What was miss­ing from a life lived to the fullest

The Advertiser - - OPINION -

IHAVE never un­der­stood the man­ner in which the death of a celebrity can un­leash emo­tions in fans com­pa­ra­ble to those felt after the loss of a real-life rel­a­tive or ac­tual friend.

That said, over the past few days I’ve felt some­thing akin to grief over the death of the writer An­thony Bour­dain. I think this is be­cause of the unique na­ture of what he achieved in his life, and the ex­is­ten­tially un­nerv­ing na­ture of his death.

As the world be­comes more adept at dis­cussing de­pres­sion, it re­mains as mis­er­ably ill-equipped as it has ever been to ad­dress the root ques­tion, namely what is it that makes an out­wardly sta­ble, en­thu­si­as­tic per­son reach the snap de­ci­sion to end it all, and what can the rest of us to do to stop this from hap­pen­ing?

Be­fore we re­flect fur­ther on the death part of Bour­dain’s story, we should cel­e­brate the life part. The world has be­come a duller and less in­tel­li­gent place as a re­sult of his demise. The ra­tio of cool peo­ple to losers has tilted in an un­favourable di­rec­tion.

If the great­est food writer who ever lived, Bri­tain’s El­iz­a­beth David, had an heir, that per­son was An­thony Bour­dain. Like David, who spent her culi­nary and writ­ing life rail­ing against pre­tence and fussi­ness, poseurs and snobs, Bour­dain was the most el­e­gantly articulate op­po­nent of the mod­ern-day pomp and the­atrics as­so­ci­ated with food.

Just as El­iz­a­beth David ac­quired her love of food trav­el­ling across Europe as a stu­dent – writ­ing her amaz­ing first work, A Book of Mediter­ranean Food, in the days when ra­tioning still ap­plied after World War II – Bour­dain was a con­stant trav­eller who seemed fu­elled by a de­sire to re­cap­ture David’s sense of won­der for real in­gre­di­ents, pre­pared with re­spect and tra­di­tion, by pas­sion­ate peo­ple who were con­nected to and cared about their pro­duce.

A key dif­fer­ence be­tween the de- mure David and the now-de­ceased Bour­dain was that Bour­dain was a full-blown heroin ad­dict for the bet­ter or worse part of the 1980s.

There was barely a drug he didn’t en­dorse or in­gest – acid, speed, coke, mush­rooms – but it was the smack that al­most got him. As with the man­ner of his death, his de­scent into ad­dic­tion is a puz­zle, too.

He came from a re­ally well-ad­justed and artis­tic fam­ily in New Jersey where his dad worked (how cool is this) at a lo­cal record store and then for Columbia Records. His par­ents were mid­dle class, hap­pily mar­ried, and sup­ported Bour­dain in his en­deav­ours. Bour­dain said later that he was an­noyed by all this hap­pi­ness.

“I was re­bel­lious and bit­ter that I wasn’t old enough to be in San Fran­cisco, drop­ping acid and hav­ing sex with hip­pie chicks,” he wrote.

“I had im­pec­ca­ble taste in rock’n’roll for a 10-year-old, yet was too young to live that life. It made me an­gry. Most of my friends had rich ab­sen­tee par­ents or came from bro­ken homes, so they were free to do what­ever they wanted. I deeply re­sented the rel­a­tive sta­bil­ity at my house. I started tak­ing drugs as soon as I en­coun­tered them.’’

I came across Bour­dain when I bought his ground­break­ing de­but book, Kitchen Con­fi­den­tial, know­ing noth­ing about him or his story. From memory, I think I bought it at an air­port be­cause I liked the sound of the ti­tle. What a gen­uinely awe­some book it is.

The thing that makes it awe­some is that it fol­lows the French philoso­pher Rousseau’s first and only rule of au­to­bi­og­ra­phy – tell the ab­so­lute truth about your­self, how­ever hor­ri­ble that truth might be.

With painstak­ing dis­re­gard for him­self, Bour­dain paints a pic­ture of some­one com­pletely bent out of shape by the hours, the pres­sure, and the con­stant chem­i­cal stim­u­la­tion that went hand-in-hand with life in the mega­lo­ma­ni­a­cal world of a com­mer­cial kitchen.

If din­ing out is the new theatre, to bor­row a line from the movie When Harry Met Sally, then chefs are the new stars. Bour­dain was backstage for the worst of it – and at the ho­tel af­ter­wards, snort­ing more lines and throw­ing his TV off the bal­cony.

In the wrong hands, Bour­dain’s tales of ex­cess, stamina, ex­haus­tion, drug abuse, booze binges and fre­quent for­ni­ca­tion would sound boast­ful and bor­ing.

In Bour­dain’s skilled hands, they form a dis­pas­sion­ate and mat­ter-of­fact de­scrip­tion of a life that had spun out of con­trol, as had seem­ingly every other life in the kitchens he in­hab­ited.

Maybe I am weird, but I’d say that the great thing about this book is that you read it, it re­pels you, and it also makes you want to be a chef.

The dis­re­gard with which Bour­dain told the story of his life is the same dis­re­gard which brought about his death. There are those of us blessed with the happy gene. We are the lucky ones, be­cause how­ever lousy things can seem, we can still look for­ward to the next quiet din­ner with our part­ners, a laugh-out-loud lunch with friends, a sum­mer’s day at the beach with the kids.

The hor­ri­ble mys­tery of all this is how any­one can get to a point where there is seem­ingly no prospect of joy, any­where, on the hori­zon.

This ques­tion is more con­found­ing in the case of Bour­dain, whose work­ing life seemed one long and lucky case of let­ting the good times roll.

Maybe the best way to hon­our his life, and com­bat the man­ner of his death, is to ring an old mate, some­one you’ve lost touch with and who might be iso­lated and out-of-sorts, and find a res­tau­rant that serves steak tartare and de­mol­ish a bot­tle of red to­gether. IF YOU OR SOME­ONE YOU LOVE IS IN CRI­SIS OR NEEDS SUP­PORT, CALL LIFE­LINE ON 13 11 14 OR BEYOND­BLUE ON 1300 224 636.

MOURN­ING: Tributes to celebrity chef An­thony Bour­dain out­side his for­mer New York res­tau­rant, Le Halles.

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