You may not have heard of him or know of him only in passing, but Anthony Bourdain is one of those people who defy a simple label. Yes, he was an award-winning chef.
But perhaps more importantly, he was a master interviewer, even if he never viewed himself that way. He exposed millions of people to the rich and diverse cultural and culinary world, challenging us to open up our own horizons through the exploration of food.
Bourdain is a chef, writer, and personality that made his mark in the culinary world back in 2000 with the book, “Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly.” He spent the early part of his career running a number of kitchens in New York City (most famously, Brasserie Les Halles), but the success of the book propelled him in a different direction. Kicking the more serious drug habits that so many chefs succumb to, he started doing television shows.
The success of the book landed Bourdain a television show called “A Cook’s Tour” on the Food Network. After that, he hosted two successful shows on the Travel Channel: “Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations” and “The Layover.” In each of these shows, you couldn’t but help notice that although he could be at times overbearing and self-absorbed, he demonstrated a wily intelligence and naked honesty. Traits not usually associated with successful television shows about food.
He jumped ship in a risky move to CNN in 2013 with the launch of a show called “Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown.” The food show — which takes the host to various countries turning it into a rich and glorious travelogue — has won multiple Emmy Awards. It cemented his reputation as a thoughtful and insightful commentator on the intersection of food and culture.
Many people can’t afford to travel, especially to some of the more exotic locations that Bourdain was best known for. Viewers could vicariously share these experiences with him, and learn a little bit about the people and their culture too. Underrated was Bourdain’s honesty and his interviewing skills, by being able to draw ordinary people out of their shells to talk about what was important to them in their food, neighborhood, and culture. He opened our eyes while doing so in an entertaining fashion.
After watching an episode of his show, you often felt like the world was a little bit smaller, because you saw how much alike we all really are as human beings. Once you strip away the shallow identifiers of race and nation, you discover what most world travelers already know — we’re more alike than we are different.
Bourdain, like Kate Spade earlier this week, died by apparent suicide. He was 61 and left behind an 11-year-old daughter, Ariane. He quit his 2-pack-a-day smoking habit in 2007 when she was born, and was just a casual drinker by the end of his life.
The Rising Tide of Suicide
Despite our best efforts, suicide is rising at a rate that is alarming to many epidemiologists, psychologists, and health policy experts. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) noted recently that suicide is now one of the leading killers of people, and has risen over 25 percent since 1999. What people don’t appreciate, however, is that suicide is not just a mental health problem, as this NPR article notes:
Often, the suicide seemed to happen without warning: 54 percent of the people who killed themselves didn’t have a previously known mental health issue. “Instead, these folks were suffering from other issues, such as relationship problems, substance misuse, physical health problems, job or financial problems, and recent crises or things that were coming up in their lives that they were anticipating,” says Stone.
So many people today simply don’t seem to have the resilience or the resources to adequately and effectively cope with the stressors of living. I’m not sure we know or fully understand the reasons behind this lack of resources — could it be our over-reliance on technology? lack of meaningful rights of passage in adolescence? or something else altogether? — but we’re looking at a trend that is unlikely to get better on its own.
The CDC report suggests helping people more with resilience by teaching better problem-solving and coping skills earlier in life. And that may help, some. But as these recent celebrity suicides highlight, the problem can impact even those people who, by most measures, likely already have these skills and seem to otherwise have a pretty well put-together life.
Collectively, we all need to do more to help reduce this problem — it’s not something the government or a mental health advocate can do on their own. Sure, we can highlight the problem draw attention to it, and use a celebrity’s death to help remind us that in addition to Bourdain, 122 other less-famous individuals also died by suicide on the same day. Another 123 will die today. And another 123 will die tomorrow.
Some people believe, “Well, it’s their choice. What can be done to stop a person’s choice in a matter such as this?” While suicide may be viewed as a conscious choice by some, it is anything but. It is a choice predicated on lies. It is a choice of a hopeless person who can see no end to their emotional pain and turmoil. And it is a choice that results in a permanent end to what is most often a temporary problem.
In short, it is a false choice — one we mustn’t rely on to explain our own inaction or lack of caring.
I’ll leave it here with a few of my favorite quotes from Bourdain:
“If I am an advocate for anything, it is to move. As far as you can, as much as you can. Across the ocean, or simply across the river. Walk in someone else’s shoes or at least eat their food. It’s a plus for everybody.”
“As you move through this life and this world you change things slightly, you leave marks behind, however small. And in return, life — and travel — leaves marks on you. Most of the time, those marks — on your body or on your heart — are beautiful. Often, though, they hurt.”
“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.”
Rest in peace, Anthony Bourdain.
Need help now?
Please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.
Learn more: Suicide Helpline: Suicide Resources