Anthony Bourdain Was Our Woke Ambassador

A brief remembrance of an American luminary

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In my phone I have two lists of people — creatives, inventors, leaders, writers, athletes, spiritual gurus — who I would love to, someday, sit down and have a meal with. These are inspirational people, admirable people, who have taken life and made something extra special out of it. Most of them are famous, the type of people you write on a card and stick to your friends forehead when you play “Who am I?”. While my odds of ever actually sitting down to eat with any of these people are slim, I know I’ll never sit down with anyone from list #2. That’s because the people on list #2 are dead. Yesterday I moved Anthony Bourdain’s name to list #2, and it sucked.

Bourdain epitomized cool. He was the real life Dos Equis guy. He had the kind of nonchalance that can only come from doing lots of heroin and living to tell the tale. And yet he had a streak of empathy that let him move through places, cultures, dining rooms, seamlessly. That balance, between Hunter Thompson floating in a Congolese hotel pool with a Nixon mask on-style nihilism and the obvious, soul-drenching meaning of life etched across every human face, is a delicate one. It’s one that we all have to reconcile when we wake up in the morning and make our beds (or don’t make our beds), and it’s one that Bourdain embodied.

Anthony Bourdain didn’t go with the flow. The flow went with him.

He was able to present the world with an ease that suggested none of it really mattered. Of course, he quickly made us realize that it all matters. It matters more than anything. The five year-old Nicaraguan kids digging through mountains of trash to find recyclable plastic to sell, the one-legged Cambodian farmer who stepped on a cluster bomb left over from the Vietnam war, the smoky, off-the-strip, Vegas dive bar with slot machines dinging in the background, the tuk-tuks, the mopeds, the cabs, the trains, the boats, the street meat, the seafood markets, the fresh bread, the pasta, the wine, the foi gras, the curries, the noodle soups, the pork, oh yes, the pork — it all matters.

Bourdain made cooking, writing and traveling aeach a little cooler.

For young writers, travelers and omnivores like me, Bourdain was somebody to point at and say “Look, that’s how to do it.” He proved that a person could be self-assured and relentlessly open-minded at the same time and he was a much-needed bastion of masculinity in the writing community. But even for the casual CNN viewer who only “travels” to Cabo for one week every year, Bourdain was a guide, showing people that being curious, receptive, empathetic, and honest is a better way to move through life.

Anthony Bourdain was our woke ambassador.

An argument can be made, fairly, that Bourdain glorified drug use. Maybe he spurred the growth of the travel industrial complex. He probably prompted a few obnoxious Americans to go abroad, perpetuating our middling reputation as travelers. He definitely spilled the beans on some prime travel destinations. Of course, there’s also the fact that he left behind an 11-year-old daughter who has to grow up without her dad. But nobody is as bad as their worst actions or as good as their best, and none of us know the demons that Bourdain was dealing with. However you want to score Anthony Bourdain’s life, his impact on the world was objectively good.

Yesterday I moved Anthony Bourdain’s name to list #2 in my phone, and now I know I’ll never be able to share a meal with him. But in many ways, I already have. We all have. Every time we opened up one of his books or turned on one of his television shows we got to clink beer bottles with Anthony Bourdain.

Cheers to a life well lived.