Anthony Bourdain: Hospitality, Humor & Humanity

This morning I felt like the wind got knocked out of me. I was up unusually early to head out for the day, and as I was getting ready, I heard the breaking news that Anthony Bourdain was dead. Two years ago, my stomach sank and I teared up when I heard about David Bowie, and then months later about Prince. Although I was a fan of those two icons, my appreciation of what they accomplished and contributed to our culture with their art actually grew once they were gone. I’m sure there were other instances of shock and sadness when public figures passed — Robin Williams and Muhammad Ali come to mind — but some hit home in a more deeply emotional way than others, as if you knew them personally, and this was one of them.

The last time I remember feeling this personal kind of loss over someone I’d never met was when King Hussein died in 1999. I was so distraught, I went to the Jordanian store owners in my neighborhood to tearfully express my condolences, not even knowing the exact reasons; I just knew that I felt he was a great soul — but not perfect, as none of us are — and that the world would be missing a bright light and great hope now that he was gone.

But with Anthony Bourdain, it was immediate and visceral and specific as to why this loss was so profound, and I struggled not to go into a full-on heaving cry because I needed to be composed as I walked to the subway en route to a full day of meetings. I knew exactly what he had done for the world, what he had done for me, and what a great example of a human being he was — messy, magical, mischievous, magnanimous and masterful all in one. Although on the surface he was known for his passion for food, writing and travel, I believe his biggest purpose in life, like King Hussein, was to be a peacemaker.

In his own rock ’n’ roll, tough yet tender, sensitively macho, sarcastic and sincere way, he was able to bring together people of every background. Whether sitting down with them in one of the 80 countries he visited, or more recently highlighting different cities and cultures here at home, he brought the world to millions of living rooms so we could share the experience. In a unique and highly entertaining yet respectful way, he gave us an inside view of mostly ordinary people, especially those we might consider adversaries or outcasts. He allowed us — including those who can’t travel or don’t even have a desire to travel — to observe what life is like for others, and therefore hopefully gain more understanding of each other.

I have been a huge fan since his No Reservations show on the Travel Channel, and then of course Parts Unknown on CNN — and must have seen at least 80 percent of his programs, always being so intrigued and inspired by the journeys he made and people he met. I gain new knowledge and perspectives each time I watch, often accompanied by a good laugh. Sure I love food and like to learn about different cuisines, and I enjoyed watching him eat things — often in honor of the culture that had invited him in, and many things I don’t think I ever could. But I also learn so much about these cultures in the process (one of the most powerful episodes that comes to mind is when an Inuit family allowed him to participate in the meal of a seal, which they eat raw, and every part).

I’ve always been passionate about and have committed my life to promoting peace and the upliftment of humanity through various vehicles and forms (you can read my essay “All Roads: Same Place” for some insight): From wanting to work for the UN, having a career in the travel industry, founding a nonprofit organization focused on intercultural understanding with the tagline Recognizing Our Unity; Celebrating Our Diversity, then later writing, coaching and speaking about how people can make their lives more peaceful and fulfill their role personally or professionally in making the world a better place. It’s my underlying m.o. and I can often sniff it out in others, whether it is obvious/conscious to them or others or not.

Anthony Bourdain, like me, didn’t define himself (or his show) in any particular category (chef, journalist, writer), because he is really about all aspects of being a human and showing the condition of humanity no matter who you are or where you are from. He most often did it through the medium of food because, as my dear friend Dan (who also tragically died as a result of mental illness) used to quote his Jewish grandmother as saying in a Yiddish accent, “You have to eat!” — so what better way to get to know each other than through a meal? This was the original concept and initial execution of The Women’s Mosaic’s programs. And when it wasn’t through food, Bourdain did it through his essays, which is also the only form of writing I do (see my book, this site etc.).

I relate to and also seem to possess his ability to connect with anyone he meets, and he was known as being the same person on camera as he was off — he just brought his authentic, unique self to wherever he was and whomever he was talking to, from busboys to Obama. He told it like it is and wanted to show people our common humanity, and teach a bit of history and politics along the way. He shed light on whatever he felt merited attention and was recently a vocal supporter of the #MeToo movement and immigrant rights — similar to topics and issues we tackled in small and big ways with The Women’s Mosaic.

He had no facade and could see through BS. He was a people and life expert; he was a natural introvert but could talk to anybody; he was a writer who wrote the way he spoke; he did not put up with pretentiousness and searched for the truth in any situation. I have not struggled with drugs or depression, but I have lived through my own tragedies and, like all of us, struggle with my own limitations and dis-ease, and have had glimpses of what it might be like to not want to be here. Although I’m not a foodie per se, I would definitely name food as one of my main physical pleasures in life, if not the main one. We are both tall.

In other words, as I write this, it seems the connection might not be not from viewing him as a separate celebrity stranger out there who did great things that are in alignment with my vision and values, but instead I am seeing the many ways in which we are more closely part of the same tribe, however differently we might have played our parts within it.

Perhaps, then, this is hitting me so hard because I feel I lost someone who is more like me than I ever realized, someone who was doing what I am trying to do, so it’s like a little piece of myself is now gone. From the outside, looking at each of our lives this way seems ridiculous, but you (especially if you know me) and now I can see the many ways in which we are cut from the same cloth. So in his death I am seeing my life, which seems like a very self-centered way to talk about his passing, but isn’t that perfectly fitting as part of what he was here to do? It’s about seeing yourself in another and finding your commonalities and shared humanity, no matter how disparate we may be on the surface or in the lives we lead.

Well, I guess I answered my own question about why this one hurts so much, and now I appreciate him even more.

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Kristina Leonardi is a career and life coach who helps people to make the most of their personal and professional lives, allowing them to recognize, connect to, and fulfill their role in the world at large. Known as a dynamic, inspiring and down-to-earth speaker with unique yet practical perspectives on the topics of career development, work/life wellness and personal growth, she has presented to organizations such as Saatchi and Saatchi, UBS, HR Association of NY, American Women’s Business Association, and New York’s Science, Industry & Business Library.

Kristina offers individual, corporate and group coaching privately, as well as in affiliation with The Muse and New York Women in Communications. She is the founder of The Women’s Mosaic (TWM), a nonprofit organization that produced over 100 unique events over 10 years for more than 2000 women of diverse backgrounds to connect to themselves, each other and the world around them. She holds a B.A in International Relations from Boston University, and has taught extensively for NYU’s Center for Hospitality, Travel and Tourism and the Center for Career and Life Planning. Kristina was listed as one of Hispanic Magazine’s Top Latinas of 2004, received Tango Diva’s 2007 Diva Visionary Award, was honored by the WNBA’s NY Liberty as part of their 2009 Inspiring Women Night, and has been featured as a career expert in Forbes.com, Inc. Magazine, Psychology Today, Money and The Huffington Post.

Kristina is also the author of Personal Growth Gab (PGG), Volume One: Thought-provoking, inspirational and entertaining essays to keep you connected with yourself and make sense of this journey called Life, a beautifully designed and practically organized compilation of nearly five years of weekly blog posts that both stimulate and address the questions of who we are, where we are going and how we can get there in today’s rapidly changing, fast-paced world.

For more information visit www.kristinaleonardi.com and follow her on Facebook and Instagram and Twitter for up to date posts, helpful articles and inspirational thoughts. Text CLEARLYKRISTINA to 22828 to be added to her mailing list.