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Lessons from Anthony Bourdain

Posted on 21 July 2019

Lessons from Anthony Bourdain

June 25th 2019 would have been Anthony Bourdain’s 63rd birthday. It was also declared, by chefs, by friends, by those who actually knew the man and those that wish they did, as Bourdain Day. It was nothing official, merely a chance to raise a glass and to remember the man who, just over one year ago, suddenly and unexpectedly took his own life.

Bourdain was a man of many layers, of many identities, many lives and many stories. He was a chef, a recovering addict, a father, a writer and a traveller. He was a person so many of us wanted to share a cold drink and a good meal with, a man who so many of us wanted to be. But, maybe beyond all of that, he was a teacher. He was someone who tried to learn and discover as much as he could, tried to make sense of those lessons for his audience and provide them with some kind of new and intriguing perspective. He wasn’t there to spoon-feed us comfortable, easily digestible snapshots of foreign places and people, and he sure as hell didn’t care about neatly wrapping things up, sitting on the couch at the end of the show and talking about what we learnt this week, waiting for the credits to roll. No. Bourdain was there to challenge us, to throw open the doors to those strange, unsettling, ugly yet equally beautiful realities that exist alongside ours.

So what of those lessons remain in the year after his death? And what can he continue to teach us?

Courtesy of Miami New Times

His advice was something that people followed and trusted, although he never claimed to possess any special insight or wisdom, simply a willingness to sit down for a meal, ask a question and listen. He approached everything with a curiosity and frankness that penetrated to the very heart of a place, a conversation or a culinary tradition, using the slightly mad Gonzo approach of putting himself right in the centre of the story and doing his best to try and understand what he uncovered.

Nothing he did, wrote or recorded was fake. He showed it all; the frayed corners, the unpleasant truths and those unspoken or generally ignored social, political or racial realities that are daily life for so many. He was always himself, totally and unashamedly, in every word he wrote and every second on camera, never making an attempt to speak with a voice other than his own. That honesty extended to how he viewed and talked about himself. Bourdain never hid from his failings or past experiences, instead choosing to draw the focus towards them and to discuss their influences both on him as an individual and the way they informed and defined his upbringing.

He was someone who called it like he saw it. He kicked arse, took names and didn’t apologise for doing so. Even when it came to his friends or those he admired, Bourdain spoke up, and spoke clearly. When Queens of the Stone Age frontman Joshua Homme assaulted a woman at a concert, or when Mario Batali became the next man to be named in the MeToo movement, Bourdain gave no quarter. He didn’t excuse or minimise what they had done, instead, he called them out for their actions and said that we should, we must, be better than this.

Courtesy of Beverly Hills Therapy Group

For all of his punk rock, old school, New Jersey turnpike attitudes and personality, Bourdain wasn’t afraid of feeling vulnerable. For him it wasn’t a weakness, it was what allowed him to find common ground with so many of the people he sat down with and talked to, no matter how many worlds apart they may have been. Or maybe deep down and underneath it all, he was afraid of that vulnerability. Perhaps it was just something, like the different cultures and culinary traditions he showcased, that he used travel in an attempt to understand. People were left feeling lost by his death. How could someone so confident, someone who still had something to say and was damn sure going to find a way to say it, take their own life? The search began through old episodes of his many shows, through interviews and through his books to try and find some indication or hint what he had planned to do. For those who cared for him, as is the case for all those touched by suicide, there was no simple answer, there was no clear relief in hindsight or speculation. The answer will always feel blurred and distorted. It will always hurt.

In Australia, the rates for male suicide are truly frightening, 19.2 per 100,00 in 2017. Many of them never felt they were able, or even had the permission, to discuss their personal struggles. Bourdain’s death highlighted a grim reality in this country; there is a conversation that needs to be had, and we are either simply not having it, or thinking that it is not serious enough to demand our immediate attention. That conversation is about our mental health and how we, as individuals and as a society, are willing to address it. Maybe we don’t talk about it because we feel like others won’t understand, or maybe it’s that we feel a sense of shame or failure. Because we’re told that real men aren’t supposed to feel like this, real men are tough and can take care of themselves.

Well, Bourdain was a real man, just about as real as you are ever likely to find, and yet he still knew that there was no shame in feeling like a stranger in your own body, or in a society you were expected to know.

His death gave attention to the need for something that he so keenly championed in life: to talk, to have that conversation no matter how foreign or challenging it may seem.

Courtesy of The Wall Street Journal

For Bourdain and for many others, that conversation will come too late. It is a tragic reality that we must learn from, and one that will become a key part in how we define and identify with masculinity moving forward. To say that the time is now would be incorrect because the time for this passed a long time ago. Now we’re playing catch up, and we need to catch up fast. What lessons Bourdain can teach us, what his legacy and his work have left to say, is really up to the individual. Maybe you, like the many others across the world, find a connection to his honesty and his willingness to try and make sense of the colourful, fast, manic and confronting world around us. Maybe he was just someone who made you feel understood and heard, like your voice and story had value and was worth sharing. And maybe, all things considered, that’s enough.

If you, or anyone you know needs someone to talk to, or someone to listen, please call one of these numbers:

Lifeline Australia: 13 11 14

Beyond Blue: 1300 22 4636

Headspace: 1800 650 890 

MensLine Australia: 1300 78 99 78

Author: Will Dunn completed a Bachelor of Fine Arts (Screenwriting) at the Victorian College of the Arts. He is currently trying to figure out how to make that degree useful.

@ w_ilyam

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