What was missing from a life lived to the fullest
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.