By Angela Workoff
My brother texted me the news and it didn’t make sense. I was immediately shocked and sad, then surprised to find that so many of us felt the same way, as though we’d lost someone close to us. I didn’t know that so many people loved him. I’d forgotten how much I did. I never knew I would feel so deeply about Tony until after he died. I bet you might feel that too.
He was a huge presence in my early adult life, a life raft in my confusing early twenties. I graduated from college and didn’t know what to do. I moved home to Brooklyn and took a desk job. I wanted to write but I was twenty-two and terrified, and hated everything I wrote.
I remember the first time I saw Tony. I was staying at a friend’s house in Long Island, had gotten out of the shower, and flipped the TV on as I was getting dressed. There was a lanky, salt-and-pepper-haired guy visiting Japan. I’d never watched travel shows, but this guy was different. He was funny. He was my kind of funny, my friends’ kind of funny—sarcastic, self-deprecating, and a little anxious. I remember sitting on the corner of a bed with wet hair, drawn in, on board. I watched long enough to figure out who this guy was so I could find the show again.
I was onto him—I knew where he was pulling his references, when he would stalk around the jungles of Borneo in a Ramones cutoff tee, when he would talk about the Yankees, or rattle off his worship of Richard Hell and the Voidoids. He used Homer Simpson-isms when he described food, throwaway lines looking into the camera, eating fish stomach in Malaysia saying, “Stomach-y!” He was one of us. As I read about him, I found out that there was more that we shared—he’d grown up in Leonia, just a few towns over from where my mom grew up in Teaneck, New Jersey. He’d spent his summers down the shore at Long Beach Island, the exact township, Barnegat Light, where my family and I rented beach houses every year of my childhood. Tony was like a New York/New Jersey, punk rock, middle-aged Holden Caulfield. He was exactly my kind of guy.
And he was better than that— beneath the layers of sunglasses and sarcasm, Bourdain was an incredibly reliable narrator and he told the right stories. As a writer and host, he was a perfect conversational storyteller and one committed to sharing a wider worldview than his own. He took us into the kitchen and showed that all of the best French chefs in New York were Mexican or Central American, that the restaurant industry would be nothing without Latinx cooking. During a time when the heads of our government have told us that those crossing the border are murderers and thieves, I think of Tony, aware enough years ago to point out that it wasn’t white kids taking dishwashing jobs to work their way up in the cooking world. It was guys like the late Carlos Llaguno Morales, Tony’s friend and successor as executive chef at Les Halles, who started from the bottom, worked hard, and never got the same recognition for their hard work as did their white peers.
Though still an uncertain early-twenty-something (I can’t emphasize enough, how weird are the years between twenty-two and twenty-five), I began to try things. Tony helped me to be brave. Try bone marrow, try raw oysters, try to be a better cook, try traveling in Southeast Asia, try to make friends over food, even if your CD binders aren’t the same. Just try some of this. I went to Thailand because of him. I followed his No Reservations spots in Seattle, San Francisco, and Berlin. I canvassed weird food across my home city. I became friends with chefs and cooks and they were as Tony said they would be—a gang of pirates and some of the smartest, most creative, and fun people I’ve ever known.
As I grew out of my twenties, I began to drink less, became less of a carnivore, and started to eat “clean,” because that’s what we call it these days. I took up jogging. I finally began to take my writing seriously, and after a few years of applying, got into an MFA program in New Jersey to write fiction. I did the program and learned where I wanted to be—writing and teaching. I told myself that I’d finally grown up. I lost track of Tony, let him go, while changing from one part of life to another.
Then he died by suicide and we all shared shock and sadness together.
I went back and began to watch Parts Unknown, to see him again and see what I’d missed. Some things were the same—he was still a happy carnivore and he was still funny. He wore more Dad-sweaters than before. But there was something more to these shows. He’d grown up. You see the responsibility he felt, how important it was to suspend judgment and keep an open mind when sitting at a dinner table with people he didn’t know. He found that it was his job to form connections with strangers, to say that there is little which separates us when all people need and love food, lessons now valuable to a world which feels so divided. He’d become a more careful narrator, and had become good at rendering the complex reality of power structures along the lines of economics, race, and culture. He made shows about colonial power, genocide in the Congo, how white supremacy manifested in South Africa, and how the use of heroin changed from when he was an addict beginning in the 1980s, to the epidemic affecting so many populations in the United States today. In that episode especially, which took place across towns in Massachusetts, I got to see how he’d become more honest, sitting with recovering heroin addicts, a former addict himself, and his stories were told tenderly, to help. He was still fun—the episodes with Eric Ripert were full of his boyish joy. He was still the lanky, funny punk I’d loved. But it was like he’d made it, a happy husband and father. Up until he’d died, Bourdain had gotten on my radar again, seeming to be the only man who spoke up on behalf of women before the screws were put to him, and was just as angry as we were. I learned about Asia Argento’s bravery. I was glad that Tony was using his anger for good.
What if Holden Caulfield grew older? What if he actually grew up?
After finishing graduate school a year ago, I had some free time before I had to start looking for a job again. I was supposed to use that time to write. I couldn’t. I felt like I was paralyzed. I began to get anxiety attacks, depression, and suffered from scary physical symptoms whenever an anxiety attack came on. I couldn’t reach out: it was impossible to call or text anyone when an attack came on, because the distance between me and the outside world seemed too far, even when my phone was in my hands. Worse, was that I knew logically that I had a great life and was very lucky. I knew that I’d gone through some heavy personal heartbreak, along with our shared political heartbreak from 2016, but overall I should have been happy. Because of this, I became aware of the knife’s edge, how fragile are our minds, that we all can feel like this, no matter how good we are at seeming publicly.
The world hurts. Pain, if you feel it in a certain way, grows older with you, but it doesn’t go away. It was a strange loop, to realize after ten years and some time apart, we’d still grown up together. So Tony, I understand. And I’m just so sorry, for you, for your family, for the fact that you were more than we knew when you were alive. That death has unfortunately galvanized our belief in you. For this, I am angry and sad about the burden of human pain, that often it can be just so difficult to live.
On my better days, the best days, I feel nothing but gratitude to live in the world which Tony unfortunately left. Being grateful often makes it so much easier to live. I also feel nothing but hope for the world as Tony saw/proposed it could be—that we could share food, share conversation, and feel full with one another, as long as we possibly can.
I went to my first therapy session today, same as the due date for this essay. Tony’s still with me. He’s still helping me to try, to be braver, to connect with the world and its people. Because really what choice have we got?
Angela Workoff is a graduate of the MFA program at Rutgers University-Newark. A Brooklyn native, she currently lives in Jersey City. This is her first publication.