A Wake Of Fire, Flour, Blood, Butter, and Ink- In Memoriam of Anthony Bourdain

Around 8 years or so ago, I was staying in my girlfriend’s apartment for the weekend. We have just finished making some chocolate cookies for after dinner. At the time, I was still working as an EMT- my work weeks were pretty grueling, and I found relaxation in cooking and baking at home. Often, I would bring in the results of my work to the Rescue Squad- they were usually very thankful. The EMT diet tended to be odd things at odd hours, washed down with way too much caffeine, and getting something home-cooked and half-decent just delivered to you was a rarity.
    While the cookies were cooling, Amanda said, You know, there’s this great show I’ve been watching recently on Travel Channel I think you’d like. This guy used to be a chef, and he just goes all over the world and talks about the food and culture and stuff. He just did a really funny episode about Prague. Hang on, I’ll pull it up.”
    I shrugged and crashed out next to her on the couch. It had a been a long day- a busy shift, and then driving the hour to get to her, I was eager to get as much sleep as possible on my days off.
    She pulled up the episode of Anthony Bourdain’s “No Reservations”- and my world tilted.
    In the weeks to come, I would start cooking and baking at home even more, trying out different recipes with Tony joking and laughing in the background from whatever corner of the world he was in. I would pick up “Kitchen Confidential,” and a number of his other books, devouring ALL of them. All the while, I’d bring in stuff for the squad- and I’d hear them say,Matt, this is REALLY good. Why are you running on an ambulance? You should be doing this!”
    8 years and a few days ago, I was informed that I’d been accepted to culinary school.

    Yesterday morning, my wife woke up a little bit before me. As she came back to bed, my alarm went off, but I hadn’t yet gotten up.
    “Oh my god… hun, have you checked your messages yet?”
    “What? No, I’m barely awake… why?”
    “Hun… Anthony Bourdain’s dead. Apparently suicide.”
    “… You are fucking with me.”
    

    I grabbed my phone, and saw the news story that my father had sent the family. “Son, I’m so sorry…”
    My world tilted again.
    I just laid still and stared at the ceiling for a while. Emily curled herself around me and rested her head on my chest. I was stunned… angry… disbelieving… shattered.
    Eventually, Cleo reminded me that my alarm had gone off and I needed to give her breakfast. I rose slowly, put on pajama pants and slippers. Shuffling to the kitchen, I pulled out a can of cat food and tipped half the mystery mush into her little steel bowl.

    It wasn’t until I saw her eating, and was standing in my kitchen, looking down into a half-can of cat food- that I broke down and wept.
    My hero was dead.

    Emily had suggested that I call out sick- something I am absolutely loathe to do. “Your hero is dead, Matt. You need time to process this. God forbid someone runs their mouth or pisses you off at the cafe today, you’re bound to snap- that’ll just make things worse.”
    I didn’t call out though. I went to work- because I am a cook. That’s what I do.
That’s what I do because of Anthony Bourdain.

Anthony Bourdain was not the best cook or chef in the world, and he absolutely SUCKED at anything to do with baking and pastry. He’d said before that he was only a decent cook and chef, and that none of his friends would have ever hired him at ANY point in his career.
    It was everything else he did OUTSIDE of the kitchen that made him an inspiration- not just to me, but to countless cooks and chefs my age. He was loving of us and our field, and honest about it in the face of romanticism. He had been in one end and walked out the other- alive and able to tell the story.
    He told a story of US- the people in the kitchen who work like our lives depend on it, because in most cases they do, and in some cases it’s the only certain thing we have left. We aren’t always smiling faces on TV above elaborate tablescapes, or potbellied Italian men with thick bullhorn mustaches. We are tattooed, pierced, and often lithe. We are stressed all to fuck- angry, fiery, demanding of everything because this is all we have left and all that makes sense to us. Some of us wanted to live this crazy life since childhood- others fell backwards into it. For some it was this or prison- or sometimes both.
    Tony told his story and ours, without apology.

    He brought the world to everyone- especially those of us that love food, and know its power. The power to bring people together, and say in silence what can’t come through in tour guides or speeches. Tony showed us a world of dinner tables- a place where despite race, religion, and nationality, everyone had this single thing in common. A single love, and a single language to express that and themselves to others.
    Tony’s love of the greater world and its cultures permeated everything he did. To this day, I can name at least 5 books I might never have picked up if Bourdain hadn’t talked about them and got me thinking, “How did this influence him so much?”

Perhaps more, Tony gave all of us a laugh, a hope, and a dream. He was for me precisely what Marco Pierre White had been for him- a symbol of pride and madness for one’s passion. A reminder that there is a place for everyone in this world- even the weirdos, the loonies, and the hellbent could find family. If you could work hard, take pride in it, and look after your buddies- it didn’t matter what else. You had a place in the kitchen.
    
    Lastly, especially for me- Tony was a hell of a writer. It was with his signature style of storytelling in mind that I began my blog. His contempt for sham, his rhapsodizing over something as simple as the first bowl of bun cha on arriving in Vietnam- something in that drove directly to my heart. The honesty, I guess. The unapologetic love of the simplest things in life, and finding the raw, perfect beauty in them, and the people who dedicate themselves to keeping them around.

    Cooks and writers may be fond of hyperbole, but I’m using exactly NONE of it when I say nearly every aspect of my life right now- from my career, to my writing, to living in Portland (a place I thought might be interesting after Tony visited it for No Reservations)- has been influenced and enriched by Anthony Bourdain.

So I went to work. I did the job that Tony had inspired me to make a career out of.
Everyone in the kitchen had already heard, all managing the shock in our own way- but all of us worked, and we did it well. Every cook I spoke too yesterday knew- all I had to say was “You’ve seen the news?” and receive a sullen nod. Then back to the range- back to the grill top, the bench, the till, the oven- back to what we knew how to do.

    I imagine all day yesterday, cooks everywhere had their own sort of wake for Tony- a wake of fire, flour, blood, butter, and ink.

That afternoon, I sat with a cook a few years older than me named Jonah as we had post-shift beers at the cart around the corner from the cafe. We and the bartender, Brian, chatted about the day and about the food business. We talked finances and risks. We talked about the want for freedom and creative space, but the very real need for financial security- the competition of which leads many cooks to make devil’s bargains with big chains, or establishments they may not like. No one becomes a cook to get rich- but they do want to be able to look after them and theirs, and that’s getting harder every day. Jonah wondered whether it was too late to go back and learn another trade- maybe become a plumber.

    It was thought that had passed through my mind a few times over the last few weeks- maybe I was burning out in the kitchen. Maybe I needed a break. Maybe I was just… done, and I needed to learn something else- something that would let me give Emily the life she deserves. The fear, exhaustion, and dread took me to some very dark places in my mind.

    Jonah and I agreed that it was good to talk about all of this- how good it felt to know we weren’t alone in feeling the creeping fingers of uncertainty and doom at our ankles. That mornings news, however, got rid of a little of that uncertainty. I made three promises to myself, even as I stood in the kitchen staring at that tin of cat food.

    I would keep going and keep baking- keep moving forward. This is what I was passionate about.
    I would keep writing, and I would finish and publish my book. I would leave something fascinating and good in my wake.
    I would find a way to travel as far as possible, and see everything I could. I refuse to let it be said that I lived and died in one tiny corner of this planet.

    And if I ever find myself in that dark place again, I owed it to myself and to Emily to seek help, and remind myself to do my “side work.”

    That’s the dream that Tony gave me.
    I owe it to him- my hero that I never met- and myself to see it done.

Goodbye, chef- and thanks for everything.

Stay Classy,