Food for Thought

Remembering an Explorer of Humanity

image via Fortune

To be treated well in places where you don’t expect to be treated well, to find things in common with people you thought previously you had very, very little in common with, that can’t be a bad thing.

~Anthony Bourdain


I think you’d be hard pressed to find a food or travel writer – or aficionado, for that matter – who hasn’t had their view on the world and food shaped by Anthony Bourdain. But in a world where everyone gets their own reality show and there are plenty of rebellious foul-mouthed chefs to choose from, what made him stand out? What made him connect to us?

Bourdain offered up something others did not, though, in the way everything he did explored and sought out human connections. As a chef, of course it was about the food. As a curious man, it was about the different food and the different ways people sat down to enjoy it around the world. But the piece Bourdain got, that so many people seem to miss about both food and travel, is that the overall experience depends far more on the human context than it does any other contributor. Those are the things that teach, and change lives.

That makes it all the more gutting that a man who celebrated that human connection in so much of his work felt so bereft of it that he felt the need to take his own life.

Bourdain committed suicide on Friday last week, and since that time, a lot of us have been struggling with both that fact and why it socked us in the gut the way it did. While his work inspired me greatly, I never had the fortune of meeting him, so why does the fact he took his life feel like such a sucker punch?

I stumbled across his Tumblr blog before I read Kitchen Confidential or started watching “No Reservations.” At the time, my job in Hawaii had me boarding a plane for parts unknown for a couple weeks out of every month, and it was wearing on me. Places were running together and getting lost in the weariness of it all. I blogged about it and posted on social media, mostly so my family could keep track of me and know when a text message would be answered kindly or with a plea to stop running up my overseas charges, but I just wasn’t in it. And I found myself trying to figure out how someone would choose this lifestyle.

Through Bourdain’s writing, everything from his drunken adventures with one very mad Russian to the caring stories behind his Filipino nanny and her family to his celebration of his friendship and adventures abroad with Eric Ripert, I saw a whole other side of travel and of food. When he spoke of the “glorious stew of a city, smelling of Middle Eastern spices and garlic and saffron, and the sea” and of meeting places through the eyes of people who grew up there and loved it or hated it but somehow connected to it, it drew me in.

Image via Eater

And I started to look for those connections and those insights. It was easy, given that my job was mostly to get out and work with local emergency planners on crisis management for natural disasters. I wasn’t booking a tour somewhere, I was sent to countries to work with and connect with the people. Why not take that a step farther, and really meet the country and its people, to learn about how they live and cook and eat, why they live where they live, and what in the world would possess a culture to embrace eating fermented shark or fertilized duck embryos or gigantic stewed fruit bats {all of which I have tried}? It was no longer enough just to see a city or a country. I needed to live in it and learn.

This fostered a curiosity that persisted even when my days of frenetic travel slowed to a saunter and then to a crawl. I became a voracious explorer of my locale, both in Hawaii and here in Virginia, determined to meet the new places I lived in the same way I’d explored abroad and bring those influences home, both in food and in the way we set up our houses to welcome others.

From Bourdain, I learned just how much your food, your house, and your hospitality tell a story, and I found new joy in shaping that story, although I was still convinced that Bourdain had the perfect job.


At the end of the day, the TV show is the best job in the world. I get to go anywhere I want, eat and drink whatever I want. As long as I babble at the camera, other people will pay for it. It’s a gift.

~Anthony Bourdain


And as I continued to explore the world of food and travel, both in my own adventures and by connecting to food and travel writers, there weren’t too many people out there who didn’t want to be Anthony Bourdain. Except, it seems, at the end, Anthony Bourdain.

It goes to show that we all have our demons, even if our lives seem pretty perfect on the outside. We don’t know what was going on in Bourdain’s head when he took his life, and we likely won’t ever know. All we know is that his was a powerful and unique voice that touched and inspired many, and he will be greatly missed.