I’d never fully understood why people get upset when celebrities die. When I’d hear about people crying over stars they’ve never met, probably would never meet, I always found it weird. Typing it out right now, I realize how awful and apathetic that sounds. But, it’s true. I’d never understood why people … cared.
The first text came today at 7:37am, from my parents’ friend Valerie, waking me up. She said she thought about me this morning, which made me smile. Then I read the rest of the text, saying, “when I saw the news about Anthony Bourdain. Sad.” I didn’t know what she was talking about. A quick Google search told me everything I needed to know: my favorite writer, my hero, someone I talked about to anyone who’d listen, Anthony Bourdain, had taken his own life.
My best friend Tim texted me about it at 9:22am. My ex-girlfriend texted me about it at 10:54am. Right now, at 11:22am, I’m texting my Dad about it. We’re both really upset. He asked if I was okay.
I spent the morning crying. Like, a lot. Like, more than I’ve cried over losing some actual family members in the past. And I now understand. All it took was losing a celebrity I felt attached to, felt close to, that I’d never met or spoken to, to understand why people care so much about celebrity deaths. Let me explain why.
I don’t know how to cook. It’s one of those life skills that, still at 24, I’ve never taken time to acquire. I don’t know how to make fish; I don’t know the difference between medium well and rare; I don’t know how to chop or dice an onion. I couldn’t make a fucking omelette if my life depended on it – a skill Bourdain said in his 2010 book Medium Raw every child should be taught. I don’t speak the language of food.
But for Bourdain, a chef for more than 30 years, a man whose life revolved around traveling the world in search of the best culinary delights, that didn’t matter. Sure, he wrote about food, about cooking and the ins and outs of the culinary world. Sometimes reading his groundbreaking 2000 memoir Kitchen Confidential reads like an AP chemistry book for the uninitiated. But being a gastrophile, in my opinion, isn’t what made Bourdain so special. I don’t think the fact that he worked as Les Halles is what made people gravitate to him.
Bourdain did speak the language of food, obviously. But Bourdain never held that over anyone’s head. He was just a guy, a normal guy, who fucking loved food. More importantly, he fucking adored the people who made the food. The people who ate the food, too. Be it the world-renowned fine dining of Thomas Keller, the new-school rule-breaking of David Chang, or an old man sitting in the corner reading a soccer magazine, a cigarette dangling from his lips in Sardinia, Italy at a mom-and-pop joint, Bourdain took his readers and viewers along with him to meet his friends, to eat their food and, most importantly, experience their culture. Not from afar, but on the street with him. Through Bourdain’s lens and pen, countries weren’t treated like oddities meant to ogle at by Americans. They were treated like cultures of people, families and friends all coming together around one of the planet’s only universal traditions: eating.
His welcoming of all peoples from all countries, his friendliness, his persistence on showing the world through an honest lens made him feel like a friend. He wasn’t presenting these meals or these people on a soundstage, dolled in make up and standing on the x’s on the floor. He took us with him to meet these people in their restaurants and homes. We sat with him in Manhattan, Saigon, Houston, Mozambique, Finland, Japan, Boston, Kurdistan and everywhere else so we – vicariously, of course – could meet his friends. We could eat with him and get drunk as hell with him.
But, again, I’m no cook. I am, however, a writer. When it came to Bourdain, as far as I’m concerned, there was none better. No one was more honest with their readers about their life and opinions. He never lied to his readers, he never pulled punches. After all, we were his friends – even if he’d never met us. The one time I wrote a travel article, I ripped off his style the entire 14,808 words. He was my biggest influence.
I’m reading Medium Raw right now. I fucking love it. I kept getting excited reading it, thinking maybe soon he’d put out another book. It felt like getting excited for your friends’ bands – you know, the actual good ones – to put out new albums. I couldn’t wait to read what Bourdain said next. That book probably won’t be coming now. But I’m not mad.
Mental illness is a hell of a thing. As the name implies, it’s a disease. One Bourdain lost to. I could never judge him for what he did; I have no anger. I’m not one of those people to say he’s “selfish.” It’s a disease. He lost his battle. I’m heartbroken, for sure. I feel like I lost a close friend, one I’d never met. Celebrities don’t know us. They’re not our friends or our loved ones. But sometimes they sure as shit feel like it. I now get it.
Bourdain celebrated life – his own and the lives of others. He was an advocate, ally and friend of everyone he met. Well, maybe not Guy Fieri. Sometimes the hardest part of living is just, well, living. But Bourdain proved that life is beautiful. He proved it was worth embracing all the twists and turns life throws at you, learning from them and then moving forward. I’ll always love him for that. I’ll always be thankful for that.