For Bourdain: A Cult of Pain

Eight years ago, wanting to represent both my editor and the publication itself with some decorum, I’d slipped on a trendy-looking sport coat over a white dress shirt; and though I’d been told it would be a formal gathering, I wagered a pair of beat-up jeans would also be in order.

My daughter was born precisely a week earlier, and (aside from executing the requisite errands involved with having a newborn in the house) I hadn’t been absent for a significant amount of time. I recall feeling a touch of hesitation for leaving my wife and infant for several hours—this elicited from a sense of self-indulgence, but the truth was I had a job to do.

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Southside Times: September, 2010

I had a recreational gig writing a weekly cooking column for a local paper (this was before transitioning to full freelance). About a week before my daughter was born, I received an e-mail from my editor asking if I’d be interested in press credentials to an event promoting the annual Spirit and Place festival; and being a suitable fit for that particular year’s theme, “Food for Thought,” the Indiana Humanities Council was sponsoring “An Evening with Anthony Bourdain and Eric Ripert.” I considered it for a sliver of a second, responded, and immediately began preparing my questions.

Outwardly, as I entered Clowes Memorial Hall, I attempted to compose myself with the focused air of a “journalist,” but internally I was tempering a glee which comes from the anticipation of being in close proximity to a craftsperson of significant standing in a community’s trade—the self-instilled sobriety which comes in knowing a narrow opportunity is approaching to engage in a cogent conversation of some personal relevance and cultural substance.

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Southside Times: October, 2010

Though user-friendly and expedient, it would be too mundane, too simplistic to employ the term “celebrity.” But it would also be inaccurate to apply that nomenclature to Anthony Bourdain.

And though I certainly have them, I’m reticent to use the term “hero” in many of my written musings. The word makes me wince. No: I reserve that qualifier for those who have—in both figurative and corporeal ways at certain points along the timeline—saved my life. Besides, there’s a self-conscious whiff of the sycophant in such subscription—a casualness which (intended or not) at best rings fawningly, at worst parasitic.

But I’m not writing with the intent to cruelly or smugly split descriptive hairs. A hero, an inspiration, a mentor, a coach. Whatever. This is about being fundamentally affected, and it eclipses the ornamentation of being a cursory “fan.”

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On the morning of Friday June 8, 2018, I started writing a few minutes after hearing of Anthony Bourdain’s death (content-wise, these paragraphs have undergone some line-edit surgical grafts in the interim). As shocking as it was to hear about a figure—a voice—being instantly depleted from future conversations, it was not as shocking as the cause of death: Bourdain’s elected method that continues to unsettle me, and insinuates disheartening, philosophical implications.

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Pen in hand, the first thoughts I scattered onto my scuffed-up mental cutting board were of Chicago. Eighteen years ago.

Released in August of 2000, Kitchen Confidential was Bourdain’s “breakout” endeavor which smoothly sluiced him into the current of mainstream pop-culture. With the subtitle, Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly, the book was part memoir, part comedic-acerbic account of the industry’s often unsavory trenches. I arrived in Chicago a month later, and the book was equally pervasive in both presence and conversation. It appealed to the industry’s codified patois and irreverent sensibilities. (The companionable memoir made it easier to adjust to my new, overwhelming home in Chicago, and offered some much needed guidance.)

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Credit:  Robert DiScalfani

But there’s a tangible duality in the book’s personality and contemplations: a Jekyll-and-Hyde sort of lecture in which the author (not unlike a culinary coach worth their salt) simultaneously encourages and warns the reader and, ideally, a would-be culinarian. Toward the end of book, in the chapter, “So You Really Want to Be a Chef?,” Bourdain submits fourteen “suggestions” to the initiate:

  1. Be fully committed
  2. Learn Spanish
  3. Don’t steal
  4. Always be on time
  5. Never make excuses or blame others
  6. Never call in sick
  7. Lazy, sloppy and slow are bad
  8. Be prepare to witness variety of human folly an injustice
  9. Assume the worst
  10. Try not to lie
  11. Avoid restaurants where the owner’s name is over the door
  12. Think about that résumé
  13. Read
  14. Have a sense of humor about things

Like Bourdain himself, Kitchen Confidential (as well as the sequel-esque collections: The Nasty Bits and Medium Raw) was inclusive, part of its mainstream charm; but as it appealed to me in my early-twenties, and as I attempted to apply it to that formative phase of my life, it was a series of lessons and anecdotes which reinforced an endeavor to which I’d been committed (advertently, for the most part) since I was eighteen. It was in these unsavory trenches that I’d learned an ethos which I applied to the rest of my life. And I mean, think about it: with a tweak to number eleven—and with the obvious, verisimilitude-related questionability of number ten—those fourteen, aforementioned “rules” have been applied to myriad aspects of my approach to creative writing.

And so, practicing this exercise of writing, I have discovered (as I reluctantly reflect on his death and riptide of death itself) an element that profoundly unsettles me.

“I’ll be right here. Until they drag me off the line. I’m not going anywhere. I hope. It’s been an adventure. We took some casualties over the years. Things got broken. Things got lost. / But I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.”

And then, in a merciless, knife-like manipulation, there’s this: “Songs from some other time…will always mean something to somebody present, but maybe you had to be there. / You look each other with the intense camaraderie of people who’ve suffered together and think…“We did well tonight. We will go home proud.” His summary: “There are nods and half-smiles. A sigh. Maybe even a groan of relief. / Once again. We survived. We did well. / We’re still here.”

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Credit:  Robert DiScalfani

Placing an emotional forefinger on it the best I can, I think, more than anything, I’m mystified and pissed—pissed that he quit before the end of (what I wanted to be) his shift.

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Yet, in other ways, perhaps clues (if you read close) existed all along. “Though I’ve spent half my life watching people,” writes Bourdain, “guiding them, trying to anticipate their moods, motivations and actions, running from them, manipulating and being manipulated by them, they remain a mystery to me. People confuse me.”

Bourdain was candid and unapologetic about the way he’d lived and the positions to which he’d adhered. Another way to put it: he was refreshingly (if not viciously) honest for an age and culture (read: for a spectator-based dining room) immersed in assembling a cosmetic, media-friendly image. “Though far more successful and famous, Emeril [Lagasse] projects a public image completely devoid of greed, vanity, lust, or ambition,” wrote Bourdain wrote in The Nasty Bits, “sins to be found in obvious abundance all over Rocco [DiSpirito]’s more handsome but need-riddled face.” Bourdain punctuates this point: “It may not be all about the food in the harsh, unforgiving business of celebrity chefdom, but it is still about cooking, about the pleasures of the table. Those who forget that, even the prodigiously talented, do so at their own peril.”

And though Bourdain had (well over a decade before) transitioned from the gastronomic gauntlet, there were references along the way that some of the most attractive aspects of kitchen culture, and the lessons they furnish, contain profoundly dark alcoves, the shadows harmonizing with some of our darker, inner antechambers. If not kept in check, these shadows linger and threaten to unexpectedly assert themselves. (I think, too, of the bewildering suicide of Homaro Cantu, who discovered in his own restaurant in the spring of 2015.) From Melville’s poem Clarel: “Degrees we know, unknown in days before; The light is greater, hence the shadow more.”

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In foodservice, and in the modern culinary craft itself, hope and dismality are twined in a complicated arrangement. The truth is the industry is inclusive, and initially accepts anyone—as long as you’re willing to abide by the required vagaries of those tacit contracts. Still in my late teens, and having appraised the mercurial nature of the industry, I was sensitive to consequences when it came to the notion of a culinary career. I relished, for a time, the lifestyle; but I was also cautious, as I’d bore (and would continue to bear) witness to the hapless demise of my culinary colleagues. In short, if one remains unaware, the manipulative machinations of the industry will overrun your endurance, extinguish the light of your ambition.

Bourdain, in his essay, “Is Celebrity Killing the Great Chefs?,” explains, “Cooking professionally is hard. It ravages the mind and body. Hard-core purist foodies may gripe that a chef is not ‘keeping it real,’ but I invite them to try working a busy sauté station six long shifts a week on forty-five-year-old legs. Chefs who are still doing that beyond fifty don’t look forward to living much longer.”

A self-acknowledged former drug-addict—and professed, former fuck-up—Bourdain vouched for our craft, hauling it out of those behind-the-scenes trenches, elevating thankless work into something presentable and palatable for “civilians.” In The Nasty Bits, he offers, “The restaurant business, after all, is the greatest business in the world. Cooking is noble toil. And fun. No supermodel or television producer is ever going to say anything more interesting than my line cooks and sous-chefs.”

Bourdain helped us navigate the avarice of the cooking industry. The Spoils System (pun intended) is very much alive, and Bourdain’s ethos and articulated commentary offered and alternative view of the preconceived concept of a menial foodservice worker. “There is no deception more hypocritical, more nauseating, more willfully self-deluding than the industry-approved image of ‘the chef.’” For guys like me in my late-teens and early-twenties who did not fit in to (nor was accepted by) conventional career paths, Bourdain demonstrated that the craft of cooking could be much more cerebral than assumed by the vox populi.

Bourdain became an applauded celebrity, his voice and views gaining cross-cultural recognition and respect; his kitchen-commentary, lessons, and anecdotes essentially relaying and reshaping concepts familiar to a common cook, reinforcing things were already. And because he was a storyteller, he knew how to encourage, how to help us cope; he offered a lamplight for those in the “back of the house,” in the shadows.

“Cooking is, and always has been, a cult of pain,” he writes. “The people in our dining rooms are different from us. We are the other thing—and we like it like that.”

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As much as it’s bothered me since hearing the news, the details, it’s not really about death.

In my nascent days chasing dead-end pursuits, due to my artistic tastes and ostensibly darker sensibilities when it comes to my attraction to the mediums of fiction and film, I used to receive casual criticisms that I over-focused on death. It’s nothing I took personal. I understand the misguided assumption; but what I’ve learned in my creative endeavors—namely writing and culinary arts—that many of my compulsions were braided not with death, but rather impermanence.

I realized a few years ago that what, in part, galvanized my writing was my desire to create a legacy in ink: that my life could be revealed—that my life could be an identifiable endeavor.

I attempt to teach my students that creating a plate of food is a privilege, and if done properly, we can tell a story on that blank-slate surface; but as much care and skill we put onto that plate, we are required to part with it—the craft compels us to practice, incorporate, and become fluent, all for the sake of a stranger. Out of chaos, something cogent is assembled, all to disappear in a dimly-lit dining room. The privilege part comes when someone, sometimes a stranger, asks us to do it again. To recreate a cherished experience.

In 2007, I received the gift of a book from my father: My Last Supper: 50 Great Chefs and Their Final Meals / Portraits, Interviews, and Recipes. I treasure that book, mostly because it reminds me of him, but also for the tutelage it offers. Some of the stories are surprisingly comical, others understandably morose.

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Bourdain is present on the roster of chefs and wrote the introduction. Reading it the first time, there was a lantern-flicker of remembrance in something Hemingway once said, that the best, early training for a writer was an unhappy childhood. Considering the circumstances, that reminder of Hemingway is no comfort now.

[W]hen we ask ourselves and each other the question, what—if strapped to a chair, facing a fatal surge of electricity—would we want to as the last taste of life, we seem to crave reminders of simpler, harder times. A crust of bread and butter. A duck confited in a broken home. Poor-people food. The food of the impoverished but (only in the abstract) the relatively carefree. When we think of what we would eat last, we revert from the loud, type A, obsessive, dominating control freaks we’ve become back to the children we once were. Not that all of us were happy children, but we were children just the same. If cooking professionally is about control—about manipulating the people, the ingredients, and the strange, physical forces of the kitchen universe to do one’s bidding; always anticipating, always preparing, always dominating one’s environment—then eating well is about submission. About letting go.

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I have more ingredients in my mental larder than I did eight years ago. My existential kitchen better supplied with nourishing provisions. But I’ve had coaches. And even if I’d never vocalized the simpering need for guidance, there were (and are) those who’ve acted as course-correctors, inadvertent tutors who’ve altered the avenues of my self-destructive tendencies and demonstrated how to enrich one’s existence. I’ve been a bystander, a spectator, but Bourdain was one of my central mentors.

Bourdain offered some final, girdering sentiments for me in his introduction to Appetites. “I became a father at fifty years of age. That’s late, I know. But for me, it was just right. At no point previously had I been old enough, settled enough, or mature enough for this, the biggest and most important of jobs: the love and care of another human being.” There’s more:

From the second I saw my daughter’s head corkscrewing out of the womb, I began making some major changes in my life. I was no longer the star of my own movie—or any movie. From that point on, it was all about the girl. Like most people who write books or appear on television, who think that anyone would or should care about their story, I am a monster of self-regard. Fatherhood has been an enormous relief, as I am now genetically, instinctively compelled to care about someone other than myself. I like being a father. No, I love being a father. Everything about it.

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Eight years ago, I arrived home from that Evening with Anthony Bourdain and Eric Ripert and shared jittery anecdotes with my wife. My wife listened, allowed me to tell my story. I watched as she fed our infant daughter, who now eagerly, inquisitively cooks alongside me in the kitchen.

Hours earlier, in the media room where the journalists were allowed to interact with the chefs, both Bourdain and Ripert were gracious—there were no real surprises: they were disarming and engaged precisely as they appeared in their various pop-culture platforms. There was no bullshit. It was—for viewers and spectators who witnessed his celebrity-ascension—a fundamental appeal.

Time was limited in that pre-show session with the other stringers and the chefs. I didn’t get to ask all the questions I wanted, but I was allowed plenty. Enough, after all, is as good as a feast.

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