By Michael Garriga
About a decade ago, when I was a graduate student in creative writing, Anthony Bourdain came to campus. He was in town to speak at a vaunted local arts festival, and he’d agreed to meet with a few dozen of us students beforehand. His evening talk, which would be attended by roughly two thousand people, had sold out far in advance, so for many of us, this was our only chance to meet him.
I should say at the outset, I was not a Bourdain acolyte. Unlike most of my classmates, I had not read any of his work. I had, of course, seen a few episodes of “No Reservations,” and I enjoyed them. On the show, he came across as equal parts sardonic, bravado, acerbic, and witty. I enjoy all these qualities in a TV personality, but I never know how I’ll respond to them in real life. Sometimes I embrace them and sometimes I buck.
We had in the recent past been fortunate to meet other renowned authors, such as Margaret Atwood and Stephen King, who I found to be genuinely warm and giving. We had also met authors who were profoundly self-delighted, egomaniacal louts. With my limited foreknowledge of Bourdain, I could see him falling comfortably into either camp. Truth be told, the tiny mean punk that lurks inside me was kind of hoping for the latter, because it often makes for a better story to tell at parties.
To his credit, though, Bourdain did not present himself as a “bad boy” celebrity chef or a globe-trotting writer. He did not bring his rock star persona. He certainly had every right to do so, and in his place, I know I would have fallen back on that easy crutch. Instead, the man who led the life we all said we wanted to live sat almost demurely in jeans and t-shirt and sports jacket on the edge of our small stage, his feet dangling. He was not there to promote himself nor his work. He was there to talk shop. And he did so for over an hour, longer than he had agreed to, I guarantee. He never once looked at his watch, even though he appeared tired and, on that day, without makeup and camera lights and angles, older than his years. I remember thinking, “He looks like he’s lived through some shit.” I had heard about his heavy-drug usage, and I’d seen him drink an awful lot on his shows. Given his past, I often wondered how he had avoided falling into hard-core alcoholism. Then again, having now fully absorbed his suicide, maybe he had.
Bourdain began by giving us his backstory, but he seemed distant from it, like he was bored recounting this well-rehearsed origin tale. It came across as perfunctory, but he needed to get it out of the way so he could turn his attention to what was really on his mind: Americans’ bankrupt approach to life. He warned us against our entitlement (all of us, himself included). He said we too often take our lives of opulence and comfort for granted. This may be an obvious observation, but it carries more weight when a person with Bourdain’s experiences hands it to you anew. We settle, he said, for the mediocre, and, worse, we seem happy to do so. But we aren’t happy. We proudly consume junk (“The worst street food in Bangkok is ten times better than the fast food we eat here every day”), yet we are miserable in the midst of our comforts.
This contradiction is the cornerstone of the current American character. Bourdain pinpointed our national dichotomy: our collective misery is borne from our having experienced neither the joys of rich, truly lived experiences nor the triumphs of struggling for the joys of basic survival. We are caught in a delusional stasis.
Next, he cut closer to the bone, saying that to study writing is to take one step further into that luxurious delusion. He despised writing for writing's sake. Instead, he encouraged us to pursue life in the most practical senses. And writing is hardly practical. He reminded us, to an uncomfortable degree, how privileged we were to be able to study writing. He had visited other places where people were struggling just to feed themselves and their families. To my ears, this acknowledgment was not meant to upbraid us; rather, it was a war cry. “Do not blow this opportunity, man. Do not dare take this life for granted.” Millions of people around the world have suffered so we could live this pampered existence and to waste it on mediocrity is a crime. He challenged us. If our biggest anguish is to suffer over words, then by god, we better make those words matter.
For this reason, I suppose, he told us how little he trusted "writers"—by which I took him to mean, people who label themselves first and foremost as “writers.” He claimed not to have many “writer” friends. He was suspicious of writing programs. He said that in other countries, people worked “real” jobs and wrote on the side. He said Kitchen Confidential didn't come out of a writing seminar. Rather, it came out of real work experiences. Further, before KC, he’d written and published two neo-noir novels (both set in and around the restaurant industry) while working as a full-time chef. He was not bragging; he never claimed his work was good. Instead, he was asking us to not be lazy, to not settle for a prepackaged existence.
At this point, a friend of mine leaned over and said, “Jesus Christ, someone must have told him he was speaking to the Anti-English Department.” I didn’t care; I was thrumming with Bourdain’s ideas. It was like the first time I read Kerouac as a teenager: “Live, travel, adventure, bless, and don't be sorry.”
Bourdain was being candid. He was honest. And he was right. No one needs our mediocre, safe books. The world has enough of them already. We should pursue meaningful, fully engaged lives, and out of those experiences, the new needed books will rise.
What followed was an exhausted silence. It hovered for just a beat too long before someone asked, “What’s a family meal look like at your home? Is it a tour de force spectacle like on your TV show or do you even bother to cook anymore?” There was a challenge in the question, and, perhaps recognizing a fellow Ramones fan ferreting out a potential sanctimonious phony, Bourdain rose to the occasion. He smiled and said, “My wife’s an MMA fighter, so I prepare blanched chicken breasts for her. Nothing but bland proteins for her. Maybe a squeeze of lemon.” For his young daughter and himself, he said he fills a pot with vegetables and lets it simmer and that’s enough to last for days.
It was the last question. The last answer. I saw his smile kind of slide away. Looking back, I think that he missed his family. I read recently that his travelling schedule—250 days a year—took its toll on his marriage and eventually contributed to its demise. On that particular Tuesday, instead of being home with his family, he was sharing his precious time with us.
So the petty part of me did not encounter the smug pop prima donna posing as an author; instead, I had a moving human encounter, one that’s haunted me in a delightful dogged way. True, I didn’t learn much about writing, not craft or technique or even the intricacies of the publishing world, but I had workshops and seminars for that. Rather, I came face-to-face with the American contradiction as engaged by Anthony Bourdain, a man battling with it on his own terms—the appearance of radical success tempered by the reality of so many failures and limitations. I came to understand more deeply than ever that there is ultimately no escape from the contradictions of our human condition. It’s how we wrestle them that matters.
Here was a man full of hard-won wisdom, who understood life in deep and profound ways, who could, through suicide, remove himself from it, irrevocably forever. He was a remarkable contradiction. A man who could be arrogant and humble at the same time. Who was quintessentially New York hardened and third world strong and vulnerable too. Who could admonish you and make it into a gift. Bourdain, the contradiction, as American as Walt Whitman, and like the bard himself, he too contained multitudes.
A native of the Gulf Coast of Mississippi, Michael Garriga is the author of the Flash Fiction collection, The Book of Duels (Milkweed Editions, 2014). His work has appeared in The Southern Review, New Letters, Oxford American, and various other journals. He is also the co-editor of the literary journal, FictionSoutheast.com. He teaches creative writing at Baldwin Wallace University outside Cleveland, OH, where he lives with his wife and two sons.