I didn’t know Anthony Bourdain. I mean that in the literal sense (though he did a few low-key things to boost my career), but also in the metaphorical sense. No matter how many interviews I read (and he gave many), books I tore through, or shows I watched, there was never a sense of knowing him.
I think that’s a credit to the man himself. So often in travel media, the host or author is an empty vessel that we can fill with our postcard fantasies. Bourdain was different. He was an electric personality and a wildly complicated one. There is perhaps no public figure for whom Walt Whitman’s famous line — “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.” — rings truer. “Tony” could be curious, capricious, patient, petty, giddy, and reflective. Often in the span of a single episode of TV. And yet it worked because above all things it felt genuine.
As someone who has spent a fair bit of time in front of a camera, trying to reach across the void, let me tell you: that’s a tall order. It takes work, but also real vulnerability.
Last year, I poured out 1600 words about Bourdain and what he’s meant to me, as a writer, a traveler, and a would-be “citizen of the world.” I did this from a jungle hut in the Australian Outback, a fitting place to write a tribute if ever there was one. In the year since, I’ve read pages upon pages of his work and the reflections of others; I’ve spent too much time venturing down rabbit holes trying to understand the “why” of his death; and I’ve reflected for hours on the dark places my own psyche seems all too eager to visit.
Still, there is this sense of wanting more. Today, a full year after his death, I asked some of my favorite travel writers to reflect on his legacy. If not because you, the reader, wanted that, then because I did. Still, through it all, I don’t know Anthony Bourdain. And in that, I’m reminded of the end of the movie A River Runs Through It (Bourdain would appreciate the Montana-reference):
As time passed, my father struggled
for more to hold onto…
asking me again and again
had I told him everything.
Finally, I said to him:
“Maybe all I really know about Paul…
is that he was a fine fisherman.”
“You know more than that,” my father said. “He was beautiful.”
Anthony Bourdain was a fine traveler. He asked questions before drawing conclusions. He wondered aloud rather than speaking with certainty. He smiled through awkwardness and fought “the fear of the other” with every fiber of his being. But he was more than that, too. He was beautiful.
DON WILDMAN — TV HOST – MYSTERIES AT THE MUSEUM, OFF LIMITS, MONUMENTAL MYSTERIES
In 2012, I arrived at the Travel Channel offices in Chevy Chase, MD, months after Anthony Bourdain had departed for a new outlet. Nonetheless, his super-sized face still billboarded the office lobby and elevator doors. In the years to come, no matter his network, Bourdain would loom large over me and every other personality working in documentary television. Today, a year after his death, he still looms. I expect that will never change.
Though I never met the man, I felt a connection. But not because of television. It was Bourdain’s first book, Kitchen Confidential, I admired most. I worked as a NYC waiter through those same years in the 1980’s when he described himself slogging away at Les Halles. And while our venue was a very different scene much further uptown, there were similarities. It amazed me that a writer could capture so astutely and comically what cooking in those chaotic kitchens felt like in those years.
I wish I knew what could possibly push such a brilliant and perceptive man to the depths of sadness he apparently reached. I won’t, ever. But I’m thankful that at least I witnessed — along with the rest of the world — the fascinating heights he was able to achieve. I hope he would take some comfort in that