The outsider who made friends everywhere


Anthony Bourdain, who was 61, wrote Kitchen Confidential, the definitive book about working on the wild side in the restaurant business. He created several acclaimed TV series, using food as a device for exploring foreign cultures and making friends with people who were off the radar of the rich and powerful. He became a father at age 50 and, more recently, was dating a beautiful actress who helped get him involved in the #MeToo movement.

Then he hanged himself in France, where he was filming an episode of “Parts Unknown.” WTF?

I’m spooked because I identified with Bordain as he portrayed himself in his writings. We liked the same writers. He was an outsider by nature who, in his youth, preferred the company of those “who worked while normal people played and who played while normal people slept,” as he told NPR.

He embraced the lifestyle of the bar/restaurant worker, a mix of order and chaos, of hard work and hedonism. He loved the work but hated restaurant owners and managers. He enjoyed being a team player so long as the other team members were outsiders, like himself.

But part of him lived at a distance from the kitchen brigades, outside of the outsiders, examining his life as “a working journeyman chef” and wondering what to make of it. This went on even after he turned to writing to explore his contradictory feelings about the role he was playing, which was also the life he was living.

“Why do I, a fairly educated sort of swine, take such unseemly pleasure in the guttural utterances of my largely uneducated, foul-mouthed crews?” he asked in Kitchen Confidential.

And why did he love the “clatter and spray of the dishwasher, the sizzle as a filet of fish hits a hot pan, the loud, yelping noise — almost a shriek — as a glowing sizzle-platter is dropped into a full pot sink…” And the after-hours part of the routine, the sex and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll part, followed by oblivion and revival and a new cycle of work and play.

Kitchen Confidential, published in 2000, is Bordain celebrating his life as an outsider. Its success opened the door to his TV success and, ironically, to his appreciation of life in the straight world.

But the book wasn’t Bordain’s way of waving goodbye to his dark side. Anyone who believes it was is probably a fan of poorly written books with sappy endings. By all accounts, he remained as cynical as he was generous, restless rather than contented, disarmingly honest and tirelessly curious.

Was it manic curiosity that compelled Bordain to keep circling the globe for new adventures, or was he running to escape the hellhound on his trail?

Stupid question. No one really knows what motivates others, or what drives them to despair. I’m just glad he did so much good work and touched so many people before he decided to check out.

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