Like many of you, I watched Sunday night’s episode of Parts Unknown with predictable heartache. Host Anthony Bourdain took his own life at the age of 61 on Friday. The episode, which focused on Berlin’s debaucherous nightlife, was preceded by a brief remembrance from CNN’s Anderson Cooper. The obvious move by the network would have been to postpone the episode, but I was grateful that they aired it: Seeing him in action was comforting.
I had sought the comfort of his voice all weekend. During a two-day barbecue road trip, I streamed a dozen Bourdain interviews and remembrances. He provided witty and thought-provoking answers to even the dullest interviewer. With other celebrities, such a deep dive would be filled with endless repetition of the same stories, but Bourdain’s depth of engagement in the conversation, coupled with his vast travels and experiences, meant there was something different to delight in with each conversation.
That’s gone now. As his audience, we took it for granted that he would be around to do the heavy lifting. Bourdain would seek the truth and push us all to open our minds in regard to other cultures, even those we think of as enemies. This loss hurts so much more knowing that picking up the slack will be so difficult. Bourdain is irreplaceable, but that was acceptable just a few days ago—he was doing his best work on camera and behind it, and his voice as an advocate for the maligned and abused was increasingly powerful. Inexplicably to him, I’m sure, Bourdain had become a wise old sage.
Through his choice of subjects and his approach, Bourdain worked to humanize populations that Americans might fear or misunderstand. Bourdain sought the good in people rather than judging them by their governments and was proud that he could provide the background of a place and some human context to his viewers. Bourdain told the Peabody’s Stories That Matter podcast, “When something happens in Gaza, now you can put a face to who we’re talking about. What are they like? You know a little about them. You’ve seen them across the table. You’ve seen them with their kids. You’ve heard maybe a little bit of their perspective.” He offered these windows into humanity because he truly cared about people and their future. A common question of his, no matter how dire the surroundings, was, “What are you optimistic about?”
Bourdain wasn’t afraid to make enemies, but more often he sought common ground. A particularly memorable episode saw the left-leaning Bourdain cultivating a friendship with Ted Nugent. “One of the joys of my life is getting Ted Nugent to agree with me on something,” Bourdain told Marc Maron. “He agrees with me, reluctantly, on the Michelle Obama school lunch initiative.” Even after their political gap widened to a chasm in recent years, Nugent offered only respect at the news of his passing. (Think of how rare that mourning across the aisle is today.)
Adios & Godspeed my kill it & grill it bloodbrother Anthony Bordain
— Ted Nugent (@TedNugent) June 8, 2018
Bourdain’s belief in people extended to me when he gave an unknown barbecue blogger a book deal, and my life changed directions dramatically. Bourdain inspired me to travel outside my comfort zones, and his faith in me was certainly a factor in Texas Monthly’s decision to create a position for me as the barbecue editor. The day before I heard the awful news that he had taken his life, my kids and I had just enjoyed a Korean barbecue crawl of sorts in Los Angeles—and that was a work trip.
“You have the best job in the world,” people often told Bourdain. He’d usually agree in person and in interviews, but it was a grueling job that required far more days away from home than anywhere near it. He also bore the weight of his opinions having such great impact on the livelihood of others. By praising some of his favorite restaurants on-screen, he would “ruin” them for locals and regulars.
I witnessed the Bourdain effect firsthand when we ate together at Franklin Barbecue in 2012 for a No Reservations episode in Austin. Franklin was popular back then but nothing like it is today. Texas-style barbecue hadn’t yet taken hold across the country, and Europeans smoking brisket in the Franklin style was still far off. As we stood in line—then, it was just halfway down that sidewalk at 9 a.m., instead of wrapping around the corner down the hill—I was nervous and intimidated, but mostly I felt so satisfied to have the man who’d eaten the best food around the world standing next to me, waiting for Texas brisket. I didn’t want to disappoint him, and I knew Aaron Franklin (and John Mueller, whom we’d visit a few days later) wouldn’t.
When the show aired, Bourdain praised the brisket mightily. In a piece on his blog, he also wrote:
[In Austin] they have the best barbeque in the country. Yeah. I know. Bold words. Especially coming from a guy who has said many times that North Carolina whole hog style is his preferred last mouthful—and that Kansas City is the best all-around BBQ Center. That was before. This is now. I am reasonably sure—no…I’m damn sure—that I have NEVER tasted barbecue so perfect, so technically accomplished, conscientiously prepared, austerely seasoned (un****ed up), moist, juicy, tender, still shimmering with perfectly suspended internal fat as the beef brisket at Franklin BBQ and the beef ribs at JMueller.
A national food magazine had recently declared Franklin’s brisket supreme, but their words didn’t mean as much to the average dining public as an endorsement from Bourdain. His opinions simply carried more weight, and when he gave legitimacy to Texas barbecue, he helped inspire new barbecue joints across the world.
Bourdain’s impact has stayed with restaurants far beyond his visits. When I stopped in at Burns Original BBQ, in Houston, a few weeks ago, the owners shared a story with me. “With Parts Unknown, those people, they love him like a god,” co-owner Cory Crawford told me. After the episode aired, they had visitors from Australia, Paris, and plenty from parts of Houston that had forgotten about Burns. “People couldn’t even speak English. They’d just point to what they wanted,” Crawford remembered. “[The show’s impact] was a real cultural thing that has carried over.”
Genuine, honest, generous, and humble aren’t the words you might expect to describe an international food celebrity, but that was Bourdain. This weekend, as I grieved on long drives between barbecue joints, I came across a 2015 interview of his from a punk rock podcast. The host was nervous and clearly expected the impromptu interview to last just a few minutes, but Bourdain delved into the history of punk for more than an hour. I’d never heard of the Heartbreakers and Johnny Thunder, but after the episode, I went looking for one of their albums because Tony told me to. His opinions had that kind of power.
Bourdain is gone. The grief will remain, and it will inevitably repeat itself at full strength when his final book is published and after the final episode airs. But the importance of his mission must stay as fresh as the grief. Let’s honor his death by telling more stories of the marginalized and using our work to foster understanding and empathy. I didn’t know Anthony Bourdain well enough to call him a buddy, but he had a personal and profound impact on my life, as he did for so many others. We are gutted by the loss, but his work—and ours—will continue.