British screenwriter represented by The Gersh Agency and Anonymous Content.
“It’s easy to fall in love with Rome. She has endured and survived many things. What’s left of her former glory are in ruins, but those ruins, continue to enchant us. You think, no matter what, this beautiful dream will last forever. And then suddenly… shit gets real.” Anthony Bourdain.
All my heroes kill themselves. Every damn one. What that says about me… I’m not sure I want to start pulling at that thread. But this one? This one hurt. It’s an odd sensation to care for a stranger. You mourn the art you will never see, but to feel personal loss? To feel something approaching grief… that was new. And I am by reputation, dead inside.
It’s been nearly a year. It’s taken that long just to be able to pick up one of his books… and it was a cookbook. Even that was painful, laced as it is with all the compassion, humility and nostalgia that made him the most endearing of all my heroes; the friend I was yet to meet. Wildly cynical and yet charmingly sentimental, his unabashed romanticism always seemed to be given full reign when visiting Italy; repeatedly lamenting that he was not born Italian-American. Even amidst the erstwhile punk-rock demeanour, it was always in Italy that he revealed his soft underbelly; relishing the simplicity, beauty and food that always began at the family table. So, it seems hardly coincidental that he would eventually marry an Italian woman; writing fondly of long meals with her Sardinian family – not understanding what was said – but just happy to be present. His cookbook Appetites published in 2016, seemed more than anything, a love letter to his daughter and to his Italian family.
I feel nervous to write this, almost an unearned sense of responsibility to do right by him. As someone with a pretty pathological rule of not caring what people think, I also find myself in the unfamiliar arena of actually giving a fuck, because… I would have wanted him to like me. Ironic, given that I am among the first to grab a pitchfork when the #RIP tweets roll in after the death of an icon people never met, understood or had the slightest interest in. Recently, this online mastur-mourn has extended to the Notre Dame Cathedral, with millions across the globe shamelessly racing to announce themselves the most ‘wounded’, like some Insta-grief biscuit-game. Obviously, it’s a tragedy. But when you, aspiring ‘influencer’, saw Notre Dame, you weren’t moved by the majesty of its spectacle. And the reason I know that, is two thirds of the photo of supposedly, celestial grandeur words cannot describe, is made up of your stupid fucking face. Your pic was an ode to you, not the Cathedral. We already knew you were there: you’re taking the fucking picture. Sincerity matters. So, spare us the lie that the experience meant any more to you than your dinner at STK. At least the steak got the whole frame.
And breathe… that was important. If only to acknowledge the giant pool of hypocrisy I’m about to wade into, because when it comes to heroes, it’s never about them. It’s always about you. At forty-four, Bourdain was the kind of man I wanted to be at twenty-four, and at sixty, the kind of man I wanted to be for the rest of my life.
I’ve been trying to work out specifically what made me admire the man so much. Yes, he’s one of my favourite writers, but it would do him a disservice to say he was one ofthe great writers. Deeply nostalgic, he wrote like a man who wanted his heroes to hear him… He wrote how he talked – and his cadence and caustic turn of phrase were so ingrained in the mind, that it’s as if every paperback came with audio. But a zesty simile does not a hero make. To some, he was the vessel to live vicariously through; the canary we send down the proverbial mine to risk, experiment and conquer. But the eating of still-beating cobra hearts and grilled warthog anuses? He hadn’t been that guy for a long time. And I never really cared for that guy.
We seek not what illuminates, but what confirms what we already believe. Or put another way, our heroes are not who we aspire to be, but a reflection of who we think we are. How comically guilty I have been of this as a younger man, only recently became apparent after a second reading of Jean-Paul Sartre’s La Nausée. Turns out… it didn’t so much shape my worldview, as put an existential stamp of approval on a not tiny amount of angsty misanthropy. I repeated the same trick with Fellini’s 8 ½. Guido was not a misunderstood artist trying to avoid being trapped by women who seek to domesticate him – he’s a tragic narcissist who sees women as merely passengers on the journey that is him… which given how much I related to that character at twenty, is again, not a thread I’m looking to pull.
Perhaps, I just found Bourdain at a seminal moment in my life, when I needed an outspoken and worldly older brother. He’d dazzle with tales of pho from a hawker stall in Hanoi, and you’d imagine impressing him with tales of 3am blood soup on the road to Bangkok. He’d talk of the debauched days of seeing The Ramones in New York while coked up to the nines, and you’d reply that you’d once seen Bob Dylan in a field in Tonbridge Wells – so you, hundred percent get it. There was something paradoxically enthralling about a man who could listen to New York Dolls, wax lyrical about trippa all Romana and read Graham Greene; a man who could appreciate Bocuse and BBQ, and who could explain the complexities of crack-smoking and the subtext of the films of Paolo Pasolini.
Yet Bourdain was far more than an enthusiast of really cool shit. Even in his infancy as a bona fide celebrity, he would remind the public that despite the anti-immigrant rhetoric of the right, it was mostly Central and South Americans in the kitchen, and that they deserved not only appreciation for their labour, but recognition of their creative contribution to American dining. His war was on mediocrity and small-mindedness, regularly sewing political education and context into his programming, and was refreshing honesty about America’s legacy at home and abroad. During the anti-intellectualism of the Bush era, he made knowing something, cool again.
A poor man who became a rich man, but never succumbed to believing affluence was a virtue, he championed the idea that if something were delicious, then everyone should do their level best to try it, whether it was sea urchin or In-N-Out Burger. He called out snobbery as a fallacy and rejected the notion that anything, at either end of the spectrum, should be reserved for a chosen few. Life was about horses for courses; an ice-cold Miller High-Life could be as good as an ice-cold Martini given the right circumstances, and there was nothing elitist about taste or appreciation. Cost may be prohibitive, but curiosity shouldn’t be.
Yet, it was re-watching a 2010 episode of No Reservations that answered why he remains, my only modern-day hero. It captured Bourdain as he watched Dmitri Kasterine’s then ten-year old documentary, following a fresher-faced Bourdain, just after his debut Kitchen Confidential was published to spectacular success. To put it mildly, the 2000 vintage was a far cry from the soon to be acclaimed CNN host who would share a table with President Obama. Or as Bourdain put it:
“What an arrogant fuck I was. I mean, on the basis of absolutely nothing. I was one cocky little prick – embarrassingly so.”
Enfant terrible, he was not. By the time he sprang to prominence, he was already forty-four. A broke Chef, who had never had health insurance, paid taxes or even owned a car. An ex-heroin addict who once sold all his records in the street to buy smack, and by his own admission, an unremarkable journeyman Chef with a history of closing restaurants. So how did this dyed in the wool, man-child develop the gravitas of an elder statesman, and evolve to become our humble ambassador to the world? Bourdain didn’t just espouse the transformative power of food and travel, he embodied it.
At an age when few could have any reasonable expectation of growth, he absorbed experiences and had the courage to allow them to change him. He did not fear or feel shame in being wrong, in fact, seemed to delight in it. He allowed his opinion to gain nuance and even change completely should he learn something new. He had a nose for bullshit, and we trusted him. Very quickly, he seemed aware that a degree of responsibility came with his burgeoning influence; declining to name a Trastevere restaurant that made a particularly good bowl of Cacio e Pepe, knowing the moment he did, it would be overrun with tourists. Even joking of his own Fellini-like existential crisis, that with every successful episode, “I kill what I love.”
But unlike many of his peers, who muzzled themselves or pandered to the lowest common denominator, Bourdain’s ambition and integrity (despite his own protests to the contrary) seemed to increase with each success. Food may have been his Trojan horse, but he wanted the tough political conversation. As the years went by, his trademark spleen seemed to be replaced by a desire to be a positive influence on a world that his daughter would one day inherit. Bourdain made us feel that we had the potential to be better. That there were things out there in the world which would aid us, so long as we remained curious; and he encouraged us to walk in someone else’s shoes and challenge our own stereotypes and hypocrisies.
In the modern era, it’s rare for a man to stand for something and do it so reluctantly, so humbly and yet, so unapologetically. While the world dipped its entire foot in the sludge-filled waters of fascism and xenophobia, Bourdain was a damn lighthouse; often abstaining his focus totally from food to discuss, in Rome for example, the vestiges of Mussolini and by proxy, the rise of Donald Trump. How we need Bourdain’s voice today. How I do. It was a comfort to know that he was out there somewhere, eating and drinking his way through the world, still wearing the rose-tinted lenses of a much younger man.
“Italian food is much more emotional. One should experience it like a child, never like a critic.”
That Anthony Bourdainismy most beloved of heroes has nothing to do with the fact that he is one of my favourite writers. It has nothing to do with his eighteen-year career, making some of the most ambitious, heartfelt and inspiring non-fiction television by anyone, anywhere. He remains my hero because his evolution showed us… shows us… that we can change, that we can be better, and that we can be a force for good in our own small pocket of the world, just like the people whose table he brought us to.
It seems painfully ironic that a man who gave so much hope to others, would finally run out of it for himself. And it remains unclear whether he fully understood how valuable he had become, and how now more than ever, we needed him. So, we shed another tear. Our last tear, because while there are still yet worlds to conquer… we have no heroes left.