IN the three weeks that have passed since the death of Anthony Bourdain, there have been gushing platitudes and an outpouring of sorrow from around the globe. The chef who exchanged his blade for a pen, and then for a charmingly engaging presence before the camera, Bourdain became in a way the rock star of his ilk — a community of devious, murky, unpredictable and often criminal enterprise.
Most travel shows try to present a place, a culture, a people, as a neat package for the consumption of couch potatoes sitting a world away. Not so Bourdain’s several shows, through which he is credited, variously, as having brought local flavours of foreign cultures to the American world, having taught Americans not to automatically distrust the ‘other’, or even each other, and having brought about a new way of enjoying the most visceral of pleasures: “Your body is not a temple, its an amusement park; enjoy the ride.”
All of this is true.
Of course, it helped that he was a bit of a rogue, in the eyes of most of his fans, and a good-looking, cheeky one at that. It helped that he had an unabashedly soft corner for the underdog, a sneering contempt for power, pelf and privilege (even when he was himself thus favourably bestowed by fortune), and did not shy away from expressing quirky and often politically problematic views. Asked once what he might serve at a summit between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un, Bourdain’s answer was “hemlock”.
All of this is also true.
He fought the darkness by flooding his world with light.
But running through the lode that was Bourdain as a massive commercial success was a not-so-deeply-buried vein that was corrupting, dark and dangerous — the last, most of all to himself. To understand that, one has to go beyond the TV persona of the cook and delve into the books that he wrote, particularly two of his sort-of biographies, Kitchen Confidential and Medium Raw.
The first, coming out in 2000, is a tell-all about the unsavoury underbelly of the world of cuisine, the book that propelled its hitherto penniless and pretty unsuccessful author to fame. The second was published a decade later, the work of a more mature man who had tasted success and had been humbled by all that he did not know. In it, in fact, he denounces Kitchen Confidential as a load of tripe, one that he is embarrassed to own given the cockiness and hubris that it exudes.
Through both these books runs the thread of Bourdain’s inner — and mighty — fight with the darkness that resided within him, a darkness that led to a marked propensity for risk-taking behaviour and self-destructiveness. On the more palatable side, he once said, “I understand there’s a guy inside me who wants to lay in bed, smoke weed all day, and watch cartoons and old movies. My whole life is a series of stratagems to avoid, and outwit, that guy.”
On the far side is an account Bourdain details in Medium Raw, of a period in his life when he would regularly take a late-night drive along a road at the top of a cliff, a road that involved a sharp, dangerous and deadly hairpin turn. In a macabre version of Russian roulette, he’d take the road, thoroughly intoxicated, and leave it to the unknown radio DJ’s choice of song to dictate whether he lived or died. A song he enjoyed meant he’d twiddle the wheel and take the turn; the wrong song, he decided, would mean his flying off the face of the cliff into oblivion.
To many, such behaviour would appear deranged, the product of a starved mind that had probably been raised in a ghetto by parents who smoked crack. In fact, Bourdain’s was a happy, stable, middle-class childhood — the point being that the darkness — depression — can strike anywhere, at any time, any person, regardless of one’s background or life experience.
Bourdain fought that darkness by flooding his world with light: of the cameras, of his travels, of his very genuine affection for the people that he met and the food he was privileged enough to be offered, be it as humble as a Jamaican pulled-pork sandwich.
But the gathering dark got him in the end.
And if, in the wake of the deaths of Bourdain and that of fashion designer Kate Spade a few days earlier, and many other similarly fated iconic personalities, the US is suddenly thinking of the rising stats regarding suicide, can that considered to be something of a saving grace? That, in their untimely ends, they shone a light on what is amongst the illnesses that go most misdiagnosed and misunderstood and untreated across the world?
My answer, at least, would be an emphatic ‘no’. The world is much the poorer without Anthony Bourdain. One can wish he has finally found peace, but a lot of what he has written indicates that for him, death was merely the final descent into the darkness.