What Anthony Bourdain Taught Me

It's been a dark week following the death of Anthony Bourdain. While I didn't know him personally, there are many reasons why his death has hit home in a deeply personal way.

For so many of us who work in food, travel, publishing, and media, Bourdain's approach to storytelling was what inspired us to get into this line of work. His television shows, while often told through food, were never really about food; rather, they were about how human connections are best forged and cultural differences most easily diffused when we're able to sit together at the table over a shared plate and an open mind. 

Given the politically divided climate of today, the world needs Anthony Bourdain now more than ever. He stood for the idea that having differing points of view was a valuable thing. He used his platform to talk about troubling social realities in an unvarnished way, without a whiff of concern about political correctness. He humanized the dehumanized, including those from war-torn countries or an impoverished states, reminding the world that each of us matters, and matters equally. 

Most of us never would have guessed that suicide would be what got him in the end. (I can't actually tell you the number of times I heard someone claim Bourdain had the best job in the world.) How could a person so in love with humankind take his own life? How is it possible for someone to be so beloved by the world and have such a profoundly positive impact on it yet not feel like they belong? I've spent the past week pondering these questions. The closest I've come to an possible answer is that perhaps it was that deep well of empathy and the desire to fight for others—exactly what made him so special—that ultimately became too much for him to bear.

How can one have such a profoundly positive impact on this world yet not feel like they belong? 

The unfortunate reality is that we won't ever know the truth. But out of this situation I have come to know a different truth: We can't make assumptions about others. 

Twelve hours before I woke up to news of Bourdain’s death, Andy drove us to the gym. As he braked at a four-way stop on one of the wealthiest corners of San Francisco's Pacific Heights neighborhood, we crossed paths with a red pickup truck. It stopped a millisecond after we did. Sensing the truck was yielding, Andy moved ahead—but right as he made it halfway through the intersection, the man in the truck lurched forward. Andy slammed on the brakes, as we would have gotten into an accident otherwise. “FUCKIN’ STOP, YOU JACKASS!” the man hollered out the window before zooming off. 

Lately San Francisco has been a place to witness what feels like a growing sense of self-entitlement, and being on the road is one of the most obvious exemplifiers of this: drivers turning left from right lanes, driving through red lights, and rolling through stop signs, all believing their next appointment is more important than the next driver's. I'm rather desensitized to it at this point, but what I was fazed by was this: Thanks to the logo on the side of his car, I recognized the driver's face as one of the owners of the iconic restaurant Swan Oyster Depot.

In that moment, a longtime San Francisco favorite of mine (and, ironically, of Bourdain's) came crashing down off its pedestal. This man, one of the faces of a revered institution and arguably something of a local public figure himself, seemingly had it all—financial success, prestige, love and adoration from admirers who flock to his restaurant from around the world. What was a bit of respect to him? Why had he been so mean-spirited? Had his behavior been racially motivated? What would it have been to him to show some kindness?

I have come to know this: We can't make assumptions about others. 

Amidst my grief over Bourdain's passing, I spent an inordinate amount of time also feeling wronged over this small act of aggression. But later, I realized: In my reaction, I, too, had been making an assumption about others. How did I know what was going on in this man's life? Why was I to assume, just as we all had assumed about Kate Spade and Tony Bourdain, that this man had it all? 

In the aftermath of Bourdain's (and Spade's) tragic death, there were many suicide hotline numbers being shared. But just as helpful as that, I think, is remembering this: We can't afford to make assumptions about others—something we so frequently are inclined to automatically do. Instead, we need to give one another the benefit of the doubt—a small yet meaningful act of emotional generosity. We need to reach out more, both to loved ones and to complete strangers, to make sure they're doing okay (and really listen when they answer). We need to exercise more compassion by recognizing the complicated imperfection that is the human condition in ourselves and others. Because we never truly know what battles people are fighting. 

Tony, it still feels impossible to say goodbye to you. I hope the world finds a way to continue your legacy. I'll try to start with this one small thing.