I’ve been a fan of Tony Bourdain’s since I read his 1999 “Don’t Eat Before Reading This” essay in the New Yorker. He entranced me from the start with his irreverent yet decidedly somehow still respectful voice. This line clinched it for me: “Good food, good eating, is all about blood and organs, cruelty and decay. It’s about sodium-loaded pork fat, stinky triple-cream cheeses, the tender thymus glands and distended livers of young animals. It’s about danger—risking the dark, bacterial forces of beef, chicken, cheese, and shellfish. Your first two hundred and seven Wellfleet oysters may transport you to a state of rapture, but your two hundred and eighth may send you to bed with the sweats, chills, and vomits.”
As the years progressed, I avidly followed his television career. In March of 2012 the local rumor mill was rampant with breathless whispers of Bourdain’s advance team filming footage around Austin for No Reservations, and I was giddy with excitement. When I was quietly told that I would “want to be here on Saturday at opening” by JMueller Barbecue pitmaster John Mueller, there was no mystery behind the vague words. I knew it was my chance to see Bourdain up close and personal, but I had no idea just how up close and personal the day would become. If you view his Austin barbecue episode (Season 8), I’m the diner in the aqua colored blouse sitting next to Daniel Vaughn at the table with Bourdain, who is seated diagonally opposite me. After filming wrapped, I broke my cardinal rule of never asking a celebrity if they’d take a photo with me, and Bourdain agreed readily, with a smile, even though he’d just worked through a long line of fans who’d waited to greet him. I can say that he was just as genuine, as sharply witty, and as warm in person as he comes across on tv.
Arguably one of the most influential chefs of our age, Bourdain was a sort of everyman’s bon vivant, but without pretense. He used his television shows to showcase not only great food around the world, but also the people behind the food, their lives, their humanity. Bourdain showed us the extreme poverty of some, and the extreme wealth of others. He opened a window to the culinary world and showed us that while we are all so very different, we are all so very much the same: we want good food, to be enjoyed with good people, in a moment of time that uplifts us both physically and spiritually.
Losing such a man to the blackness of depression is a tragedy on many levels. My heart aches for his young daughter, who will meet each milestone in her life with its appropriate joy, but also a continuation of grief for her loss. Bourdain’s death reinforces the sad truth that depression destroys lives no matter how well lived they may seem. For me, personally, I will take what Bourdain has taught me, and eat more mindfully, more in tune to the hands that prepared my repast, the story behind them, and the history that shaped the recipes. I will honor him, through the medium that gave him to the masses.