Perhaps, it was because I was going through my own battle with mental illness at the time - a battle that would last more than 18 months. So, I was extra sensitive to any news about suicide or mental health because, despite knowing how debilitating any mental health issue can be, and knowing how it can quickly swallow everything around you, it still scared me when reminded that some people see no other way out and not only thought they would be better off out of the world but that the world would be better off without them in it. It was even worse to hear this news about someone I admired, a person who influenced my life, that I felt had a similar outlook to me on things I hold dear, and who I thought had put the worst of his demons behind him. A ridiculous thing to think, as it can be hard enough to spot mental health issues in the people in your life, never mind a presenter on the television, but I suppose I wanted to think it was possible to put issues in the past.
But it was more than my state of mind at play. Michelle, who thankfully does not suffer from any mental illness, felt the loss too. For months after she couldn't bring herself to watch any of his shows and even when we watch them now, it is with a sense of sadness. For more than a decade we watched Bourdain's travel shows and admired them for the realistic depictions of the destination, for their rawness. They were different from every other food travel show on television and his sudden death left a void that we cannot see any other presenter filling.
There are many chefs, past and present, on TV who do travel shows and we enjoy watching them too, but they nearly always seem like some tourist board commercial designed to depict the country in the best light with beautiful post-card-worthy shots of the main tourist attractions. Most of the time, they give the sense of being an advertisement for the accompanying cookbook. In most of these shows, you will see a local in whatever destination, sometimes a chef, cooking a dish of the region that they have perfected over years, but then you have to watch the presenter try to cook the dish themselves, almost always doing a worse job, but of course, the recipe will be available in the cookbook. Rarely is the viewer shown the link between the food and the culture and history of a region.
Bourdain's shows were not there to sell the destination to the viewer, we certainly didn't watch the Iceland show from No Reservations, or Kyiv from Part's Unknown and think we must go there. The shows were not designed to let everyone know how much of gourmet he was, he very rarely talked about himself and seemed to endeavour to present the show with humility and humour - he was always gracious to his host and respectful of the local people and culture. He was not trying to sell a cookbook, he wanted the cooking of the locals to be front and centre. Instead, most episodes of his shows brilliantly capture the link between food and community, food and culture and food and history. He uses food as a catalyst of conversation to understand the country. His shows will give the viewer a sense of the country's past and present told through food.
The one thing that always stood out to me when watching Bourdain's shows is that he understood the power of the dining table. It is where conversations and debates happen, about politics, work, life, sport, and even food. It brings families together, it brings communities together and can even bring people of different backgrounds, different persuasions, different ethnicity together, because when you sit down to eat with someone, you already share something, you are sharing food. The dining table breaks down barriers, it opens people up and it can make family bonds stronger and bring strangers together. In so many of Bourdain's shows you will see him learning about a region from locals over a meal and people will just open up to him, even in countries where speaking out is not the done thing. Rarely in other food and travel shows is the viewer shown a link between food and the history and culture of a region.
When we travel we use food as our way into learning about a region's culture, for us food is as important as literature, art, music or politics in getting to know a country. Food is really the main reason we travel, along with wine of course. Before we travel, we spend weeks planning our meals, researching the best food markets and the must-try dishes in the region. We do try to eat our way around a destination.
Maybe what we related to most about Bourdain was his appreciation for food at all levels. Michelle and I, usually over a glass (bottle) or two (three) of wine, often reminisce on our best food memories from our travels and these memories vary from the expensive, the cheap, the innovative, the simple, the traditional and the modern. We have had some of the most memorable meals of our life in the dining rooms of the world's most innovative and influential kitchens, such as Noma, Arzak, Osteria Fransesca, Enigma, Eleven Madison Park, Tickets. But, many of our food memories are far more simple affairs; eating spaghetti vongole on a pier in Ischia watching the boats come in and out, oysters in a market in Lyon, the most amazing deep-fried red snapper in three-flavour-sauce in a beach hut in Thailand, shrimp cakes and fish amok near our hotel in Phnom Penh, cachio e pepe in a trattoria in Rome, chicken and rice in a Singapore hawker centre, pinxtos in San Sebastian, lamb cutlets with potato dauphinoise in a brasserie in Bordeaux. When we travel we try to incorporate all levels of cooking for that region. We want to be able to taste the region, in that time and in that place.
You sometimes hear chefs or food writers dismiss high-end dining or innovation in favour of the classical, or visa-versa, but Bourdain knew there was a place for cooking of all levels and styles. He adored street food and he had his favourite vendors he visited all over the world, he loved eating a meal in someone's home, but he also loved and respected the avant-garde. He visited Arzak regularly and considered Juan-Marie Arzak to be like a father to him, he travelled the world with Eric Ripart of Le Bernadin. He went to elBulli sceptical of what he had heard, but left amazed and became a close friend of Ferran Adria. The same happened to him when he went to Noma to the extent that a whole episode of Part's Unknown was dedicated to Rene Redzepi. Bourdain, like us, had an appreciation for all food, as long as it was delicious.
Bourdain liked to celebrate people in the food industry. He dedicated a show to Ferran Adria, another to Paul Bocuse and another to Rene Redzepi, and more than a few times he mentions his love and admiration of Fergus Henderson, but in his book Medium Raw, a follow up to Kitchen Confidential, he dedicated a whole chapter to Justo Thomas, the fish butcher in the 3 Michelin star restaurant Le Bernadin in New York. Thomas, it is said, can expertly and perfectly butcher 700 pounds every day - it is a fascinating read. Bourdain knew that without people like Thomas the industry would grind to a halt. They are the backbone, the engine room, that keep the whole show running. In many of his shows he will focus on a street food vendor, or a food producer, or someone cooking in their home.
Parts Unknown is now available on Netflix UK & Ireland and we are enjoying watching them again, although it just makes us long to travel again. The shows still inspire us to travel and eat as well as we can. Food and travel is a huge part of our lives, and as a consequence will be a huge part of our children's lives and Anthony Bourdain was a big influence on that.
I won't forget the day when I heard Bourdain had ended his own life. I was having one of my better days during a tough period, but the news was a temporary setback. But food to me is a celebration of life, of humankind's beauty and innovation and is a tremendous source of pleasure. Bourdain will live on through his books and his shows and hopefully continue to inspire people to travel and eat, and then travel and eat some more.
But if you are going through a hard time, and desperate, know that help is available and things do get better, sometimes when you least expect it.
Services that can help you through a difficult time: