By Joyce Chen
Anthony Bourdain was found dead on Friday, June 8, in his room at a luxury hotel in the tiny village of Kayersberg, in northeast France. Police officials from the Alsace region, where Kayersberg is located, say that it appears as though the celebrity chef hanged himself, though the official cause of death is still under investigation. He was 61.
Bourdain’s body was discovered by his close friend and frequent travel partner, French chef Eric Ripert. The pair was in town to film an upcoming episode of CNN’s heralded series, Parts Unknown, in which Bourdain travels to different locales around the globe to dine, explore, and uncover elements of the culture perhaps previously unrecognized by the mainstream.
In my time working in entertainment journalism, I’ve had to cover my fair share of celebrity deaths: Michael Jackson, Cory Monteith, Prince. Chester Bennington. David Bowie. George Michael. Phife Dawg. Carrie Fisher. And one day later, Debbie Reynolds. I’ve written obituaries on what felt like a near-daily basis, digging deep into these famous figures’ lives, reaching out to the police for official statements, poring over medical documents for insight into the cause of death. Pills. Overdose. Battle with. Cancer. Depression. Anxiety. Self. No one knew. Sources say. I’ve started countless stories with sentences like the ones above, stating names, places, dates. Alleged. Ongoing. Believed to be. There is, unfortunately, not much that feels novel or surprising about these passings anymore. These incidents. These deaths.
And yet, none of them have felt as visceral, as gut-wrenchingly real, as this one. There is an element of familial grief that is palpable in the way friends and colleagues have bemoaned Bourdain's passing. And I wonder: Why? Maybe part of the reason why I felt removed from the grief in those other deaths was because I was working at the time. There is a formula that you follow when covering celebrity deaths: remove emotions, plug in words, fact-check ages, reach out for statements, write up the requisite follow-up stories. Celebrities mourn. Twitter reacts. Toxicology tests show. Family releases statement. Writing about a death on deadline is numbing, because the task at hand feels like it’s bigger than you, the immediacy of social media’s collective mourning more present than your own, and there isn’t really a proper moment to pause and process in these instances.
But Bourdain’s death late last week still feels fresh. It feels tangibly bleak. And in a way, I want to reason that the depth of this impact goes deeper beyond simply the context in which the news was received (read: at home, off the clock, versus in an office, attached to an assignment).
I can feel myself closing in on myself as I reflect upon him, his legacy, and the million ways in which he has impacted my and many others’ lives. I feel guilty at first about the fact that the most instinctual way I know to mourn him is publicly, with a post to Instagram, to Facebook, perhaps a few words about what he meant to me, a stoic photo of his countenance, a hashtag or two expressing my acknowledgment of his death. #RIP. #Legend. #Icon. I find myself wondering how soon it’ll be before the public moves on, how soon before the headlines flip, how soon it’ll be before the hashtags bearing his name and the posts with images of his face, a familiar web of wrinkles and life well-lived, give way to other posts, happier ones about summer barbecues and memes and other more self-indulgent content. #LivingLife. #SummersHere. #YOLO.
Self-indulgent. If there were ever a word to describe everything Bourdain was and was not, it was just that: self-indulgent. He ate and he traveled and he spoke with strangers for a living, managed to make money (and a name for himself) while doing the things he loved, pulled himself out of a hellhole of heroine addiction and bad decisions to become a champion of sorts, someone whom aspiring writers, foodies, and travelers could look up to. This is the reason why Bourdain became such a cult figure in his 61 short years of life, one not unlike Hunter S. Thompson to the generation before him. Because he simply lived life and didn’t care too much about all the noise of celebrity and acclaim that surrounded him. Bourdain wasn’t afraid to seek the hell out of the pleasures in life, and unapologetically so, because he understood that life is made up of more than chasing paper and status and security and familiarity. In fact, it is about none of these things at all: for him, and for Thompson before him, life was about seeking newness and embracing the unknown, of wanting to push past the boundaries of comfort in order to understand others — but also, themselves — more deeply. Self-indulgent feels, then, to be a weirdly appropriate way to mourn this man.
More specifically, Bourdain, better known as Tony to those of us who wanted to know him on a first-name basis, was self-indulgent in his curiosity. His interest in cultures outside of the ones he grew up knowing took him to cityscapes as wide-ranging as Tokyo and Tbilisi, Georgia, and to stunning landscapes as diverse as the Congo and Beirut, Lebanon. There were no boundaries to the breadth of his curiosity about these places, because he understood that gathering over a platter of meat or fresh produce or glasses of good wine is a universal experience, one that combines the most basic of human pleasures — community, nourishment, storytelling — without judgment or bias. As Taiwanese-American comic Jenny Yang aptly put it in a tweet: “Bourdain never treated our food like he ‘discovered’ it. He kicked it with grandma because he knew that HE was the one that needed to catch up to our brilliance. I wish so much for his legacy to take hold in western (mostly white) food media culture. What a loss. I’m so sad.”
In an April 2016 piece following Prince’s death, a writer for the Los Angeles Times noted that public mourning on social media is really just a way for us to publicly celebrate ourselves while taking part in a global conversation. The writer points to one poignant tweet following David Bowie’s death earlier that year. ”Thinking about how we mourn artists we've never met," the woman tweeted. "We don't cry because we knew them, we cry because they helped us know ourselves.”
And it’s true. I initially felt guilty about wanting to mourn Bourdain in a public way perhaps exactly because I recognized that this was the only way I could really process his passing. I didn’t know him personally, have never shaken his hand, and even if I did, how could I have possibly known the internal workings of a man whose life was lived so simultaneously publicly and privately? Who would a direct address to Bourdain be for other than myself, to publicly acknowledge how his art and his person impacted me? My sadness, and that of the many others who have idolized Bordain as an almost untouchable, larger-than-life force of nature, is really about mourning who he was to us, and in truth, less about the man himself.
I don’t write this to be cruel, because I recognize that it sounds callous. I write this because I feel that this is the most poignant legacy that a man like Bourdain could have left behind. I am no longer privy to the pages and pages of files that detail what sources have to say about his death, or the endless transcripts and interviews and reporting that will surface thanks to the tireless efforts of journalists over the next few days. The details of his passing, and the reasons for it, are things I want to know, yes, but in actuality, I also understand that his death’s initial impact is more selfish than that. I write this because as an outside observer who once had insight into the internal workings of the media, I am just now understanding the pull, the inclination to reflect publicly, to want to raise a hand and say “I loved him too” whenever a friend or an acquaintance shares their own remembrance. I am just beginning to learn how to pause and process these emotions. I write this because I have always been intrigued by the power of celebrity, and the impact of these very flawed humans’ lives on our own. Why do these things matter? Why does Bourdain’s death, or any other famous person’s death, have an impact on our day-to-day? Perhaps it’s because they represent markers in our ever-changing lives, benchmarks against which we can compare who we were, are, and want to be.
Perhaps it’s because we can see ourselves in their narratives, and can unabashedly speak to these issues without feeling too — well, self-indulgent — in doing so. But maybe, as a toast to Bourdain and his pursuit of pleasure, it is okay to do so. Encouraged, even.
I remember dreaming about opening up a restaurant back in the day after graduating college with a journalism degree. I remember wanting to attend culinary school and prove to myself and to others that I could handle the rigors of the kitchen. I remember the tug of wanderlust that guided my feet to the east coast, to away from home, to new unknowns. A friend gifted me a copy of Medium Raw when I first moved to New York City, a fellow foodie, and I treasured it as a sign that I had been seen, even if I didn’t know what I was seeing just yet when I peered into the mirror. I remember wanting to dare myself to dream that big, to find ways to make the impossible possible, because what else is this life made of, really? I remember that a big part of the reason I even felt as though such an impossibility was attainable was because someone had done it already, had said “fuck it,” and carved out his own path to become the writer-traveler-foodie that he always wanted to be. There is something so admirable about that, about being so brashly human, with a love for noodles and booze and conversation, and to be so completely just that. Himself. To want to be not a voyeur in your own life, but an active participant.
I admired, and admire, Bourdain’s singular dedication to life and living so much.
In thinking about what it means to mourn a public figure, I no longer feel guilty that my impulse is to react publicly, because in a very real way, the person that we all assume Bordain to have been was just an image, a projection, a public persona in which we all saw bits and pieces of ourselves. This is why it hurts, and why we are expressing this hurt on whatever public platform we can. A death like Bourdain’s feels weird and impactful to us even though none of us (most of us, at least) knew him in real life. It feels weird because it causes us to reflect on our own interiors, our own issues, our own mortality. We all have a little bit of doubt and angst and disquiet within us, but most of us suppress this because we don’t want to disrupt our own narratives of how we’re doing. Because if we’re not doing fine, we feel ill at ease, off-kilter, less than normal.
But even in this, I think, Bourdain has offered sage words. Fuck the “I’m fine,” fuck the “everything’s great,” and especially fuck the “life is a rollicking hill of daisies.” In his own words: “Life is complicated. It’s filled with nuance. It’s unsatisfying... If I believe in anything, it is doubt. The root cause of all life’s problems is looking for a simple fucking answer.”
So cheers to complicated answers, and forever fostering the self-indulgence and the curiosity to continue asking the questions that give rise to them.
Joyce Chen is a writer, editor, and journalist originally from Los Angeles, currently residing in Seattle after a decade-long stint in NYC. She holds an MFA in nonfiction from The New School and a BA in print journalism and psychology from USC. Her work has been published in Rolling Stone, People, the New York Daily News, and Paste, as well as in LitHub, Narratively, draft, and Hyphen magazine, among others. She will attend her first residency at VONA this summer. She writes at the intersection of journalism and narrative nonfiction; much of her writing attempts to tussle with intangibles — time, silence, and the space between things — as they relate to issues of agency, power, and intercultural understanding. She is one of the cofounders of The Seventh Wave, a 501(c)(3) arts and literary organization that tackles the most pressing social issues of our time through editorial work, engagement with the community, and education in classrooms. She is a fan of long train rides and bodies of water.