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Goodbye, Chef Bourdain

December 11, 2018 Leave a comment Go to comments

Dear Chef Bourdain;

It’s been six months since you killed yourself. The weekend after, some friends of mine and I had a final “Bourdain Dinner” where I tried to finish one or two of the items that were left undone in this project, started so long ago. We made “skate” grenobloise, and despite driving all over Los Angeles we didn’t find any skate. Several places promised they had it, but it was lies. We ended up at an asian fish market that I am positive you would have loved for the wide variety of strange foods there. We were half-stewed because one of my compatriots (who was also present for the very first Bourdain dinner, “Chicken of the Gods” – appropriate that he was also there for the last..) showed up much earlier than I expected. I’d laid in a fair amount of wine and booze for the day and evening, but maybe having some “breakfast wine” wasn’t the greatest idea. But I’ll be damned if it wasn’t a Bourdain idea. “Should we drink breakfast wine?” What would Tony Bourdain do?

So there we are slightly legless at the Asian fish market, and up the hall is a Philippino fast food place that serves halo halo, just like you had in the LA episode with Dave Choe. We got ourselves a cup and as you said yourself, it makes no goddamn sense, but I love it. We ended up with …. I dunno, chef, some kind of fish that’s supposed to be a little bit like skate, maybe giant perch, I think? Eventually we ended up back at my house and we watched some of our favorite No Reservations and Parts Unknown episodes, and I made “skate” grenobloise and whipped up some kind of rice dish. It was pretty damn good, as I recall.

But that was six months ago. And I haven’t been able to write this letter, because this will be the last one. How I feel about your suicide is complicated. It’s not that I need to “process my feelings” or anything like that, they’re no less complicated now than they were when you died. But the edge is off, and while it doesn’t feel any less heart-breaking, at least today it feels like I’m bigger than the grief. Like if that heartbreak gives me any trouble, I can beat it up and take its lunch money.

The way you died is terrifying to me. Because on paper, you had it all. You had a career the rest of us can (literally) only dream of, travel anywhere you want, fame, fortune. More than that, you had the respect of your peers; you were famously welcome everywhere, and beloved by all for your ability to bring people together, to get them to see what’s good in each other. All without being saccharine-sweet or phony. You were an edgy, authentic, snarky bastard all the way. But above all that was honesty, and people love that. I love that. You had a daughter, an 11 year old daughter. You had friends. You were healthy – healthier and more fit than you’d ever been. What was missing, chef?

That scares the hell out of me, chef. I don’t have … any of that, except the daughter. I don’t have a dream career, though I’ve got a good job. I have to save for travel and don’t get to do it nearly often enough. What friends I had are scattered by either distance or my divorce and I rarely see them. I am not loved, or married, or dating a movie star. I am not fit, and my health has been spotty. (Though fine now, thank you for asking.) I have the daughter though! She’s five, not 11, but she’s a constant source of joy. I can’t imagine leaving her behind. For one thing, I wouldn’t want to scar her like that. For another, I want to see how she turns out. I think she’s going to set the world on its edge, and I want to see what she does. I can’t tell if she’ll be a villain or a hero, but I’m sure she’s going to be brilliant.

But none of that was enough for you, chef. Why not? And if that kind of success doesn’t inoculate you from the darkness, I’m pretty sure that means nothing outside the self can. The only way to be safe from your demons is to fight them yourself, because fame, and fortune, and luxury, and love, and family and friends and all your dreams come true aren’t good enough, apparently.

That is a hard truth to handle. That’s what’s taken me six months to wrap my head around. And what broke it open was an article I read today , one little quote, seemingly inconsequential. It’s this, Matt Goulding (producer): He [eventually just got] tired of eating. You could see it. Very rarely he said anything more than, “Mmm, that’s really good.” I said, “You don’t talk about food anymore.” And he was like, “What do you need me to tell you? You need me to tell you how the acidity plays off of the richness of the cream sauce? And how the crunch helps refresh your palate? Bullshit. You don’t need me.”

“He eventually just got tired of eating.” I think that’s it, right there. I mean, what do I know, I’m just some guy that met you once in a bar on Santa Barbara, and likes the stuff you made? But that could do it, it seems to me. No joy. No joy in the food anymore. What happens when you’ve got everything, and there’s no joy? What happens when you have an amazing opportunity, one after another, but there’s no joy? There’s a sense of appreciation for what an honor it is to get to do what you do, sure. And gratitude for the life you’ve lead, yeah. But … you stopped talking about the food, chef. That’s what made you famous. Or half of it, anyway – it wasn’t just the food, of course, it was the people making the food, sharing the food, eating the food. It was sharing their joy about food, and sharing it with everyone.

If there’s no joy, you’re just going through the motions. And I can see in a particularly dark moment, you might look at a future that is an endless trudge of doing things everyone is quick to tell you you’re so incredibly lucky to do, and find that unbearable. If you were just some schlub working at a pipe-fitting job in Hackensack, maybe you’d feel entitled to a little existential dread, and that would somehow be a comfort. Like, “Yeah, of course this all feels hollow, it SUCKS.” But what do you do if it really shouldn’t suck, if it ought to a non-stop carnival of fun and adventure….and you’re just done? But you can’t be done, because now you’re an industry. Now there’s all these people depending on you for their jobs, for their living – and their families too. If you were a little less famous and fortunate, you could just walk away, right, chef? But you couldn’t. Not and explain it to anyone.

And maybe five minutes more and you’d have shaken it off, just enough to get through the night. Because the news that Tony Bourdain quit his amazing job traveling the world and having a gas with friends from everywhere would be puzzling, but it wouldn’t be a punch in the gut the way Tony Bourdain killing himself was. Because you can come back from having a breakdown, or a sabbatical, or fuck – just walking away letting it all burn and living in a shack in the woods. A few years later when you’ve found your joy again, you can go on to your next gig. Or help young people new to the industry get their message out, and share the love that way. Or just retire and refuse to answer questions, like Salinger. Whatever, the thing is, fuck you, Uncle Tony, you killed yourself rather than find out if you could do any of that.

I’ve got a fraction of the blessings you had. But I’ve got a fraction of the responsibilities too – the only people that depend on me are my daughter, and Assistant-Chef-Bourdain. (Aka Blink. And my other dog, too, though she hasn’t experienced the leftovers like Blink has.) I don’t see my friends very often, and they’d barely notice if I was gone – I wouldn’t leave a huge hole in the world, the way you did. But I don’t have any addictions, either. And most importantly, I still talk about food. I still enjoy eating. I still feel the joy. I’ve got something that I think, at the end, you didn’t have, and I think it killed you.

I don’t know, chef. That’s just my intuition. But it helps me find your death a little less scary. Because I have had depression too. I’ve struggled with my own demons, too. But now I know; when I don’t find any joy in the things that mean the most to me, it’s time to reach out for help. Because I am now, and I hope I always am, hungry for more.

Goodbye, Chef Bourdain. This is my final letter. It’s been a hell of an experience, learning from you. In the last eight years, I learned to cook, I learned to write a little better, I learned to experiment and try anything anyone offers me.  I won’t forget, just like you told me in Santa Barbara – the cassoulet needs a little more oil. And most importantly, I promise, I won’t fuck up my meez. Goodbye. Thank you. Fuck you. Nah, thank you, that’s the important port. But fuck you a little. My dream of cooking for you and Chef Ripert will never come true. Goodbye.

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