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Damn you, Bourdain.
What David Bowie was to music, Anthony Bourdain was to cooks.
I read Kitchen Confidential as a 20-year-old boy with trembling hands in the wee hours of the morning while chain-smoking filterless cigarettes and halfway into a bottle of cheap bourbon. Hundreds of thousands of budding young cooks and I were gripped by the strong, clear voice of somebody who actually lived our life. Rough, tough, and combative, as a national book review might say.
I sweat bullets as I handed him my manuscript the day he came to give the graduation speech at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. He kindly folded it up, slid it into his breast pocket, and thanked me. I know I should have said something, told him he was my hero, but I couldn’t breathe. I have no idea if he ever read it.
Little did either of us know I would be giving the same speech 12 years later. Steeped as I was with the words of Anthony Bourdain, echoes of his influence surely were visible in mine.
Having been steeped in the soggy porridge of double-breasted, violin-tracked, toque-blanche Paul Bocuse culture of cooking schools, we kids we were ready for an explosion of acid rock. Far too long had we smiled and nodded – drool running down one side – scared to admit the incompatibility and incongruence of the world’s clean white expectation with the beat up Megadeath T-shirt we wore underneath.
Bourdain came after our effigies with a wrecking ball.
The wall of stiff professionalism came down and, suddenly, it was okay to be who were really were. As his book rumbled across the earth’s crust, cooks sang and danced like Ewoks around the campfire, drumming on the helmets of storm troopers. Someone had finally heard us.
There is something decidedly tribal about our life in a professional kitchen, and this is chiefly what felt right about Bourdain’s depiction of our culture. By the time he wrote A Cook’s Tour, he admitted to breaking what he perceived to be a largely unspoken law of our tribal ethos: “I sold my ass.”
In the updated preface to his Kitchen Confidential, rereleased in 2007, he looked back and intimately leveled with his reader:
“If I’ve betrayed anybody in my profession, it’s my cooks, whom I feel I’ve abandoned as I swan around the world flogging my books on television…I’m the chef I always hated as a cook, always coming from or going to someplace. My hands, which I’m so proud of in the final pages of the book, are soft and lovely now – like a little baby girl’s.
Too often, I feel the same, as I’m sure others must, too. He had a way of touching that chord in professional chefs that nobody else dared to play.
A dark side was part of the reality that Bourdain freed. The piano is not complete without the black keys, and Bourdain understood more than most that this was a necessary part of the human experience that we’ve spent far too much ink glossing over. It was this two-tone nature that gave his writing the complexity and balance lacking in most other media for our industry of talking heads and smiling faces.
Anthony Bourdain laid his life on the chopping block 17 years ago – in a way, for us. By inviting us into the drug-crazed and violent evolution of his soul, by sneaking a camera into the “culinary underbelly” that so many of us know, he brought compassion to a genre that is normally too shallow to contain it.
I am terribly sad at the manner of his death, and there is just no right way to take it. It would also hurt to see my hero in a wheelchair, or on some kind of tube. It hurts no matter what.
From one pirate to another, I raise a toast.