I’ve spent the past three days scrolling through my social media feeds reading tribute after tribute to Anthony Bourdain.
Some friends from the restaurant industry opine about the ways Kitchen Confidential convinced them from a young age to pursue a career in the culinary arts. Others reflect on his recent support for #MeToo and their now-dashed hopes that perhaps he could turn the tide of deeply rooted sexual harassment in professional kitchens.
A few attempt to express their respect graciously, yet deep down they believe his recent rejection of the “meathead bro” culture was too little, too late. These friends, like myself, left the industry in response to the continued abuses of “bad-boy cooks” who glorified the culture of drug use and misogyny.By turning the cameras onto his guests, Bourdain revealed to his audience a world at once vastly diverse, painfully complex, and beautifully human.
Interspersed between the tributes from my chef friends are the thoughts of those to whom Bourdain opened new insight into the diversity of the world. He introduced them to the cultural and political realities behind so many foods. He modeled curiosity and empathy. As one friend put it, Bourdain “revelled in the multitudinous complexity” of humanity.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I’ve read the responses of friends from around the world touched by Bourdain’s nuanced representation of their home city, modelling respect instead of exotification. He humanized people and places rarely afforded the dignity of fair representation in American media.
These varying responses to Bourdain’s death reflect the diversity of what it means to work in food, from the reality of life for the men and women who cook in America’s professional kitchens to the stories and identities wound up in culturally embedded relationships with cuisine. These responses reflect the various worlds in which Bourdain has trod, translating cultures for readers, viewers, and eaters alike.
The professional kitchen is the last refuge of the misfit,” Bourdain wrote in the 1999 New Yorker article that launched his media career. “It’s a place for people with bad pasts to find a new family. It’s a haven for foreigners—Ecuadorians, Mexicans, Chinese, Senegalese, Egyptians, Poles.”
Line cooks, dishwashers, pastry chefs, food runners, bar backs, bartenders, and servers each know their place in the liturgy of a dinner service. They find communion in the muttering of common refrains, yes chef, behind you, hot on your left, in the choreography of cooking and plating each dish in a line of tickets. Hearts race to the scratching hymn of a ticket machine, to the muffled sounds of table conversations behind swinging doors. The sanctuary fills with the incense of caramelized steak wafting together with the bitterness of burnt carrots, the acrid fumes of stale mop water, and the cigarette smoke staining each apron.
The professional kitchen harnesses the human desire to create and to feed. It wrestles through the tension of artistic license and restraint, it finds comfort in repetition, in the endless striving for perfection. It engages the entire body, transforming disparate ingredients into the harmonic symphony of acid, salt, and fat. A team of cooks might not share a common language by which to converse, yet still they form deep relationship over the shared liturgical form.
The refuge offered through the restaurant family, however, doesn’t come without cost. It marks its territory across the body in burns and blisters and knife gashes. It demands daily devotion, long hours in steamy, windowless basements, it consumes evenings and weekends, offering minimal financial compensation in return.
Some might argue that the true reward comes in the hours after the kitchen is closed: as coworkers share round after round after round of beers, or sometimes cocaine or heroin. Others might say these rituals exist primarily to pacify the demands of the job.
The professional kitchen is a world where the same rhythms that build close communion lead to its destruction as well. Bourdain climbed to media stardom by revealing this stark reality of kitchen life. But a frank portrayal of the underbelly doesn’t insulate from the strain.
“Chefs die all the time, in sudden ways, and in long, slow slides,” writes Kat Kinsman, a food writer who runs the website Chefs with Issues. “Sometimes it’s an accident, but far too often, it’s by their own hand, and I cannot stand that happening one more time.”
While utterly heartbreaking, Bourdain’s death has landed him in a long line of culinary greats who have taken their own lives. In an essay published in Food & Wine in response to Bourdain’s death, Kinsman urges readers to talk about this reality—especially now that it has taken the life of the figure so many chefs and writers aspire to be.
“We can only assume that even he didn’t want to be Anthony Bourdain anymore,” she says. “It is painful and shocking and somehow still unreal that someone could have the fame, wealth, respect, admiration, and opportunity that he did, and still not wish to live.”
Throughout his shows, most notably No Reservations and Parts Unknown, Bourdain travelled the world to listen to stories around the table. He consumed not only the dishes most important to his dining companions, but also their accounts of the impact of colonialism, conflict, displacement, or gentrification on the development of cuisine. By turning the cameras onto his guests, he revealed to his audience a world at once vastly diverse, painfully complex, and beautifully human.
“I’m proud of the fact that I’ve had as dining companions over the years everybody from Hezbollah supporters, communist functionaries, anti-Putin activists, cowboys, stoners, Christian militia leaders, feminists, Palestinians and Israeli settlers, to Ted Nugent,” he wrote for CNN after his dinner of noodles and beer in Vietnam with then-president Barack Obama. “You like food and are reasonably nice at the table? You show me hospitality when I travel? I will sit down with you and break bread.”How could someone on such a fearless quest for beauty and delight across the globe also feel the depth of ache that would lead to the taking of his life?
While Bourdain would not have defined it as such, his storytelling—both about kitchen life and food culture—reveals the multifaceted image of God reflected in all of humanity and the driving desire for belonging and communion. Though not religious, he modeled the relational responsibility to which Christians are called: welcoming the misfits, expressing compassion for the oppressed, elevating the stories of those who are stereotyped or maligned.
Bourdain fiercely defended immigrants in the United States, in particular Latinx immigrants, the backbone of our agricultural and culinary industries. He valued the foods of the working class around the world, presenting their complex flavor profiles and layered textures as worthy of the same respect as fine dining. He urged eaters to recognize the importance of paying a fair price, of honoring the men and women whose creative and physical labor brought favored foods into being.
How could someone on such a fearless quest for beauty and delight across the globe also feel the depth of ache that would lead to the taking of his life?
As I’ve grappled with how to write about Bourdain’s life and the tragedy of his death, I keep coming back to the words of Robert Farrar Capon:
For all its rooted loveliness, the world has no continuing city here; it is an outlandish place, a foreign home, a session in via to a better version of itself—and it is our glory to see it so and thirst until Jerusalem comes home at last. We were given appetites, not to consume the world and forget it, but to taste its goodness and hunger to make it great.
Bourdain did indeed taste its goodness, and he shared with the world his hunger to make it great. However, I can only imagine that at each table he also tasted the bitterness of the world as it is today. No number of meals could quench the hunger to heal creation that groans in anticipation of God’s ultimate restoration.
He lived in the tension that Christians call the already, but not yet: a world already steeped in diverse beauty but that does not yet know the healing and freedom of what is meant to be. Despite his ongoing encounter with the delicious already, the power of the not yet proved too great.
I’ve read dozens of tributes to Tony over the past few days, but the one that most moved me—that has challenged me as a writer on food and faith—came through direct message from a fellow graduate of my alma mater. She met Tony just a month ago while he was filming in Bali, Indonesia. Like so many of the tributes shared on my social media feeds, she had been touched by his desire to write about her city with nuance and care for its political and cultural history.
“We need more people of faith to be like Tony,” she ended.
We need more people of faith to create a refuge for the misfit, one that doesn’t demand such physical and emotional devotion that its rhythms of communion drive its destruction as well.
We need more people of faith who exhibit compassion and curiosity for our neighbors around the globe.
We need more people of faith who defend immigrants, who elevate the stories of the marginalized, who taste the material expression of love that our Creator has woven into every meal.
We need more people of faith who set tables in the presence of our perceived enemies in trust that God is truly present in the breaking of bread.
We need more people of faith who do not merely consume the world and forget it, but taste its goodness and hunger to make it great.
Isn’t that precisely what Christ inspired in his final meal?
Whenever you eat, whether Eucharistic wafer or tortilla with a neighbor, do this in remembrance of Me.