminally impossible not to be true and moments of kitchen life so bang-on and undeniably genuine that even lifers crack a grin when you recount them. It’s the real deal kitchen book, the holy bible of misfit cooks. I’ve gone through eight paperback copies of it, giving away each one to some younger cook that I think would benefit from its endless wisdom, or just get a good laugh.
Tony’s voice as a writer was always the same voice he had on his TV shows and (I’ve been led to believe) the same voice he had in everyday life. It was his honest, unadorned pathos on display and it made him instantly click with not just us cooks, but everyone. He was a real person in an age of fake ass celebrity chefs that spent the majority of his time promoting other really honest, down to earth chefs: I know the names Fergus Henderson, Ferran Adria , Jose Andres, Jiro Ono and so many more because of Bourdain.
“Life is complicated. It’s filled with nuance. It’s unsatisfying. … If I believe in anything, it is doubt. The root cause of all life’s problems is looking for a simple fucking answer.” – Anthony Bourdain
Uncle Tony killed himself.
It’s a pretty hellish thing to think about, but one of my heroes was so low that he believed it was death or…what? We don’t know. We may never know. I’ve talked a bit with some of my kitchen family and no-one can seem to get their heads around it. Those words “suicide” stand out in big freaking blood red “look at me, aren’t I messed up?” letters on every news feed.
But it’s got us talking. Plenty of charities and funds have been thrown together in the chaotic hours after Tony’s death funneling money to help people with depression, counselling centers or suicide prevention initiatives. Cooks and chefs who have battled depression and addiction (quite a few of us) have come forward and told their stories to spread awareness.
I’ve been in contact with a bunch of kitchen folk that I haven’t seen in years. It seems like the whole community is reaching out, in every direction to grasp and tug and somehow sew us all back together after the rending of our culture’s fabric. It made me feel better to reach out… Maybe I should do that more.
Goodbye Uncle Tony, patron saint of line cooks, fabulous author and lifelong defender of the underdog… You will be dearly missed.