Me and Bourdain
I only met Anthony Bourdain twice. We weren’t friends, we didn’t hang out, he probably didn’t even remember me at all. That said, he had a tremendous impact on my life. At a point where my career was just really starting to blossom he inspired me to do things my way and proved that you could be successful while playing by your own rules. He was a beautiful writer, an empathetic storyteller, a high priest of travel, and the ultimate rebel. He used food and travel as a vehicle to prove that there is more love in people than there is hate and that you can learn so much about a person by sitting down and breaking bread with them. Today we lost one of the rarest kinds of humans, someone whose thoughtful words and deeds opened us up to our own compassion and curiosity. Anthony Bourdain was the word “yes” in a world full of “no”.
I first learned about Tony Bourdain in 2007 when I was living in Brooklyn and researching Broke-Ass Stuart’s Guide to Living Cheaply in New York. I somehow had a free morning between exploring the city and waiting tables and I flicked to the Travel Channel. That was the moment Bourdain entered my life.
Nearly every other TV travel host I’d ever seen was annoying and fake and made me want to puke a little bit, but suddenly here was this guy who just didn’t give a fuck. There were no standup shots of him in front of the Eifel Tower smiling too hard and saying something hokey like “Have you ever seen anything like this?”. There were no moments of dinning in touristy restaurants that no real traveler would want to step foot in. There was no appeasing the network’s agenda of family friendly and wholesome. Anthony Bourdain felt like an outsider, like he’d seen things you weren’t ready for. He seemed like the kind of guy who didn’t seek out the underbelly of a place but still managed to end up there regardless of his actions. Anthony Bourdain felt authentic, and he felt dangerous.
What really made him special though was that there was reverence in his irreverence. His bad boy exterior only barely hid the fact that he was very deeply a humanist. As my friend Candace wrote in her Facebook update today, “Bourdain reflects that the beauty of travelling the world is coming across people who have no reason to be kind to you, and yet are.” That to me is the essence of Tony’s work.
As you can imagine, after watching my first episode of No Reservations that morning in my Brooklyn apartment, I was hooked. I began watching it as often as possible and it inspired me to want to do a travel show of my own, which I finally achieved in 2011.
It also made me obsessed with Bourdain’s New York. I wanted to find the places he talked about and maybe even run into him. His favorite dive bar was a place called Siberia, but unfortunately by the time I found out about it, the bar had closed forever.
A few months after I first watched No Reservations I found out that Anthony Bourdain was doing a book reading and signing in Manhattan. I am the furthest thing from a starfucker, there’s a very small handful of famous people I’d care to meet, but Bourdain was one of them. So I trucked my way down to lower Manhattan and waited in line for an hour. I was the only schmuck who didn’t bring or buy a Bourdain book to get signed. Instead I did the most Stuart thing ever and signed a copy of Broke-Ass Stuart’s Guide toLiving Cheaply in San Francisco, which had just come out, and gave it to him. I actually wrote about the experience as one of the very first posts on BrokeAssStuart.com. You can read about it right here.
As the years went by I continued to watch Bourdain’s shows and read his books. I was a total fan boy. He embodied exactly what I wanted to do with my life. In 2011, the year I co-created and hosted my travel TV show Young, Broke & Beautiful, I was living back in San Francisco. One day the local blogs were abuzz with the news that Bourdain and his crew were in town shooting The Layover. I figured this would be a great chance to meet Tony again and give him a copy of my NYC book. Plus I wanted to tell him how watching his show had inspired me to do my own.
After chasing down a few rumors, Valerie Luu told me that they were filming part of The Layover at her Rice, Paper, Scissors pop-up and it happened to be down the street from my house. So I ran over there, book in hand, and hung out for awhile with a bunch of other folks who were excited to meet their hero. Tony eventually strode with Oscar Villalon since Oscar was part of the shoot, and after waiting for the mob to recede I walked up to Bourdain and gave him my book saying, “Not sure if you recall, I was the schmuck who showed up to your book signing with a copy of my own book a few years ago and gave it to you. Since you’re a New Yorker I figured you should have this one too.”
While I’m pretty sure he had no idea what book I was talking about, he thanked me for the NYC book saying that, since he’s never there any more he might actually need it as a guide book. Then we chatted for a little while about making TV shows. He’d actually heard of Young, Broke & Beautiful and I got to tell him “Watching your show inspired me to want to do one of my own. I said to myself ‘If they gave this guy a show, they’ll give one to anyone’” We both had a laugh and then I left him alone hoping that maybe in the future we’d meet again and have a drink.
Unfortunately that drink never happened. Despite the friends we have in common, I never saw Anthony Bourdain again in person. I was crushed this morning to wake up and find out that it won’t ever happen because Anthony Bourdain, the patron saint of square pegs tired of being expected to fit into round holes, took his own life.
For all of us outsiders looking in, Bourdain seemed to have the perfect life. He got paid very well to travel the world, meet wonderful and interesting people, eat their food, and make clever and poignant observations. It’s literally all I want to do with my life. But what do we know? It’s obvious today that Tony Bourdain was wrestling with demons that his adoring fans didn’t know about. We only saw the public side of him, the side that inspired us to explore and travel and take risks. And while that public side felt very candid, we didn’t know what things he wrestled with and what monsters he struggled to keep under the bed.
So today I want to thank Anthony Bourdain for lighting a fire inside of so many people. I want to thank him for bringing so many different lives and ways of being into our homes through his shows and his books. In a time where the very fabric of our world feels like it is fraying, we need more people like Bourdain, people who show us that we’re all far more alike than we are different and that sometimes all you need to understand someone better is to sit down and share a meal. Thank you Tony. Thank you for everything.