Anthony Bourdain Taught Me More Than Just How to Travel and Eat

Just like most of us, I found out by staring at a phone. I was in a market in Florence, Italy, and I was surrounded by people I’d known for less than a week, even if it didn’t feel like it by that point in the trip. We’d just climbed to the top of Il Duomo di Firenze (the Florence Cathedral), taking in the views, soaking up the history, and telling ourselves that the 463 steps we’d scaled made it OK to pig out. We’d just eaten a local delicacy —  tripe sandwiches — and there were the remains of a pizza with some of the freshest tomatoes I’d ever eaten. Our Birra Moretti beers had just the last little bit of foam in them. We were making plans to hunt down the bar that the Negroni was “invented in.” Life was good. How could it not be?

Then you read one sentence and you feel immediately gutted, like someone has blown a hole not just in your stomach, but through your entire being.

Anthony Bourdain was reported dead from suicide at age 61.

He was the reason I was standing in a market across the world from where I lived, eating some of the best food of my life. I would not have become a food and drink writer if it weren’t for Anthony Bourdain. And now he was gone, never to travel anywhere else, to offer his thoughts on how culture impacts not only the grand narratives of life, but also our everyday interactions with those around us.

Anthony Bourdain
Mike Point/Getty Images

I was 18 or 19 years old and in college. I’d been cooking for family and friends since I was three. I had been watching shows about cooking since shortly after that. In college, I started reading about the food and drink industry. One of the first books I came across was Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly (2000).

“Your body is not a temple, it’s an amusement park. Enjoy the ride.”

At a time when I didn’t know exactly what I was doing with my life, how could I not be pulled in by that quote? It was cavalier, it was fresh, it made me want to do the same thing as Bourdain. From there, I started reading more and more — M.F.K. Fisher, Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, Ruth Reichl. The more books I consumed, though, the more I came back to Bourdain.

“Your body is not a temple, it’s an amusement park. Enjoy the ride.”

Maybe it was hearing his voice on television and translating it to the words in front of me. Maybe it was the allure of traveling, eating, and drinking. I don’t know what drew me to Bourdain time and again. I just knew that whenever I picked up Kitchen Confidential or A Cook’s Tour (2001) or any of his successive books, I saw a guy who grew up in Jersey like I did, getting to do what I realized I wanted to do.

I even told him that when I was 20 years old. He was giving a talk in nearby Durham, North Carolina. Audience members could write down questions; one of the five questions picked was mine, and I remember hearing it being read to a sold-out auditorium. I remember every word:

“First, I come from the Jersey suburbs, too, and you give me hope, so thank you.”

The emcee pauses here and Bourdain laughs.

“If you could punch any other writer in the face, who would it be and why?”

Another laugh. The answer? James Frey. Bourdain said he is the only person he’d purposely cross the street to punch.

Classic Bourdain.

At the time, I thought this would be my only interaction with Bourdain outside of how most of us knew him: as a voiceover on a TV show or a photo on the cover of a book, entreating us to actually learn about the place we’re visiting, to go beyond the touristy shit and understand that these people are people and not just on show for you (among many, many other lessons, such as this one about Mexican workers in restaurants).

My next nine years saw successive jobs in restaurants and bars. Two degrees in English. Homes that weren’t homes, but temporary respites from having to shove all of my shit in a car and move it somewhere else. All the while, packed away like so many boxes of books, this idea lingered: I still wanted to write, travel, and eat. If I got a tattoo of my guiding maxim at the time, it would’ve read, “Fake it ‘til you make it.” Did I know how I was going to write, travel, and eat? No. Did I care? No. I just told myself I’d figure it out somehow.

Anthony bourdain whisky

And I did, because I eventually found myself writing about drinks. Not a lot, but I was writing about them. I made a little money and I started learning more. Then I was writing more, and for more people. I moved to New York City to make a go of this thing that I had lucked into — that didn’t feel real no matter how many times I pinched myself. I began to travel, to see different cultures and eat different meals. I realized that anything I could gain from a book or an article was nothing compared to standing in the shadow of a colossal copper still learning how whiskey was made or being offered some of the best barbacoa in Jalisco by a proprietor who hovered nearby, indulging in the satiated sighs that escaped our mouths after every bite, only to be quieted by a sip of a fresh Paloma.

And then, among it all, I found myself sitting on a couch, two feet from Anthony Bourdain. We had drams of Scotch whisky in front of us. I had a 15-minute interview slot and I ran through all of my questions at the clip of a frightened rabbit; our interview was done in seven minutes and 10 seconds. I tried to make up more questions on the spot — to extend this time sitting next to my idol, but I couldn’t. My brain was on autopilot, and the autopilot was set for crash and burn. I knew this, I’m sure Bourdain knew this, but he was gracious. He shook my hand. He took a photo. In the picture, I looked like a deer in headlights, but the meeting had happened and it would happen again.

One year later, I was sitting on the same couch, calmer now, talking with Bourdain about tattoos.

I didn’t speed through my questions. He shook my hand again. Another photo. A signed book this time (his last cookbook, Appetites). In between these two interviews, I had traveled more. I’d eaten, I’d written, I’d learned and learned and learned. This was the goal, wasn’t it? To continually improve on my knowledge, ideally not at the expense of others? To make sure that others who do not have the same privileges or chances get to experience something wholly different from what they know and to do it in a way that makes them come back wanting more?

“Travel changes you. As you move through this life and this world you change things slightly, you leave marks behind, however small. And in return, life — and travel — leaves marks on you. Most of the time, those marks — on your body or on your heart — are beautiful. Often, though, they hurt.”

We heard the news of his passing at lunchtime in Italy, just as people in the United States were waking up. It sat with me for the rest of the day. That night — our last as a group in Florence — we ate at Cibreo, one of the most hallowed restaurants in the city. On our way to our table, one of the managers asked if we had heard about Bourdain. The twist that had been around my stomach all day tightened and two of us nodded. He’d been here last week, the manager said — twice.

In one of his last collections of essays, The Nasty Bits, Bourdain talks about the transformative power of travel. He writes:

“Travel changes you. As you move through this life and this world, you change things slightly, you leave marks behind, however small. And in return, life — and travel — leaves marks on you. Most of the time, those marks — on your body or on your heart — are beautiful. Often, though, they hurt.”

Travel has changed me and Anthony Bourdain has changed me. Who knows where I would be had I not picked up that book, had I not ordered No Reservations on DVD using gift cards I got for Christmas, playing the New Jersey episode on repeat because it featured my town’s bakery and shouting every time, “I’ve been there. We’ve both been there.”

He is gone now, but he will not be forgotten. Not by me and not by the millions of folks across the world that looked up to him for his words, his wit, and his wisdom. He has done too much damn good bringing food and culture to people for that to happen. Was he perfect? No, but none of us are.

Because of him, I will continue to travel and to eat and to write as long as my body and my mind allow me. I will get marks that are beautiful and I will get marks that scar. I will feel the marks others have left, eating in places others have and, if I am lucky, getting to share stories about it. I will leave my marks upon the world as he did and, hopefully, I will do it in a way that he would appreciate.

“We can all help prevent suicide,” says the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. We agree. This free service offers 24/7 confidential support and resources for folks in crisis, as well as friends and family. Call 1-800-273-8255 or chat online.

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