By Nicholas Nace
In the week after his death—and dying the way he did—friends, fans, foes, and family had to accept that Anthony Bourdain’s dark side was for real. It’s not as if he hid the years of addiction, the surprise at making it into his 30s, or the bigger surprise at leaving them relatively clean. About his sudden celebrity, he was awed and skeptical, grateful and hateful, and he remained that way during the inevitable festering of his dream fulfilled. That whole time, even his humor was dark, but there was enough of it, we thought, to get by on. Year after year, there he was—eating. A rangy punk to the end. He slowly relinquished the cowboy boots and tight denim, and though he got less gelled, he never lost that bridge-and-tunnel wonder at his hedonistic good fortune, always wisecracking about dying with a “mouthful of this” as he wiped up something delicious with flatbread, his thumb ring glinting in the sun. His wit drew on harrowing years of cooking and debauchery followed by fortifying years of cooking and watching The Simpsons, but it was most intoxicatingly truthful when it mixed morbidity with mirth.
During a trip to Montreal for his most recent show, he joked about hanging himself from the nearest beam over nothing more than the thought of having to cook for a large group of people on an electric stove. The mismatch of response to problem only now seems worrying. Increasingly, though, his revelations about the debauches of his past were mitigated by astonishment and survivor’s guilt. The Marlboro reds, and in France the Gauloises blondes, were on screen less and less, no longer a breakfast staple until they disappeared entirely. References to heroin gave way to mentions of Lipitor. The attempt to extend life can, to some, feel like a deadening of what’s left.
In all the distraught post-mortem retrospection, the hotline numbers and conspiracy theories, it’s easy to forget what he knew all along: just as much as his tips on how to score the good stuff, it was the bad stuff we wanted, that we needed, from him. After all, “extremes of emotion” are what he wanted for himself, as the credit sequence in one of his shows proclaimed, and we were, some of us, devoted followers going farther down the darkening road to pleasure than we’d have gone without him. It’s trite to say that darkness is necessary to make sense of the light. Explaining such penumbral fundamentals, Goethe once asserted that “Where the light is brightest, the shadows are deepest”—a tag my bipolar college roommate had as his e-mail signature, set off by tildes. But between these extremes, between any extremes, there’s a “delicate interplay,” as Bourdain himself would say, aping the food journalism he did a lot to inspire.
It’s not balance, necessarily. Sometimes it’s more like appreciating that you’re far enough from the middle of the road to know there’s an opposite direction. From fat to lean. From putrid to divinely fermented. From sweet to portentously bitter. These things have to be experienced in relation. The luxuriously oleaginous must be cut with acidity. So too with joy and misery, life and death. If the insistence on such extreme pairings became predictable, Bourdain told us precisely how they joined. Dominance in the kitchen, submission at the table. He was most rhapsodic about spicy food, the surging discomfort that in the sweaty, flushed aftermath makes you feel most alive.
His mindset required that he always have death in sight. For him it was linked to pleasure, a consequence of pleasure. We remind ourselves of death through pleasurable things. A bitter amaro. Pan de muertos. The Bourdain logo was a skull with a toque and a bloody knife in its teeth—a image of death that reminds of the death you consume. Talking to fellow chefs, he would raise the specter of death in order to find out what dishes truly meant something to them. “Your death row meal,” he’d ask. “What would it be?” How you’d eat just before death exposes an honesty of appetite, free of all other desires.
It’s not a new concept, the memento mori, especially not in Catholic countries. But Americans need a counselor in the relationship between excess and pleasure, the dark side of joy. As a hard-living voluptuary, Bourdain was an advocate of the senses, of the velvet-draped French approach. Little roasted birds and rabbit heads lacquered with their own blood. Enticingly bulging, reeking Époisses. A slice of foie gras seared and served no warmer than the tongue in your own mouth. These are pleasures intense enough to give you a quick whiff of your own mortality. A photo of him completely naked, from a time before his body had been stamped like a passport with tattoos, tilting a shankbone up in front of his junk, readied for some Dionysian debauch, exemplifies this drive. Someone who appreciates foie gras has “an enticing cruel streak,” he once said (in a recipe of all places). But, surprisingly, he also said some nice things about PETA, how they remind us of “the cost in life and in pain of the luxuries we enjoy.”
Speaking of his past desires in his New York accent, we learn he always “wantidda do” this or that, and we watched him getting the chance to make good on these impulses. But he was an outsider, one who for years was in yearning distance to affluence. An interloper knows his place. It’s a reminder of when he couldn’t have afforded, in time or money, to do what he routinely found himself doing. His was a lack of entitlement that’s natural for someone in the service industry, where very little that’s physical separates you from the patrons who, let’s face it, can’t appreciate what you serve nearly as well as you might yourself.
But you save your money and “blow it out.” A trip to Thomas Keller’s French Laundry felt to him “like driving a Rolls Royce, naked, in mink underpants”; two years later, I left the same restaurant so blissed out and bloated I could barely stagger back to the hotel next door. But it was addictive. His likes, his tastes, became predictable because they came packaged with revelations.
It’s flattering to think that he and I shared the same tastes, but the truth is that his favorites became mine—and became so precisely because they were his. I sought the fatty, frumpy old dishes from what he liked to call the “dinosaur era” of la cuisine classique, dishes where the sauces have names. Saucisson en croute at Veau d’Or in New York, crab Louie at Swan Oyster Depot in San Francisco, roast bone marrow and parsley salad at St. John in London, soupe Élysée at L’Auberge du Pont de Collonges. These dishes fell out of fashion partly because they’re too much, too luxurious. Eat them and your aorta will slam shut before you leave the table. Everything in moderation, we’re told, until we’re just numb with mediocrity, trading quality for quantity. Without the threat of death one experienced in, say, the sleazy Times Square of the 70s, you experience a “deadening torpor, an end to life.” He viewed this mediocrity as an affront, something put in place intentionally, likely because pleasure might “lead to other things.” Having already done those other things, Bourdain seemed able to illuminate the problems of Americanness.
The closest thing to a philosophy of gustatory pleasure America has produced is Olive Garden’s notion of abbondanza. Endlessness is seldom a positive thing. Even if it’s a bowl of zuppa Toscana, endless pleasure would be—can be, is—a monotony hard to accept without a verifying spike of pain. That’s not to say Americans don’t take joy from food. But we don’t prioritize it, don’t go to trouble to attain it. We don’t suffer for it, even if the people who make our food do.
The part of Anthony Bourdain that held onto death as a possibility, that found pleasure adjacent to suffering and pain, intensified his life. The heights of joy can, after all, feel like clarity. But when you feel it, you’re already in deep, a blissfully preoccupied bananafish. “Too much foie gras! Too many truffles!” he said in one of his final interviews. This discomfort with the monotony of unalloyed pleasure was the real warning. But it seemed encouraging when photos would emerge of him again with a Marlboro between his fingers.
He talked, especially in his later years, about his fatal embrace, the way the popularity he trailed behind him would, after a period of success, consume any restaurant bearing his stamp of approval. But his greatest lessons weren’t the recommendations, the best places, his places, to score a cacio e pepe in Rome. We won’t care about what he fatally embraced. What we are left with, instead, is what can be learned by the way he embraced fatality, before it got to him.
Nicholas D. Nace is the editor of several essay collections devoted to the art of close reading, most recently The Fate of Difficulty in the Poetry of Our Time (Northwestern, 2017). His book-length poem, Catch- words, was released in April.