Tony was a man of contradictions.
His work from almost two decades ago inspired a rogue-ish bro culture in the chef world that in the past few years he came to revile and worked hard to repudiate. He told me almost 13 years ago that television was the “most vile mistress,” but he refined the medium to suit his needs as a communicator and was addicted to its power as a tool to communicate.
He sought to highlight, to underscore the most simple essence of a place and its people. He insisted that we never ignore the obvious, the “gorilla in the room,” and yet he did it by profiling so many people and places from the fringe. He made the invisible, visible and understandable. He raised up the humblest aspects of our community, from the prep cook to the rural farmer on the far side of the planet, and he hung out with the cultural royalty of our generation. He was in many ways a rebel, an anarchist, but he revered the classics. He made commercial television but took inspiration from the great cinematic auteurs he feverishly admired. He championed the Davids of the world and called out the Goliaths, and then he became a symphonic behemoth of incredible gravitational pull. Who didn’t want to be with Tony when he walked into a room? He was the most charismatic man I knew.
Tony talked at various times to me of chucking it all in and “living a feral life on a beach in Vietnam.” Then there was the night over dinner when he talked for an hour about the joy he felt he could squeeze from teaching writing or literature, followed by a call months later when he rightly asserted that “guys like us will never stop doing what we really love,” the road, the discovery, the camaraderie, the making of the messaging, the eagerness to see how others would interpret the work when it aired. His biographical footnotes have been well documented over the last few days. His impact on our culture was immeasurable. Our food world looked different once Anthony Bourdain exploded into our consciousness.
He died 72 hours ago, and I’m writing this alone in my kitchen, making a hunters stew of braised chicken. I need the yoga of cooking to take me away from Tony’s greatest contradiction of all, the only one I can’t reconcile. As human beings we need personal transparency to be understood and in doing so can inspire empathy, and demonstrate it. It’s only through that emotional mechanism that we can ourselves be happy and content.
Someone, not everyone in our lives needs to truly know us. I thought my friend had that in his life; his suicide tells me I was wrong. His pain, longstanding it appears, is heartbreaking. The dissonance of our outsides not matching our insides, the enigmatic nature of celebrity, the loneliness of the road, the applause wherever you go ringing in your ears while the tape plays in our heads over and over repeating the negative self talk that we aren’t what people think we are. That’s keeping me up at night and weighing heavily on my soul. It didn’t have to end this way. But it did.
Andrew Zimmern is a chef, entrepreneur, producer, and TV host known for his long run on Travel Channel’s “Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern.”