What Anthony Bourdain taught me about life and death

Anthony Bourdain used to be the only person I ever truly envied. I’ve looked up to him since I stumbled upon his show when I was a disenchanted teenager. I remember thinking this is exactly the adventure I want from life: travel, food, and connections with interesting characters.

As Chapelle put it in Sticks and Stones, Anthony Bourdain had the best career that television has ever come up with and he hung himself in a luxury suite in France.

Anthony Bourdain created something that never existed before. He had all the splendor of a famous actor, without the pretense. He was an artist. His medium was food, places, people and what brings us all together.

Your body is not a temple, it’s an amusement park. Enjoy the ride.
— Anthony Bourdain

I would watch the way he interacted with people, the profound joy he got from the simple pleasures of eating and talking. How he showed his appreciation by protecting sacred places, keeping their location a secret. His advice on traveling was simple: talk to the locals, drink like the locals and always eat like the locals.

I recall watching an episode where he was sitting outside a café in Paris, smoking a cigarette and sipping coffee as he waited for one of the best croissants the world has ever known.

He later traveled to Brittany, France. I vividly remember the majestic landscape. The shots of the boats bottoming out as the tide receded. The quaint and quiet small town on the sea. The entire episode he echoed the narration by saying “but what about the seafood tower?”

There was a shop owner that canned local fish, infusing it with garlic and olive oil. He would make small batches that would last him a year.

“Why not make more of these? They are exceptional, you could sell thousands!” Bourdain asked in disbelief at the squandered opportunity.

“Because I make enough to have enough and then I don’t need anymore.” The owner said as he and Bourdain dipped a baguette into the garlic infused oil, sopping up every morsel of this scarce delicacy.

It was the mentality of sustained as opposed to constant growth. That is what Bourdain was a master of extracting. The small, simple bites that tell a story.   

In the end, he gets that glorious seafood tower, stacked high with the finest mollusks and crustaceans that the bounty of the sea has to offer. We get to witness him pry, dip, and savor the unseen treasure in every crevice of these exquisite sea creatures. What he did to food was the same as what he did with people, he extracted, celebrated and protected the best parts.

Travel is about the gorgeous feeling of teetering in the unknown
— Anthony Bourdain

I remember being in complete disbelief of his suicide. Celebrity suicide is nothing new, it’s a trite expression of our time. We know the despairing human condition. Hopelessness does not discriminate against gender, race, class, status, success or wealth.

We mistake those we admire as those that we want to become because they make us feel like we can be better than who we are. We reward those who inspire us to grow and become better by mimicking their behavior, much to our benefit but also to our detriment. We honor those who inspire us by becoming the best version of ourselves.

Anthony Bourdain showed us just how beautiful this world is but also how wonderful life could be. That is what makes his death so tragic. With profound joy comes profound pain. It takes a single moment of weakness, despair or blindness to lose everything.

Without experimentation, a willingness to ask questions and try new things, we shall surely become static, repetitive, and moribund
— Anthony Bourdain

In retrospect, it wasn’t really envy. There was no malice or bitterness attached to what he achieved. It was more of a feeling of happiness that such a person and a career existed and that there was potential to share the same connections and experiences.

I am going to renew my passport because I foolishly let it expire. I had no use for it, but now I understand that just having it ready is important. It’s the potential that matters. I will travel to Brittany France and get that god blessed seafood tower. I’ll bring back a can of fish to share with my family. After all, having enough is more than enough because you don’t need anymore.