In Memoriam: Anthony Bourdain (1956-2018)

From our June 15 newsletter:

It’s been a week since the tragic news of Anthony Bourdain’s death by suicide sent much of the food world reeling, and a significant proportion of the non-food world too, notably Barack Obama, who that evening tweeted the following memory from his appearance on the Vietnam episode of Bourdain’s CNN series Parts Unknown:

So impactful was this meal for the small restaurant which hosted it that they in fact encased the table Bourdain and Obama sat at in glass (complete with chopsticks and beer bottles) on one side of the restaurant wall as a permanent exhibition – not, allegedly, as a PR stunt, but as a sign of respect normally accorded to only top leaders in Vietnam (and yes, the beer bottles and crockery had been washed beforehand).

While Obama was no doubt the more famous of the two, and the intended recipient of the honour, Bourdain’s response on Instagram – “Not sure how I feel about this” – exemplifies the humility that was arguably the greatest appeal of a “celebrity chef” who hated the term, likely because of the trappings of fame that it implied.

As New Yorker writer (and friend of Bourdain) Helen Rosner put it, “Bourdain’s fame wasn’t the distant, lacquered type of an actor or a musician, bundled and sold with a life-style newsletter. Bourdain felt like your brother, your rad uncle, your impossibly cool dad—your realest, smartest friend, who wandered outside after beers at the local one night and ended up in front of some TV cameras and decided to stay there. … His unwavering support of [Asia] Argento—as well as his ardent rejection of so much as a quantum of sympathy for famous chefs accused of transgression—brought him a new sort of celebrity as an activist, a revered elder statesman, an overt and uncompromising figure of moral authority”.

Asia Argento, Bourdain’s partner of the last two years or so, is a leading figure in the #MeToo movement initiated earlier this year, and which the late chef was a staunch supporter of, even as personal friends of his like Mario Batali were deeply implicated. She, and Bourdain’s 11 year-old daughter Ariane whom he was openly devoted to, are perhaps the most confusing pieces of an unsolvable puzzle of why someone who was so universally loved and admired, and who seemed to have the best job in the world, would choose to end his own life.

Indeed, in the opening sequence to the Hong Kong episode of Parts Unknown (aired on Sunday, June 10, two days after his death was announced), Bourdain is pictured alone on a ferry, writing in a journal while narrating his thoughts: “It is possible to fall in love with Asia, and to fall in love in Asia. I have done both”. This openly coded love-letter to his partner is a romantic gesture so thoroughly at odds with the idea of deep despair that in the absence of understanding how those two can co-exist, we should at best be reminded that things are not always what they seem on the screens we have come to rely on to communicate with each other.


A CNN report on the suicides of both Bourdain and fashion icon Kate Spade concludes: “We are awash in communications but few real connections. A like instead of a hug. A text instead of a call. A fleeting moment of healing – a royal wedding for an American actress, a long-awaited Caps hockey triumph in a dysfunctional capital, a racehorse achieving greatness – becomes a life raft. We celebrate and then disband. The cracks are there, exposed. And the light is outside, somewhere far above us. This week was a heartbreaking reminder to move toward it together, to give it a chance to get in”.

Let us hope that the darkness has ended for Anthony Bourdain.

(South African Depression and Anxiety Group Suicide Hotline: 0800 567 567. See here for other South African Suicide Hotlines)