I awoke this morning at 5:30 despite my best intentions, rolled over and looked at my phone. I opened Facebook and my friend Justin Finesilver had posted an article from CNN.com with this headline: “CNN’s Anthony Bourdain dead at 61.” I read the article and began writing this tribute at 5:38.
I’ve never met Anthony Bourdain in person, but upon reading this news could feel a part of me hollow out. I began to cry. In the abstract it feels silly that one would gin up this much emotion for a television personality, but that’s why media is so powerful. Television is ultimately a one-way medium where those who make it never see the back end of the transaction. They send the message, we receive it. It’s a one-to-many exchange that feels static but is incredibly dynamic in practical utility because each of us gets to recontextualize what we see into whatever we need, no matter the intent of its creators.
And that’s why I wept. Because Anthony Bourdain helped equip me to evolve parts of myself I didn’t like much. He’ll never get to know this, but I hope somewhere someone reading this takes whatever they need from my tribute to Anthony Bourdain. Rest in peace, Tony. This one’s for you.
When I was a kid, I was a very picky eater. For the first decade of my life I ate like 6 things. I didn’t eat chicken nuggets until I was about 9, burgers until I was 11, any type of potato besides French fries and chips until I was a teenager, eggs until I was like 19, salad until I was 22, and most vegetables until I was in my 30s. I used to get deep anxiety before just about every single meal because I was terrified of having something in front of me that someone would force me to try. This is also why I frequently didn’t like going to friends’ houses for dinner, and I absolutely dreaded the holidays because I knew those meals were ceremonial and largely prescribed.
I’ve spent virtually every Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter with our close family friends for the vast majority of my 36+ years on this planet, and sometimes when we get together now, someone will make a joke about remembering how when I was a kid I used to just eat dinner rolls at these holiday get-togethers. Everyone laughs, and there’s no malintent behind it, but damned if a part of me I wish I didn’t have that as part of my biography.
Those stories take me back to a place of shame, a place of fear, a place of embarrassment. Because if you’ve not been a picky eater at some point in your life, it’s an easy thing to scoff at. Haha, what’s the big deal? Just TRY it. What’s the worst that can happen? And that’s the thing, in the mind of a picky eater, we DON’T know. And we’re too terrified to find out.
No one wants to be a picky eater. No one wants to go see a therapist about it when they’re 11 because their mom is so frustrated by them. No one wants to answer questions about why they’re not eating the salad at the KCSU staff dinner when they’re 21 years old. The best analogy I can come up with is that inside the mind of a picky eater is a maze. And the part of us that doesn’t want to be this way anymore is somewhere in the middle of it. It takes luck, perseverance, and a confluence of factors to help us get out of there.
Granted, some people have little motivation to try and find their way out and those people end up ordering off the kids’ menu as an adult, and my heart breaks for them because I’ve been there. But I wanted desperately to not be a picky eater. How the fuck do I get out of this maze?
Three things happened in my mid-20s to early-30s that helped me escape the maze.
First, I got together with Kristin. You know when you watch baseball how some hitters just own pitchers every time they match up? They just see the ball clearly out of their hand and something about the rhythm of the pitch is just in tune with the way the batter likes to hit? I’m the pitcher, Kristin’s the hitter. She short circuits my neuroses, cuts through my bullshit, and knows (it feels like intuitively) how to unlock my brain better than anyone I’ve ever known. To that end, she knew exactly how to help me expand my palate in ways I previously thought unimaginable.
Second, I got into craft beer. And when you start trying styles you previously knew little about, you read descriptions of them. This IPA has notes of pineapple, mango, and papaya. Well, fuck. I’ve never eaten those fruits in a meaningful way, yet I adore this beer. Maybe I should try more foods. What else is out there?
Third, food shows on TV. Notably Man VS Food, Chopped, and No Reservations. I almost needed an intellectual-style hook to understand food. And that’s not to say these shows are high-falutin’ beacons of erudite discourse, especially considering Man VS Food is basically poor Adam Richman is basically torturing his gastro-intestinal system for our enjoyment, but hearing people who understand food explain why this thing goes with that and how the flavors worked in harmony helped me immensely.
I remember watching Adam Richman in Philadelphia describe the pork sandwich from Dinic’s. His description of how the pork, the shaved provolone and the broccoli rabe worked together to create this perfect sandwich grabbed onto me and didn’t let go. I didn’t even like broccoli (or so I thought at the time), yet whenever I made it to Philadelphia, I was determined to eat that sandwich in the way God and Dinic’s intended. Granted, by the time I actually did get there I was an old hand at eating broccoli. But, opening myself up to trying things the way experts had made them was game-changing, and I started experimenting with things I otherwise never would have. And for the record, the pork sandwich at Dinic’s is, to this day, the best sandwich I have ever eaten.
Chopped was amazing. The judges’ critiques of the chefs’ creations were eye-opening. “This needs more acid.” “You’ve got a lot of heavy, fried food. Something fresh would brighten this up.” “This type of green doesn’t work as well with this dressing. Have you considered this?” I got to peek through the keyhole into the minds of those for who food is their entire lives, and again, it opened me up.
But neither of those hold a candle to Bourdain’s impact on me. Tony got to travel the world, and his primary focus on every episode was food. Everything from exclusive Michelin Star cuisine to grubby street food – Tony loved it all. If you’re traveling to a new place and not eating the food of the region, why the fuck are you even there? This is why I get so angry when I see mobs of people eating at the Olive Garden in Times Square. You’ve probably got an Olive Garden in your shitty po-dunk little hamlet, why not head down a neighborhood that’s literally called Little Italy and try something a bit different?
In that CNN obit, the author cites how Tony described his work when receiving his 2013 Peabody Award:
“We ask very simple questions: What makes you happy? What do you eat? What do you like to cook? And everywhere in the world we go and ask these very simple questions,” he said, “we tend to get some really astonishing answers.”
Food unites us all, but when you’re a picky eater, all you see is division. Food for me growing up was anxiety, tension, dread. Watching Tony eat his way across the globe fundamentally altered my worldview. When someone offers you something they’ve cooked, they’re offering you a piece of themselves, which is unspeakably beautiful. And what you learn about yourself when you’re open to receiving the beauty of others transforms you.
None of this is to say I wasn’t thoroughly annoyed with Tony, and often. He could be smug, dismissive, myopic, needlessly contrarian.
I remember reading this Thrillist article a year and a half ago and getting a nice rage lather going. The misplaced snobbery of this quote in particular still angers me to this day, “You know, I haven’t made the effort to walk down the street 10 blocks to the microbrewery where they’re making some fucking Mumford and Sons IPA,” he said.
Dude, get fucked. Especially considering earlier in the article he says this, “And they see that I’m passionate about food, why am I not passionate about beer? I just ain’t. I’m just not.” Fine! I have no problem with that! Personally, I will never give a shit about coffee. I don’t like the way caffeine makes me feel, and my palate just cannot tell the difference between different types of beans, roasting processes, formats, or anything else. If you catch me drinking coffee ever, I’m probably drinking shitty diner coffee. But I’m not about to impugn anyone who loves coffee and dedicates their life to understanding it, or consuming it, or finding little out-of-the-way places who have a unique spin on it.
Jesus, that’s the entire fucking premise of No Reservations and Parts Unknown. He visits places large and small and finds connection, artistry, brilliance, beauty, usually in the medium of food and wine. Imagine espousing this viewpoint to Tony about food. Y’know, I’m just not passionate about food. I haven’t made the effort to walk down the street 10 blocks to Mama Goomba’s House of Marinara or whatever the fuck to eat a plate of noodles when the Olive Garden is RIGHT THERE.” He’d peel your hide for something that glib.
And this is to say nothing of his thoroughly unnecessary meanness to the likes of Emeril Lagasse and Guy Fieri (among others). I remember reading an article about a speaking engagement Tony made in Denver where he made fun of Guy Fieri, like usual. Someone had asked him a question, and Tony responded, “Guy Fieri, you’re 40 years old. Take the fucking sunglasses off the back of your head.” This earned uproarious applause and wild approval from the audience.
Shane Torres demolished Tony on this point in one of the funniest bits I’ve heard in years and shifted the way I looked at Fieri, who, I’ll admit, I used to goof on, too. Guy Fieri is an easy target thanks to his outlandish aesthetic and too-earnest-by-half, easily excitable persona. The rest of Tony’s oeuvre is filled with helping to demystify faraway cultures and humanize people it’s easy to forget about. Taking shots at an easy target like Guy Fieri is Tony slumming it.
For all his tough guy horseshit, it appears that Tony was masking deep pain. This isn’t a surprise when you stop and think about any chest-puffing, acid-tongued male archetype, but how often do we actually stop and think about it?
I used to be a real prick. Just this chubby, arrogant dipshit who thought he knew everything and I wasn’t afraid to make fun of everyone and everything. When you have soft targets, you overcompensate in other ways to try and paper over them. Why was I like this? I don’t know for sure, but perhaps it’s because deep down I knew I could be reduced to a quivering pile of terrified mush by a plate of vegetables placed in front of me. You need to feel tough when on a fundamental level you can be undone by carrots.
I have no idea what Tony’s soft targets were. I’ll never know. All I know is that Tony helped me overcome some of mine. And for that I’m forever grateful. That, and your shows were a joy to watch, and Kitchen Confidential was one of the breeziest, most enjoyable books I’ve ever read.
Thank you for your work, your life, and the impact you made on my life.
Rest in peace, Tony.