For Anthony Bourdain: a love letter

On Friday, June 8th, I woke up early. It was a big day.

I sleepily grabbed my phone and headed into the kitchen to brew coffee and revel in some quiet alone time before everyone woke up. I poured new beans into the grinder and filled up the pot with cold water. I opened Facebook on my phone and started scrolling.

My eyes weren’t even adjusted quite yet, when I saw his face with the headline “dead at 61”.

It took me only a few seconds to rub my eyes and try again. But the headline didn’t change. A cause of death didn’t matter at that moment, and I felt my eyes, and heart, getting wet and heavy. My chest caving in on itself.

It couldn’t be. It couldn’t be that the day I was heading on a plane to Madrid that Anthony Bourdain was found dead. It hadn’t even been a week since I had watched No Reservations when Tony visited Madrid to get travel tips, something I did nearly every time I set out to a new destination. It seemed devastatingly appropriate, and also terrifying, to have to travel with this news hanging in the air. Heavy, like I was encased in water, trying to navigate the world like normal.

When I finally woke up enough to dive into the details and found out that it was suicide, I just couldn’t stomach it. I was sick and terribly sad.

And, I still had to pack.

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From boarding the plane to endless train rides over the Spanish countryside, to excused bathroom trips, and early morning one-eyed check ins — Anthony Bourdain was with me for the duration of my Spanish travel. And by swapping out what I previously brought to read with a copy of A Cook’s Tour — nearly every word I read through Madrid, Toledo, Seville and beyond was all penned by or about Tony.

I was maybe 22 or 23 when I first ‘met’ Anthony Bourdain. It must have been when he was filming A Cook’s Tour (for which the book was named) for Food Network. As a writer who was endlessly interested in food and food writing, he truly became a mentor for me, and of course, I was starry-eyed and obsessed.

No, but really — irresistibly all-consumed.

Not just because he could cook — but mostly due to how he wrote about food. Like a poet. An unpretentious, raw, real, focused, completely in love poet. His narration, for me, far outweighed the focus on food, although the combination of the two together truly showed me how powerful food and drink can be in the lives of people and cultures all over the world. I was able to understand so much about the human condition through how he shared a story, and graciously accepted any dish set before him with gratitude and equal footing.

And the fact that he had total creative control over the stories he told, and how he told them, created a narrative that showcased a voice that will never be replicated. Nothing he did was an over-produced scheme. It was all real storytelling, with him at the helm — the captain, leading the way.

I know I’ve already said it, but he truly was a poet (although he’d never admit to that), a philosopher, a storyteller, an observer, a lover of laughter, and advocate — but a true normal man, supporting normal people who were passionate about everyday things.

But, he was never pedestrian.

He was never simply competent (he abhorred competent).

He was far more than that.

He was real. And so were his stories.

Sometimes people didn’t like him, and that might be one of the things I loved most about him. His total ownership of himself.

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All of this is why, for a big part of my life, Anthony Bourdain has been my friend. And I don’t say that to be an ass hole. I really, truly, honestly felt that he was my friend — and I know I am not alone in that. So many people felt this way.

I have/had a very personal relationship with him. People say they have a personal relationship with Jesus. Well, I have a personal relationship with Anthony Bourdain, and I don’t think that is any less/more crazy.

There are very few people who I have never met personally (even though it should be said, I did see Tony live…which counts for something) who have affected my life as much as a family member or teacher or lover or mentor.

Michael Stipe. Ani Difranco. Anthony Bourdain. Rainer Maria Rilke.

Possibly Barack Obama. Ok, and Michelle too.

I’ll be honest. Had Anthony Bourdain simply been a TV show host — it wouldn’t have been the same. But TV show host was only an effect of the culmination of what he truly was. He was a cook yes — but he was a writer, a orator, a deliverer of beautiful stories. And, a writer who didn’t even know he was one until his 40’s.

How much hope does it give everyone to know that someone like Anthony Bourdain didn’t even have his break until he was 44? I am 38 and consistently feel like I missed it. Missed out on the chance to realize my potential — to see it come to life. To see myself exist in a way that I know is just under my skin somewhere. If someone else could just….see it too.

What is so great about Anthony Bourdain is that when he did get his break — he was smart enough to know why and what and how and what to do next. He had lived life and understood himself in a way that allowed him to be true to what he thought was important. That gives me all the hope in the world.

You can write your best seller mid-life. Because guess what? Mid-life might be when you actually have something to say.  I am just approaching it and feel it embolden in my blood. Like, here is it. Your story is starting to arrive….just wait a little longer. A little longer….

Alternatively, I am so very aware that a big break, a dreamy career, money, fame — none of that matters in the long run.

None of that keeps you alive.

Spain will forever be intertwined with Anthony Bourdain for me. I grieved and celebrated him. I took him with me. I closed my eyes in cafes and cathedrals and tried to imagine what he would do or what he would order or what he would notice. I could see him there as clear as I could see other people walking the streets, ordering food, pushing their kids in swings, kissing in dark corners.

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Tony makes appearances in my dreams regularly. And, this has been the case for over 10 years. Some of these dreams are so vivid, I’ll never forget them. They are everyday dreams — nothing out of the ordinary. They aren’t full of revelations or sexual innuendo (usually….), but they are the reminder of his presence in my real, day-to-day life.

A walk down an unfamiliar street. Golden lighting in a park at night. Bistro tables on a corner. Long drives. The knowing glance from across a room.

The knowing glance is everything.

We’ve had many during my REM hours over the years. Some that actually woke me in the middle of the night.

But most important, his passion for the details of common life. The beauty of it. The tragedy of it. The human need for more — passion, self-actualization, love, pleasure. The things we are all entitled to and are constantly seeking, but usually somehow fall short of experiencing fully.

Tony showed me how other people in this big ol’ world tried to do those things, and how I can seek them out too — and I am forever changed.

And, I will forever miss him.

I still truly can’t even begin to think that his body is now just a memory of his experiences — charred in flame, smoke rising above us all.

c/o Getty Images

More on Spain soon….