In Memoriam: Anthony Bourdain

His shows were more than entertainment — they were a sacrament

For years my morning routine has started the same way: After snoozing my alarm several times I wake enough to pick my phone up off the nightstand and pull it into bed with me to check my notifications. In the beginning, before social media, I checked for texts. Later I checked for Facebook and Twitter notifications. But these days I have Facebook notifications turned off, and I know better than to begin my day by scrolling through Twitter. Now I look at the news.

The news was bad last Friday.

Anthony Bourdain: dead. Cause: suicide.

Great art has a way of mediating a spiritual intimacy so powerful that a person’s relationship with an artist can feel incredibly personal, despite their never meeting. I suppose this is why I listened to “The Waiting” and cried when Tom Petty died. It’s why I felt spiritually compelled to visit my local used book store the day Tom Wolfe died to buy every book of his I haven’t read yet. And it’s why I’ve been watching Parts Unknown nonstop the last four days. Even though I never met Anthony Bourdain I feel near to him somehow. I suppose it’s because Bourdain did what great artists do: he used his craft to teach us a little bit more about what it means to be human, and about the bonds that connect people from all walks of life.

My relationship with Anthony Bourdain began while I was in graduate school in Dallas. After a week of balancing exhausting coursework and soul-sucking part-time jobs, I’d often take weekend trips back home to Austin to see my family and friends and return Sunday afternoon.

What do you watch on Netflix when it’s Sunday evening and you’re buzzing with anxiety over another week of a life you hate?

Nothing too dramatic—you want to ease the tension, not compound it. That means no Breaking Bad, no Westworld.

Nothing too frivolous — if you’re going to medicate your dread with television you can’t do it by binge-watching half-hour sitcoms — Seinfeld excepted. In order for the experience to feel therapeutic you want to feel like you’re somewhat bettering yourself, not just distracting yourself until bedtime. No Parks and Rec, no New Girl.

Somewhere along the way I got turned on to No Reservations, and eventually found the perfect Sunday show: its more thoughtful successor Parts Unknown.

Bourdain didn’t just offer to distract me from the anxiety of my existence — he delivered me from it, as he took me along to Montana, or Mexico, or Madagascar, to explore new places, meet new people, and to give thought to the human struggle in its various forms.

Anthony Bourdain was my Sunday Scaries Savior.

I was never into food shows because I’m an embarrassingly picky eater. I have ruined countless group outings by complaining about the consensus dinner destination. A running joke among my friends is that my favorite variety of food is “kids menu.”

But Parts Unknown isn’t really a food show. And it’s not really a travel show either, even though each episode finds Bourdain on location in a new place. It’s closer to docu-journalism where the host just happens to be one of the best chefs in the world. The food is set design. The people and their stories are the main attraction.

My first exposure to Parts Unknown was the Detroit episode, an arresting vision of a once-great city and the people who call it home, filled with images of a degrading industrial landscape. But there was beauty and optimism in the story Bourdain was telling about Detroit as he made conversation with the faithful citizens. Every interaction was underscored by a kind of hard-headed grace; a people’s commitment to the renewal of a home in decay.

I was captivated by Bourdain’s uncanny ability to be equally at home talking with a squatter in an abandoned industrial park, in the kitchen with a struggling team of underfunded Detroit firefighters, and chatting up an accomplished chef in an up-and-coming fine dining restaurant. He was ruggedly refined. He was magnetically relational. He was a world-class chef with reverence for chili dogs.

The special sauce in Bourdain’s television shows was his irrepressible curiosity and his determination to get to the truth — to the heart of a story, a city, a person. By taking the posture of a learner himself, he elevated the viewing experience from entertainment to something edifying and instructive. Something Capital-T True. Something spiritual. In that respect, Bourdain had much more in common with David Foster Wallace than he did with Bobby Flay. He was transcendent.

One of my favorite moments from Parts Unknown was Bourdain’s inaugural trip to Waffle House with Sean Brock. For the uninitiated, Waffle House is a 24/7 diner whose illuminated yellow scrabble tile signs feature prominently in the landscape of the southeastern United States, seemingly always with one or more letters left dark by burnt-out bulbs, occasionally resulting in the unfortunate name “-affle House.” Bourdain’s assessment will resonate with any southerner:

It is indeed marvelous: an irony-free zone where everything is beautiful and nothing hurts; where everybody, regardless of race, creed, color, or degree of inebriation, is welcomed; its warm yellow glow a beacon of hope and salvation inviting the hungry, the lost, the seriously hammered, all across the South, to come inside; a place of safety and nourishment. It never closes. It is always — always — faithful, always there, for you.

Bourdain’s gift was seeing the sacred beauty in the simple, the common grace that lives in places where more sophisticated types couldn’t be bothered to look. On his shows he invited us to do the same — to take ourselves less seriously, to look beyond the immaterial borders of our lives, to open ourselves to new opportunities to understand the things that exist beyond our daily consciousness.

Our worldviews are not shaped primarily by what we do, what we say, or even what we agree with or believe. Our worldviews are shaped by what we love. By inviting his audience into the things he loved, Anthony Bourdain showed us that we are indeed the sum of the things we enjoy: the food, of course, but also the music and books, the people, places, and moments. Delight is the substance of life.

“Every real thing is a joy,” wrote the culinarily-obsessed Episcopal priest Robert Capon, “if only you have eyes and ears to relish it, a nose and tongue to taste it.”

Bourdain wanted to give us those eyes and those ears, that nose and that tongue. He was a guru of the joys of exploration and shared experiences. Whether he knew it or not, he was pointing us to something eternal, something at the heart of the divine vision for human community.

In Christianity the inaugural event of the life to come is a feast, and the only people who can’t come are the ones who think they have more important things to do. If by some cosmic grace Anthony Bourdain is seated at that table, I hope he’s on my end.

If you or someone you know is struggling with thoughts of suicide, I urge you to seek help. Reach out to a trusted friend or family member, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1–800–273–8255, or click here to visit their website.

I write about faith and culture and live in Austin, Texas. You can connect with me on Twitter.