Like many of you, I’m stunned and saddened by the loss of Antony Bourdain. It’s yet another inexplicable, or at least difficult to get my head and my heart around, loss of a good, impactful person too soon. In our modern human lives, we live with constant paradoxes that include being both courageous and vulnerable, to our need for connection yet having a self-defining ego, to the vitality of life and the certainty that we’ll all perish from this physical earth at some point. These paradoxes are difficult to live with and helpful to reflect upon.
As we drove home from one of our local eateries last night, where one of the good people that work to prepare our food expressed their sadness of Tony’s passing, I said to my wife “we’ve lost The Patron Saint of Dining.” However, the more I think about Tony, his life and work, the more I’m certain he meant more to me and many of us then this simple descriptor can hold.
The recipe of Tony’s work seems deceivingly simple. Venture to an interesting place, near or far, seek out someone who’s an epicurean expert in some famous or obscure corner of the culture and have a food-centric adventure with them, the people they know, work and live with. By following this merry band of adventurous folks around for a handful of days, we got a peek through Tony’s curious lens into the world these people, their culture, their history, their times, their pains, their loves, their fears, and their food and drink. We nearly always learned more than we bargained for. This peek afforded us a look into the lives and rituals of complete strangers, making them strangers no more.
The recipe seems simple, but the food, drink, and gathering of people in wide-ranging cultures is anything but simple because we need to eat, drink and gather as humans. Necessity being the mother of invention, is also the father of ritual. We’ve refined these everyday necessities into common and accessible art forms that are so valuable that Tony’s show Parts Unknown was on CNN, a global news network. Tony’s work was a counterpoint to the hype-driven media that creates such fear-based frenzy in our social feeds and TV screens. He showed us who these people are that might be on the news—from Iran, Pakistan, China, Armenia, Thailand, Detroit, St. Louis and Philadelphia—humanizing them to the point of creating a common context of our shared humanity. This lens was perhaps more real than some of the news being reported, and at the least, it showed us a reality that grounded our broader perspective of people, places, and beliefs. Especially in today’s world, this is and was important work.
Growing up in the mid-Atlantic area of the US, some of my best childhood memories are of my extended family gathering around a steamed pot of Blue Claw Crabs generously dosed with Old Bay, with sides of steamed shrimp and clams with butter, all served with plenty of summer lager on hand. This was not a dinner but a feast which typically took hours of preparation by many helping hands, and even longer to consume and enjoy. As a summer’s afternoon turned into evening, then night, stories, food, and drink would be shared. Perhaps it was no accident that the picnic tables of these feasts were lined with last week’s newspapers to underscore the point that here and now is where we are—to eat, to drink, to laugh, to share as if there’s no tomorrow.
My first semi-career was in the restaurant world, from high school through grad school I worked in restaurants up and down the east coast. I labored in well over a dozen restaurants from burger joints to country clubs, mostly on the front end of the house as a waiter, busboy, bar back, and bartender. But I also spent some time in kitchens as a prep cook, line cook and even for a spell as a dishwasher. I don’t think there’s a job in a restaurant that I didn’t have at some point other than Chef or Sous Chef. From experience, I can attest that gathering to eat and drink is anything but simple and anything but mundane.
Within the dining rooms, kitchen, bars, and prep areas, I learned the value and benefit of hard work, meal preparation, serving people, entertaining people, multitasking, managing people who are hungry, angry, happy, drunk, or just want a good time for their hard earned money. Tony eloquently shined an honest light on the utterly unique culinary culture that lives within the restaurant industry—for all its artistry, its careful preparation, its hardworking people, its seedy underbelly. Tony showed it, unapologetically, for all it is. Rightfully so, we should all strive to live unapologetic lives.
As I reflect more deeply on the impact that Tony has had on me and so many, I think he may be not just the Patron Saint of Dining, but the Patron Saint of Communion. I don’t mean this in the Catholic religious way, but borrowing from that as a metaphor, communion is about gathering to break bread, drink wine and celebrate the mysteries of life. Like Tony’s work and life, it’s about coming together as common or uncommon people to talk about and share common and ordinary things. To commune with one another, is to gather in celebration of our uniqueness and our connection at our core. This my friends is worth celebrating over and over, as Tony so wholeheartedly lived and showed us.