“Not you too.”
That caption under a photograph of Chef Anthony Bourdain was the first thing I saw on my Instagram feed Friday morning… and my heart sank.
Kitchen Confidential: Adventures In The Culinary Underbelly, Bourdain’s first book from 2000, directed my budding bulldozing path as a new restaurant owner and chef. The first few pages give a glimpse, for someone who is not in the “business”, on how we as food service professionals exist. It almost grants immunity to the weirdness that is a cook and chef. From our addictions ( and we all have addictions of some sort), forgiveness for failed or nonexistent relationships, the immunity for not being able to function in public outside of a restaurant’s kitchen, along with the kinsman mentality only found and coveted in our respective kitchens.
Chefs all have that story of how or why we fell into the mad-cap world of culinary arts and threw away any notion (even if there was one) that our days would be filled with suits and ties, corporate meetings, and European ski vacations filled with après ski meals and hot encounters in hot tubs with hot nameless-faceless-many. Tony told the story of traveling to France as a kid and trying Vichyssoise for the first time and how that first taste opened his eyes to the wonder that is food and the joy in cooking.
For many American chefs and cooks, especially those of us not in New York or Los Angelas, those words and that introduction to Bourdain and his tales of thriving and failing in the “culinary underbelly”, rang true. Even if we were in Oklahoma City or Tulsa, Wichita and Dallas. We did not have to work in the one-word-non descript -75 seat- boutique-cafes. Those experiences of Bourdain’s, for the tried and true cook, were the same experiences we were having in chain restaurants and hotel banqueting centers. We knew and understood the passion that is cooking and sometimes Gypsy way of life Bourdain reveled (and the ultimate disdain) in his years cooking in New York. We understood the personal failures. We saw either in ourselves or in others the rabbit hole of substance abuse and ultimately the struggle to crawl out and get back to what we love… the kitchen.
Bourdain’s continued success as an author and TV personality expanded his role outside of the kitchen and introduced him to even more people… those people who have a love for cooking and dining. The role of “Chef” has never been subjugated to being the lead person in a kitchen, in a restaurant, creating menus, and knocking out fantastic meals. When you are chef you are also an educator. You teach the young and eager minds under your “toque” about the history of food, the geography of a spice, the scientific method of baking. Bourdain did that in his years of filming Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations, The Layover, and CNN’s Parts Unknown. He took us to places and locals that many would never see in a lifetime. A kid in Creek County Oklahoma, who loves baking bread, got to experience the wonders of former Soviet Republic of Georgia’s Kachapuri. One of Bourdain’s many episodes exploring Viet Nam, and his undying love for the people and street food vendors, opened our eyes and palates to trying
Bánh Cuốn (steamed rice rolled cakes) or sour crab soup Bún Riêu. These episodes and far off locals also opened our eyes to the rich histories and cultures of people, even when our only impression of them were politically influenced as being intimidating and “evil”, as with his coverage of Iran. That particular episode holds a special place in my heart, and it gave viewers and whole new understanding of the country and the people.
When Chef Paul Bocuse, the “father of modern cuisine”, died earlier this year at the age of 91 the outpouring of love and respect from culinary giants around the world was immeasurable. Bocuse was hands down “Toque d’Or” or Golden Toque. He was the brilliant, respected, romanticized ideal of what most think chefs are. We knew he was aging and we knew he was battling cancer, so his transition was eventually expected and the entire culinary community was prepared. But we were not prepared for Bourdain. He was that American Chef, that rough and outspoken New Yorker, who never sold out and who earned his kitchen stripes through years of hustling and often personal peril. Bourdain’s end was a sucker punch to many of us Friday morning. The social media posts from those chefs in the spotlight to those of us “no-one-knows”, all resounded the same emotional feeling of loss… and respect.
A respected Elder in the American culinary world who I am sure would cringe at the title. A man who probably never wanted the spotlight, as many chefs do not, but whose internal wiring to teach, to lead, to cook, outweighs anything else in life.
Bourdain was ours, and he taught us how to cook, how to live, and how to explore the world. He showed us that food does bring people together despite the politics of any one country. Yes, Bourdain was ours, and I hope we can all focus not on how he left us, but how he lived. In that lies his legacy.