My 13-year-old son is the one who broke the news to me via a 6:30 a.m. text message — the news that you already know, that celebrity chef, writer and TV star, Anthony Bourdain has died. The kid, who is on a school trip in Washington D.C., knew I would be upset. I had made him and his brother sit and watch with me the episode of Parts Unknown in which Bourdain explored the diversity of our own home, diversity that I am loudly (perhaps exhaustingly so) proud of. It was a wonderful episode in which Bourdain showed the world that even in deep red-state Texas, diversity flourishes and more importantly, that diversity is nothing to be frightened of, but instead should be exuberantly celebrated. (And the episode even managed to teach me a thing or two about my beloved Houston.)
At root, that was always Bourdain’s mission: to teach us to not be afraid of strange food or strange lands or strange customs or, most of all, strangers. Through the medium of food, Bourdain strove to explore culture and politics and to express his love for this big, beautiful, exciting world all the while showing us that ultimately we’re not so different.
Yesterday, ironically enough, I almost — but ultimately chose not to for no good reason — linked this piece by Phil Rosenthal, the creator and star of Somebody Feed Phil over on Netflix, in which he described how as a producer of Everybody Loves Raymond, he dragged the show and a reluctant Ray Romano to Italy for a pair of episodes after learning that Romano had never been to Europe. In the piece, he described watching Romano fall in love with Italy: “And that changed my life. What if I could do this for other people? What if just a few more folks got what I got, what Raymond got, what millions of world travelers have always understood? And wouldn’t the world be a little better if we all could experience a bit of someone else’s experience?”
This, of course, is what Bourdain always tried to do, to make the world a little bit better by sharing each other’s experiences. In fact, Rosenthal says in his piece, “The way I sold this show was by saying, ‘I’m exactly like Anthony Bourdain if he was afraid of everything.'” Rosenthal is dedicating his series to Bourdain’s memory.
I always admired the fact that Bourdain left a cushy job at the Travel Channel to create Parts Unknown at CNN because he wanted to show the world something more important than just the best cafes in Barcelona and Rome. He wanted to go to places deemed unsafe, he wanted to meet and humanize people we think of as our enemies, he wanted to encourage his audience to leave their own comfort zones, both literally and figuratively. He wanted to teach us to reject xenophobia and embrace empathy.
It was this empathy combined with his punk rock, “fuck you, I do what I want,” take-no-prisoners attitude that made him such an important and powerful ally to the #MeToo movement. Bourdain’s girlfriend, Asia Argento, was one of the first Harvey Weinstein accusers to come forward and Bourdain was always her fiercest defender. He also was also one of the first men to loudly and repeatedly speak out on this issue. In fact, he challenged the restaurant industry in a self-reflective Medium essay after the charges against Mario Batali came out, and I urge you to go read it.
“In these current circumstances, one must pick a side. I stand unhesitatingly and unwaveringly with the women. Not out of virtue, or integrity, or high moral outrage — as much as I’d like to say so — but because late in life, I met one extraordinary woman with a particularly awful story to tell, who introduced me to other extraordinary women with equally awful stories. I am grateful to them for their courage, and inspired by them. That doesn’t make me any more enlightened than any other man who has begun listening and paying attention. It does makes me, I hope, slightly less stupid.”
Bourdain also called out Alec Baldwin and James Corden among other early critics of the #MeToo movement. This is what women are looking for from men right now: a willingness to listen, to pay attention and to speak out when they see abuse or other men diminishing women’s experiences.
We can’t end this without discussing how Bourdain died, of course. Anthony Bourdain committed suicide. It is a shock, especially in light of Kate Spade’s death earlier this week: how could these two creative, brilliant people who appeared to have everything fall into such a state of despair? And I don’t have any answers, I have no insight. The only thing I can think to say is that it serves — at such a painful cost — as a reminder that none of us have any idea what anyone else is going through, and that we should all strive to be kind to one another. It’s simplistic, I know, but it’s all I’ve got.
For those of you who are struggling, find someone to talk to, and if you don’t feel like you have anyone to talk to, talk to me, I’ll listen. Or call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255.
As for the rest of us, you can donate to the National Suicide Prevention Hotline, but more directly, you can pay attention. It’s not enough that we tell those who are suffering that they should reach out, we have to reach back. If there is someone in your life you are worried about or haven’t heard from in a while, check in on them, let them know that you’re thinking about them and that you’re around. It might be enough to make a difference.
I’ve lost one friend to suicide. Coincidentally, he also had been a chef for a while, and like Bourdain, had an air of pirate about him. He was all swagger, cigarettes, and badassness. He seemed invincible. I think about his family often. Keep Bourdain’s young daughter, his girlfriend, his family and friends in your thoughts today.