“I’m not going anywhere. I hope. It’s been an adventure. We took some casualties over the years. Things got broken. Things got lost.
“But I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.” —Anthony Bourdain
Friday, June 8: the final morning of my latest business trip. I opened my eyes to a shrieking alarm in a Las Vegas hotel room. I reached for the phone, last night still weighing my body down, and placed my thumb over the virtual snooze button.
A few minutes passed and just before dozing off, the sound of a text message kept me conscious. I could have ignored it and waited for the alarm to start again but something told me it deserved a look. It was my wife.
“Babe, Bourdain killed himself,” the text read.
In an instant, the drinks from the night before were erased. My mind cleared, my heart sank, and my soul ached. This, over a man whose hand I never shook.
I met my wife in late 1997 at the job I took as a freshman to pay for college. Like me, she had immigrated to the United States as a child with her parents, leaving behind the civil war that tore El Salvador apart. Both of us only knew El Salvador through the stories our parents told. Our personalities shaped by the city of Los Angeles and our Salvadoran roots. We grew close quickly and married about a year after we began dating. Three years later, we had our first child.
Of course, being a young couple, reality was far from a paradise. We had no money, worked long hours, and had this beautiful girl to somehow nurture and protect. Our only respite from the daily grind was television.
We came across No Reservations one night in 2005. We both enjoyed the show but to me, it was like a drug. I couldn’t get enough of it. We’d spend hours watching television into the night but I clamored for the times at which the Travel Channel presented Anthony Bourdain’s gastronomical adventures on No Reservations and later on The Layover. Here was this chef who was foul-mouthed, loved to drink, of course worshipped food, and narrated his various life experiences in a beautifully poetic, yet honestly raw manner.
Anthony Bourdain was authentic. There were many television hosts that traveled and tasted food but none like Tony. Having earned his way up through the kitchens of the Jersey Shore in his teens starting out as a dishwasher, he was always seemingly on the same level as his viewers. It didn’t matter, to him or us, that he was a distinguished chef who had seen the world and had opportunities we never did.
Never hiding behind a Travel Channel persona, Bourdain was an open book. He shared various escapades of his life, some hilariously embarrassing, others just regrettable. He was sincere about his battles with heroin and cocaine addiction. I tuned in to watch a flawed individual with a passion for food and a gift for storytelling. Through each episode he provided a seductive account of a chapter of his life and made me feel like I was there alongside him.
Bourdain enjoyed fine dining as most chefs do but he had a special bond for street food, hole-in-the-wall dives, and local working-class spots. He had respect for the people—often immigrants—behind these establishments and he never made himself superior to any of them.
The ultimate realization of No Reservations, its predecessor A Cook’s Tour, and the final incarnation, CNN‘s Parts Unknown, was that these shows were not about food but about cultural enlightenment and acceptance. Bourdain’s shows were about the people that toiled over their food and were equally happy to share the fruits of their labor with those who respected their work and their passion. In each episode, he introduced us to a people’s plight, their struggles, their fears, their insecurities, and their love, through their food. At the same time, we learned these same qualities about him.
The news of Tony’s passing shook me as if I had lost a dear friend. And in a way, I did. Through his words, I got to know him, I got to know others, and I even learned a little about myself. I thank him for helping me get over the fear of growing older. Now, as my 40’s loom just over the horizon, I don’t envision an old man preparing for the latter, less interesting part of his life. Instead, I face these new years with optimism and confidence. I know the scars of the past 38 years have prepared me for the years ahead. I know if I enjoy life and seek out new adventures, I will never be old. I know that old is a state of mind and that I am never too old for a new piercing, a new tattoo, a new wound, or a new story to tell.
Thank you, Tony, for helping me see the world and for showing me it is possible to find happiness in being yourself while learning from those around you.