Anthony Bourdain, host of the food and travel shows Parts Unknown and No Reservations, author of the eminently readable memoir Kitchen Confidential, and friend of this magazine, was found dead of an apparent suicide Friday in a hotel room in France. He was 61.
The reactions on social media seem—for now, at least—to be universally sorrowful, which speaks to the joy and intensity and courage he exuded as an ambassador for both American brashness and a unique kind of culinary cultural relativism.
He was a proponent of peace and free exchange who used his platform to redirect America's attention to the places we ravaged and then forgot about. He loved Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia; he despised Henry Kissinger.
Bourdain was also a friend of liberty at home and, in his later years, an increasingly empathetic person. In an interview he gave to Reason shortly after Donald Trump was elected president, he expressed not just displeasure with the outcome but compassion for people who felt Trump could save them from something:
When people are afraid and feel that their government has failed them they do things that seem completely mad and unreasonable to those of who are perhaps under less pressure. As unhappy and surprised as I am with the outcome, I'm empathetic to the forces that push people towards what I see as an ultimately self-destructive act. Berlusconi, Putin, Duterte, the world is filled with bad choices, made in pressured times.
In that same interview he gave a nuanced response to the animal rights activists who have chided him for his nonjudgmental approach to cultures where animals are treated poorly:
One thing I constantly found in my travels, which is ignored by animal activism, is that where people live close to the edge, they are struggling to feed their families, and are living under all varieties of pressures that are largely unknown to these activists personally. Where people are suffering, animals who live in their orbit are suffering terribly. In cultures where people don't have the luxury of considering the feelings of a chicken, they tend to treat them rather poorly. Dogs do not live good lives in countries where people are starving and oppressed. Maybe if we spent a little of [our] attention on how humans live, I think as a consequence many of these people would have the luxury to think beyond their immediate needs, like water to drink and wash, and food to live. A little more empathy for human beings to balance out this overweening concern for puppies would be a more moral and effective strategy.
In the last year, he became a staunch supporter of women who have survived sexual assault and harassment, not because he's a saint but because he "met one extraordinary woman with an extraordinary and painful story, who introduced [him] to a lot of other women with extraordinary stories and suddenly it was personal." His alignment with the #MeToo movement came with a healthy dose of public regret about the times throughout his career in which he turned a blind eye to female friends and coworkers who were mistreated by men in the food industry.
He also believed in the First Amendment, regardless of what the speaker had to say. "I support your inalienable right to say really stupid, offensive shit and believe really stupid, offensive shit that I don't agree with," Bourdain said when Boston Mayor Tom Menino pledged to ban Chik-fil-A from his city because company president Dan Cathy opposed same-sex marriage. "I support that [right], and I might even eat your chicken sandwich."
He despised food nannies, telling Reason contributor Baylen Linnekin in 2006 that Chicago's foie gras ban was a waste of concern. "You know, we're force-feeding people in Guantanamo Bay and there are people worrying that we're feeding a duck too much?" (Check out our Bourdain archives here.)
In 2007, he spoke with Reason.tv about the government's efforts to "infantilize" consumers via food regulations and his "libertarian instincts."
Bourdain also praised the immigrant work ethic—another reason it is so devastating to lose him now. In 2000's Kitchen Confidential, he wrote about the essential role immigrants have played in the evolution of America's food scene and how America has benefited by providing opportunities to people fleeing war and poverty. The "exile" class of line cooks—"Refugees, usually emigres and immigrants for whom cooking is preferable to death squads, poverty or working in a sneaker factory for two dollars a day"—were some of his favorite characters in the kitchen. He even preferred them to culinary masterminds:
When a job applicant starts telling me how Pacific Rim cuisine turns him on and inspires him, I see trouble coming. Send me another Mexican dishwasher anytime. I can teach him to cook. I can't teach character. Show up at work on time six months in a row and we'll talk about red curry paste and lemongrass. Until then, I have four words for you: "Shut the fuck up."
There's so much more to say about Bourdain's legacy, but I think I'm going to heed his advice. He never was one for self-aggrandizement.