My name is Nick, and I’m from Milwaukee, WI. We’ve never met before, at least not in person. I know you’ll never read this, but I’m writing to get a few things off of my chest about you. Forgive me for rambling a bit; I’m not that good at this yet, but I’m working on it.
On Friday morning last week, your body was found by your best friend, in a hotel room in Strasbourg, France.
The world got a little darker that day.
Chefs, cooks, and food service industry acquaintances of mine, as well as travel enthusiasts, music lovers, gun nuts, immigrants, family, friends, media representatives, and both the former and the current President of the United States (ugh) have all had something to say about your passing. Not all of it was pretty, but for so many people, you were so much more than a TV show host. You were a traveling companion, a drinking buddy, a friend. To a select lucky few, you were a family member, a husband, and a father.
Out of everyone devastated by your death, it’s them I envy the least.
I first started watching Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations on Travel Channel while I was in high school; a dweeb-y kid who played way too many video games, suddenly realizing that the world was so much bigger than my sleepy Midwestern hometown of Kenosha, WI. I was immediately drawn in by both the beauty of the places you were visiting, and by how relatable you were to me. You weren’t just a chef, or a writer, or a comic book producer, or a TV host. You were human, like us. You had your scars, and the stories behind them.
As I grew older, I followed your career closely, watching Parts Unknown on Netflix every time the dishes piled up in my sink, and reading Kitchen Confidential, Naked Lunch, and On The Road every time I traveled by plane or went on a road trip, and tweeting at you every now and again to come see the food revolution taking place right here in Milwaukee. When I broke up with my now ex-fiancee earlier this year, I went back and watched A Cook’s Tour to help me get over it. Even though we’ve never met, you’ve been there for me.
Every episode of every show you produced, you approached with all the charm and tact of an old-school chef, but there was a sort of Disneyland-esque sparkle in your eyes along with the gruff exterior, in the way you savored the foods and experiences you encountered. And through it all, you never disrespected the places you went or the people you met; you always treated every older woman like your own grandma, and you weren’t afraid to get your hands dirty prepping vegetables or butchering meats. If a Koreatown artist said that Sizzler was the best growing up, you went to fucking Sizzler, just to get a better understanding of that childhood influence. If a chef in Canada wanted to go ice fishing, you froze your ass off in a shanty. Whenever you went to a location, you made sure to learn the history of the place and how it influenced the culture of the people who lived there. Your approach to food preparation, to travel, and to the silly seriousness of life in general was a huge inspiration to the way I lived my life as I grew older. Your attitudes about immigration, about the underprivileged, about warmongering, about racial relations and cultural differences, and about love and humanity and life, have all helped shape me into the man I’ve become today.
As I’ve watched you over the years, what always struck me is your ability to find the heart and soul of a place, or a group of people, or a cuisine. Whether it’s the wild Latin and African musical influences and long, hot nights of Central America, or the juxtaposition of deep, revered tradition and absolute candy-coated lunacy of Tokyo, or the devastating, ancient beauty of Rome, you always had a local’s appreciation for where you ended up. Your authenticity made you a fixed point of reference for appreciating the places you’ve been for what they are, not what your producers wanted them to be. By the way, that bullshit with the frozen octopus would have eaten me up, too. Fuck that overly-produced, jumping-the-shark garbage. Tell real stories.
Since your passing, I’ve tried to live my life just a little bit more like yours; finding excuses to turn off the cartoons and old movies, getting my ass up off the couch and getting outside, going to different parts of town, and having some good food and drinks with some good friends. You’ve helped me make so many positive connections in my own life, and taught me so many lessons about acceptance, dealing with pain, keeping an open mind, and always being willing to explore new places and cultures. I would’ve loved to have the opportunity to hang out with you and toss a few back at Wolski’s, and just listen to your stories some more.
I don’t know why you chose Strasbourg, France as your final destination. Maybe it had something to do with your famed NYC bistro Les Halles, or your French heritage, or the love of rural French cooking that started with a single, fresh oyster in your childhood.
But I miss you. The world misses you.
Rest in peace, Tony.