Travel isn’t always pretty. It isn’t always comfortable. Sometimes it hurts, it even breaks your heart. But that’s okay. The journey changes you; it should change you. It leaves marks on your memory, on your consciousness, on your heart, and on your body. You take something with you. Hopefully, you leave something good behind.

       —No Reservations: Around the World on an Empty Stomach

I am in denial about all this. Bourdain? Really? This man was my spirit animal, living his life in a way that many people dream of–the way I always envisioned my career in food, and my life in general–would look like. Making your bones in the trenches of a restaurant, moving on to writing and travel as a lifestyle, with food as your common language with the people you meet along the way, and a vague desire to either be him, date him, or be his best friend and confidant.

And judging by the outpouring of emotional reactions from fellow chefs, food lovers, fans, journalists, colleagues, even President Obama, and most telling, tweets from everyday Palestinians, Nigerians and other people in far reaching places he visited, I am not alone in feeling connected to and touched by his life and his journeys. He told stories about our food and connected people to each other via these stories and in the process, changed the food industry for the better.

Ours is Not to Reason Why

Almost every person, via tweet, article, interview, was blindsided by his suicide and we each ask ourselves, the Internet itself: Why? I am one of these people. I’ve met him a few times, not that he’d have remembered, but I always felt connected to him and now, feel abandoned. WHY did he kill himself? I keep struggling for rational reasons—did he have a terminal disease and was sparing himself and loved ones the long, torturous death? Was he having problems with his girlfriend? Did the kibosh of his big vision for Bourdain Market on a refurbished Manhattan pier give him financial troubles? Did Kate Spade’s suicide three days ago trigger the very real suicide contagion that mental health experts warn about?

Why do we need to know why a person takes his own life?

I don’t know why people kill themselves. Many people are depressed, many people wish they were dead, but don’t actually go to the often-violent effort to end their lives and move into the realm of the dead. Mental health professionals are the real experts on the disease of depression and what causes someone to die by suicide, but that never really ends our own desperate wondering. The impact of the food industry’s stresses and travails on the mental health of its workers are well-publicized, and the industry has witnessed a number of successful chefs end their lives, from French chef Bernard Loiseau in 2003, to Chicago chef, Homaro Cantu in 2015, who I met briefly when he’d do cooking demos at a farmers market where I worked, to Michelin two-star chef Benoit Violier just two years ago.

But Bourdain’s death has shocked and devastated so many people that it seems to be more than another celebrity suicide, or even another chef suicide.

Love Is The Answer

I have no idea why Anthony Bourdain killed himself today and no amount of reason, logic, conjecture or rationalization is going to answer why he did it.

But I do feel like I know why he went into food and restaurant work.

Love.

Food is often a place we look for love.

Love we never got; love we want to recapture; love we want to escape from; love we are starving for; love we can’t give ourselves.

And food is a place where we can hide from life that hasn’t given us the love we need.

Your body is not a temple, it’s an amusement park. Enjoy the ride.

—Anthony BourdainKitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly

It was love that drew me to leave my job as a courtroom lawyer in Manhattan Family Court, a setting surrounded by crime and family trauma, and described once on a Dateline episode about crack cocaine as “the saddest place on Earth.” I loved to cook and fantasized that cooking food for others was a place where I could find some sort of peace and happiness, a place of safety, where there wasn’t harm or moral ambivalence.

Much to my shock and disappointment, many of the same neuroses, anxieties, dysfunctions take place inside the kitchen as inside a courthouse, along with the same dysfunctional families and broken people that move through their doors.

The restaurant and food world feel like a microcosm of all our human hopes, desires, anxieties, and dysfunctions we bring to our relationships with food. We put our hopes and dreams into our food. Food is most certainly our nourishment, but food is often the source or the playground for our neuroses. Food represents status or lack thereof. Food is safety, food is danger. Food is everything.

In the world of nourishment, there can be a very real hunger for human connection and a hollow pit loneliness in the very people who are feeding us.

The Heart of Darkness

Though Anthony Bourdain is a tall, lanky, super cool, edgy man and I am none of those things, I felt more than a fan’s sense of kinship and connection to him, starting with our similar New York area suburban backgrounds, our privilege and access to good education that allowed us to experiment and escape into alternative careers that our parents might not have envisioned, but without having to experience the real economic, racial and gender inequity of a restaurant kitchen.

Anthony Bourdain himself admitted that he epitomized some of the stark cultural and economic inequities in kitchen life, who really make a kitchen run and who you should thank for cooking you good food. He made sure to raise up the folks who do the heavy lifting—whose immigration status, lack of education and language barriers require they take jobs with some of the worst pay, the longest hours and most grueling working conditions, the least benefits or job security, little to no recourse for employment violations or sexual harassment—just to support their families. These are the mostly men, and some women, who work their butts off growing and cooking almost all the food we eat in this country and are never invited to write books or appear on TV. Who don’t get to see the therapists or go to rehab or share their feelings on a blog. And who die at their own hands in increasing numbers with no fanfare or publicity.

Bourdain has been out of the professional kitchen almost as long as he was a chef working inside one, but his persona still showed the edgy tough mien of a restaurant chef, along with the battle scars of addiction and the toxic machismo he wrote about in detail in his books and have been exposed in the much-publicized #MeToo stories of life working in a professional kitchen.

Right now, nothing else matters but women’s stories of what it’s like in the industry I have loved and celebrated for nearly 30 years—and our willingness, as human beings, citizens, men and women alike, to hear them out, fully, and in a way that other women can feel secure enough, and have faith enough that they, too, can tell their stories.

             —Anthony Bourdain, On Reacting to Bad News

And in that experience certainly would contribute to the stigma that mental health problems already carry and the shame and unwillingness to show any weakness to fellow workers or bosses. There is no time for sharing your feelings when you have 300 covers/night.

Care About Where and WHO Your Food Comes From

Chefs and other food workers, diners and government officials all focus on the physical side of kitchen health: food safety, personal hygiene, cleanliness, foodborne illnesses, but ignore the mental health effects of restaurant and farm working conditions. We conscientiously wash our hands but abandon our mental well-being.

The website, Chefs with Issues was founded by food writer, Kat Kinsman, specifically to highlight and offer resources for the many restaurant and farm workers who suffer from mental health problems in an industry that offers little real support. Kinsman wrote about her own struggles with anxiety in her book, Hi, Anxiety: Life with a Bad Case of Nerves.

Thinking about what impact Anthony Bourdain had on my own sense of success, failure and what a well-lived life means, I asked some friends in the food and the farming world what drew them to the vocation of producing food for others and whether they feel they got what they were looking for or not.

A Chicago friend echoed some of what Anthony Bourdain has written about for years–kitchens (and farms) are a place for misfits—for passionate people who sometimes have a hard time relating in traditional settings. A kitchen has a set of very clear goals—get that food out and make it good with as little waste as possible. “The atmosphere is high intensity and the shared desire to do your best bonds people in a way that is hard to duplicate in other professions. Surviving that pressure and getting through a hard shift creates instant and often lifelong friendships because it cuts through all of the “getting to know” you bullshit.”

It’s striking that these types of descriptions echo in similarity those from soldiers about the friendships and character testing in the midst of battle or firefighters in an engine company.

Another friend calls food, like music, a unifying force, and thinks of cooking, especially when you experiment, as a symphony of flavor you can create with ingredients from different cultures.

Laura, a farmer in Kentucky told me that growing and raising food feels like a primal act. We must all eat to live, but when you grow or make food for another person, it’s intimate. and it matters how you raise and treat the food you cook for another person.

“Knowing that the chicken I raised to make coq au vin lived a good and happy life makes eating him a sort of weird celebration of life. Knowing that the tomato I slice and eat was raised by me from a tiny seed is a magical thing. Food has so much magic and producing food is a form of practicing magic. There’s nothing so amazing as seeing a chick hatch, a seed sprout, a goat born. Magic, all of it.”

“Low plastic stool, cheap but delicious noodles, cold Hanoi beer.” This is how I’ll remember Tony. He taught us about food — but more importantly, about its ability to bring us together. To make us a little less afraid of the unknown. We’ll miss him.” Former President Barack Obama on Anthony Bourdain.

Resources for Help

Chefs with Issues, a site for people involved in the food industry (not just chefs) to share their stories and resources for dealing with the particular pressures of restaurant life, so that other people may feel less alone. Founded by Kat Kinsman, author, Hi, Anxiety: Life with a Bad Case of Nerves.

Ben’s Friends is the food and beverage industry support group offering hope, fellowship, and a path forward to professionals who struggle with substance abuse and addiction.

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline

No matter what problems you are dealing with, we want to help you find a reason to keep living. By calling 1-800-273-TALK (8255) you’ll be connected to a skilled, trained counselor at a crisis center in your area, anytime 24/7. suicidepreventionlifeline.org

Tweet: “We’re saddened to hear of the tragic loss of Anthony Bourdain,” the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline posted on social media. “Please know you are never alone, no matter how dark or lonely things may seem. If you’re struggling, reach out: call 1-800-273-TALK (8255). We’re here for you, 24/7/365.”

National Alliance on Mental Illness

NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, is the nation’s largest grassroots mental health organization dedicated to building better lives for the millions of Americans affected by mental illness. nami.org

Tweet: “It’s also important to know warning signs and risk factors for suicide, that way you can better support others,” reads a tweet from the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Those warning signs include making threats or comments about killing oneself, social withdrawal and increased alcohol and drug use.

 

 

Last Updated: Jun 14, 2018