Anthony Bourdain Death Response
By: Zach Diamond
In January 2016, David Bowie died. Despite his most influential music being released decades before his death, the disappearance of such a legendary figure shook me. It made me realize that in the near future, several more cultural and personal idols are also going to reach their time. Fatalistically, I mentally prepared myself for the deaths of influences like Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney, Eric Clapton and other icons of the 1960s. People for whom merely achieving old age seemed impossible after enduring the unhinged lifestyle of the 60s, 70s, and 80s. Even though these people appear to have surpassed mortal status through massive cultural influence and reverence, they, like everyone else, will undergo senescence, and I have to accept that.
In June 2018, Anthony Bourdain died. A death for which I did not prepare myself. While Bowie’s death triggered sadness and reflection of the universal nature of death, Bourdain’s death evoked different emotions: confusion, frustration, and most of all, anger. Yes, mental illness has the capacity to reach anyone regardless of their success or perceived happiness, but I have to admit that I am angry with him for the message that his suicide sends. More than his proclamations on food and the chef lifestyle, Bourdain represented someone who had achieved maximum breadth of cultural understanding. He provided hope to the idea that no matter being from Tel Aviv, Tehran, Paris or Hanoi, we all grapple with the same human condition and strive for the same fundamental life joys. What message does it send when someone who possesses such a deep understanding and appreciation of what it means to be human decides to kill himself? After experiencing so many traditions, arts, and cuisines all around the globe, could he still not find gratitude? Did his experiences not enable him to push through inner demons and realize that we are all in this together?
It wasn’t until his death that I understood how profound of an effect on my life Anthony Bourdain had. While the rock stars of the 1960s influenced my music and helped me get through hard times, Bourdain gave me a path to go down, a lifestyle for which to aspire. Watching him slurp noodles on the side of the street in southeast Asia, showed me that authentic cultural experience is attainable. It made me turn my head from hoity-toity, chic restaurants serving uncreative bland dishes and search for the hole-in-the-wall canteens, whose plates may not be picturesque and whose interior decor may be lacking, but whose food is rooted in deep tradition and identity. It made me hungry for the raw experience, for the product that centuries-worth of rituals, environment, scarcity, and even atrocity have created. I learned that every single race, ethnicity, and culture has something worth celebrating whether it be music, art, or food, and I was driven to experience as much as possible.
The timing of his death was ironically impeccable. I write this from a coffee shop in Lima, Peru, the city to where I boarded a plane with a one-way ticket two weeks ago. After a few years of unfulfilling jobs and a seemingly panoptic comfort zone, I decided it was time to get out. Since I’ve been here, I have eagerly hunted after each and every rugged market, candid bistro, and divey bar in the city. I have avoided fellow tourists as if they were the health and safety hazards of which my doctor warned me. I have sought help from local Peruvian foodies to show me their favorite spots and, honestly, I’ve been quite successful. On several occasions over the past couple weeks, I have said to myself that I feel like Anthony Bourdain, a tremendously gratifying feeling. For the first time in my life, I feel like I am in the thick of it, just like him, roaming unfamiliar streets with a totally open mind, ready to try that new food, or drink a beer with that stranger. When I befriended an 85-year-old Peruvian man in the market over chicken-gizzard soup, I felt that I was in Bourdain’s shoes, that I was on the path on which I have always wanted to be.
And now, I question the value of that path. In my mind, Bourdain would be the first person to chide the banal, suburban lifestyle of a 9-5 job, brand new car, and swingset in the tuft of grass called a backyard, a lifestyle I have feared earnestly. But maybe the comfort in that lifestyle holds more weight than I give it credit. In the final scene of Goodfellas, Ray Liotta’s Henry Hill complains of life in suburban witness protection saying, “there’s no action.” When he ordered “spaghetti with marinara” he got “egg noodles with ketchup.” He traded the excitement of being a criminal for the monotony of everyday life. Nonetheless, he wasn’t killed by fellow mobsters or thrown in prison. Although not a criminal, maybe Anthony Bourdain represents the other side of that story. Going from the demanding lifestyle of a chef to battling drug addiction to being a revered celebrity, maybe egg noodles with ketchup was what Bourdain needed.
And yet, grasping the fact that someone so cool, so comprehensive, so urbane would submit to the existential terms of our being is difficult. Is there something to be learned from his death in the same way that I learned so much from his life? Did he err in the way that he lived his life or were his inner demons to strong from the start? Standing at the beginning of the path paved by Bourdain, is it in my best interest to turn around? He admitted that the idea of a light at the end of the tunnel is false, saying once, “Maybe that’s enlightenment enough: to know there is no final resting place of the mind no moment of smug clarity.” Because of his awareness, I would like to think that his death was calculated, that he wanted us to learn from it and be mystified by his decision. But then again, he was only human like the rest of us.