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When I read Kitchen Confidential, I was in my twenties and it opened a world to me as it did for so many others. Food Was the New Rock, and you were its loudmouth, opinionated, take no shit and no prisoners punk pioneer. You were Joey Ramone.
You were fucked up and broken, and unapologetic for what you loved and what you thought sucked. The person I was struggling to become seized on this. I was not the only one, but like them I wanted the coolness, the nonchalance that you seemed to have. Like Hunter S Thompson before you, your words and deeds were a template for how we wanted to be. Social media today owes – for better and for worse – so much to those of us striving to mimic and find a voice like yours.
You inspired me to cook, to eat, to search out new experiences. I got your Les Halles cookbook and took to heart its ethos of using fresh, quality ingredients and cooking from scratch. Endless long nights with projects bubbling in the kitchen owe their existence to your spark. You inspired a generation of home cooks to strive to be better. I can only imagine the culinary school grads since you burst on the scene who were there because they read your work. Should this generation of foodies really be called the Bourdain Generation?
I watched your travel shows – didn’t we all? – but they were of course never just travel shows. You invited us to learn and experience new cultures, peoples, and regions and above all to not judge. Whatever your opinionated views on the Western food scene, you showed us a Morocco, a Beirut, a Thailand and asked us to see the stories of their peoples as human ones. In a world riven by anger, ignorance, and xenophobia, you tried to teach us how the world could be if we respected each other, if we broke bread with those different from, yet so similar, to us.
You inspired us to learn – your shows were filled with artists, musicians, thinkers, writers. You were positively giddy to meet your heroes like the cinematographer Christopher Doyle, who showed you his Hong Kong on a recent episode. How many times did I look for an album, a book, or a film after watching you for an hour? There was a depth and hunger in your work only the most driven artists have.
Your politics, too, were a sincere attention to the plight of the working class and their exploitation around the world. You wrote in support of the immigrant laborers in the kitchens you had worked. Your shows never lingered too long on the wealthy, but always returned to everyday people. In criticizing “foodie” culture you extolled the virtues of eating healthy and local while excoriating them for ignoring the need to fix the structural inequalities that prevented poor and working class peoples from enjoying that type of diet. You hated Trump and what he represented, but you visited Trump country to understand and empathize with the people who voted for Trump because neoliberalism had gutted their communities. You shared a beer and a laugh with anyone – your great strength. The left would do well to listen to your example on this.
You struggled with your demons – in interviews, on your show and in your writings you made this clear. As someone who has also struggled with depression I could see the twins of joy and sadness emanating from your work. For all the demons you also showed us a world of friends, family, and love. From your first awe-struck meeting with Eric Ripert – on camera! – to your close friendship, your relationships and loves, and the daughter of whom you spoke – your world seemed full. Yet, it’s clearly never so simple, is it?
I don’t know how best to end this eulogizing, but I can try. I’ll be in Strasbourg – the city where you ended your life – in a month. I intend to drink a bottle or two of wine in your memory. You’d better be there. And no – you don’t need a reservation.