It always takes me a while to process things, and I’d like to pretend this leads me to think about things a lot before I say them, but that “virtue” only really extends to writing—and is propped up by laziness.
Anthony Bourdain has come and gone, having apparently hanged himself in a hotel room in the middle of shooting new episodes of his incredible CNN Travel/Culture series, Parts Unknown. He left behind no note or explanation, or if he did, it hasn’t been made available to the public.
There’s been no shortage of tributes to Bourdain since then, from chefs, writers, activists…the list goes on. I’m adding nothing particularly new and insightful to that list, but as I’ve been re-watching some of his work, I’d like to add my voice to the chorus proclaiming that what Anthony Bourdain dedicated his life to was nothing short of radical compassion.
Make no mistakes—the author of Kitchen Confidential and Medium Raw, the host of Parts Unknown, No Reservations, and The Layover had a brand, one that was rooted in a certain type of swaggering machismo and irreverent cool that can sometimes grate. His output was possessed with a certain opinionated authority that can turn some people off, especially as we collectively lurch towards a society in which we question exactly how many cool, swaggering straight white dudes we need in the cultural conversation.
However those critiques of Bourdain’s brand do nothing to dampen the aching desire for connection and compassion that underscores all of Bourdain’s creative output, and one that is realized most purely in Parts Unknown. The strength of the show lies not just unearthing the little-known or unseen, but in Bourdain’s understated deference to people who are different to him.
Watch episodes in which Bourdain travels to the Congo, Houston, Myanmar, Los Angeles, Chicago. The common thread is the method by which the host seeks to interact with members of a community that is not his own: one possessed by curiosity, empathy, kindness, and humility. The manners extended to his hosts do not feel like a matter of decorum, they feel genuine. Wherever Bourdain goes, he asks questions, sits back, listens, and offers gratitude. He is pointedly aware of his status as a guest, an attitude that would be refreshing to find in any world traveler, let alone one propped up by status and fortune.
Even setting that graciousness aside, the entire premise of Bourdain’s oeuvre was rooted in the radical notion that we all have something to offer one another, and that we all have an obligation to seek out and understand one another. He celebrated differences as well as common bonds. He strove to highlight what it was about this world that is so beautiful, in spite of all the strife, turmoil, sorrow, and conflict.
Why Bourdain chose to end his life is, at this point, a matter of speculation. Given his past history with substance abuse and depression, his political leanings, and the overall state of the world—something Bourdain was probably even more hyper aware of than most—I can’t help but wonder if he, having reached the age of 61 with a lifetime of achievement, found the looming threat of fascism too much to take. It could be something else entirely, but his choice is certainly something of a blow to people who admired him for being uncompromising in his goals and values in a world that seems to be pulling away from them.
We all need to take heart and remember Anthony Bourdain not just for who he was and what he did, but what he stood for. The feelings he conjured up in people were extraordinary, and that collective yearning for connection, adventure, understanding, and mystery are what drew us all to his aura and his work. We shouldn’t forget that, even as we mourn our loss. What Bourdain did was rare, but it doesn’t have to be.