We live in a broken world, and many of the best people in it are broken too. Anthony Bourdain had the life many of us dream about; not just wealth and fame, but wealth and fame derived from exploring and sharing the fullness of human experience, from telling honest stories from everywhere about everyone, while eating what always looked like the best meals on earth. His compulsively watchable travel shows—No Reservations, The Layover, and Parts Unknown—made it possible to believe that social justice and earthly delights weren’t mutually exclusive, and he pursued both with the same earnest reverence. Most celebrities make life look like a guilty pleasure at best and a dystopian horror at worst; Bourdain made life look like it was worth living, which makes his suicide at 61, at what seemed to be the pinnacle of personal and career success, all the harder to comprehend.
Bourdain acknowledged his own depression, and for much of his life, he also struggled with addiction. He kicked the harder drugs, cocaine and heroin, years before he became famous, but he continued to drink, spending whole episodes of Parts Unknown on epic benders from Seoul to Batumi. He could be accused of glamorizing alcoholism, and in fact he accused himself of having glamorized a kind of swaggering masculinity in the restaurant industry in the best-selling books that launched his career. In Kitchen Confidential, he did offer lurid tales of “heavy drinking, drugs, screwing in the dry-goods area, unappetizing revelations about bad food-handling and unsavory industry-wide practices.” Yet he also wrote about these and other things with a sensitivity and ruefulness that marked much of his later life.
What really interested him about food was the sensual pleasure of eating it and the hard reality of the labor that went into it, and he never lost sight of either. His mission was to affirm the value of life, even as he saw it devalued all around him. When he traveled to war zones, from Libya to Iraqi Kurdistan, he sought to relate to the people caught in them as familiarly as anyone he met in London or Tokyo or New York. He reported on Brexit and Israeli settlements; he traveled to Gaza (probably no mainstream American TV journalist has ever produced a more humanizing segment on Palestinians); he showcased thriving immigrant communities in Houston at the height of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.
Possessing a restless intelligence and curiosity like his can be exhausting. Bourdain was a natural writer because he was constantly observing everything around him, recording the best and the worst, processing, contextualizing, drawing out meaning. He loved the world and his unique access to it too much to ever grow complacent, even though he certainly could have. He was keenly aware of the perils of becoming a fraud, mocking celebrity chefs and refusing to allow himself to be defined as one.
He used his position of prominence to bring light to those suffering in the dark. In one episode of Parts Unknown, he dined with Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov before his assassination in Moscow; in another, with Iranian-American journalist Jason Rezaian before his imprisonment in Tehran. He could find wonderful people eating wonderful food anywhere. He knew exactly how bad things could be, and yet he was determined to find the ways things could still be great.