As everyone knows by now, Anthony Bourdain has died. He was 61. The cause was, apparently, suicide. As with any suicide, I think the impulse is to look back for clues, to re-evaluate your idea of a person based on the fact that they took their own life, to ask A) did I miss something? and B) was it all — happy, shit together, healthy, successful — an act? I’m sure that’ll happen with Tony. Hell, for me this process of sifting is already happening. But I wanted to take a moment too because I’ve known, knew, Tony in that quasi-friend, quasi-professional contact grey zone for more than a decade and he taught me a lot in that time.
A lot of people will have and have shared Bourdain stories, and the sheer volume of tribute is a tribute to him, that he touched the lives of so many. I want to just mention one story from the point of view of being a father. When his second cookbook, Appetites, came out in 2016, I sat down with Tony for a cover story for a Canadian magazine called NUVO. Since the book chronicles his family life — his daughter, Ariane; and his wife at the time, Ottavia Bourdain — naturally our conversation turned toward kids. This was before we started the Fatherly podcast, before I really talked to anyone who was famous and successful about the tactical, challenging, joyous, strange, and fulfilling work of being a dad.
Here he was, this bad-ass motherfucker, tattooed up the wazoo, lean and muscular, tall and handsome, who had — true story — partied with Iggy Pop the night before, being just a great dad.
But Tony went there, in inimitable Tony talk. He spoke about meal planning for his kid, of mapping out his meals in what’s called a “cycle menu” of interrelated breakfast and lunches to merchandize leftovers. “I’m the insane yenta Jewish mother in a sense that it’s how I try to show love,” he said, “My poor kid, maybe she doesn’t feel like cheeseburgers today. I cooked her a cheeseburger. If it’s steamer clams day, it’s like, ‘Goddammit, we’re having steamer clams and corn is in season!’ We’re basically recreating my childhood and I’m forcing her to enjoy all the greatest hits of my youth as I take this sentimental journey.”
He talked about the fact that his daughter thought Alton Brown was cooler and that, when he did “Mystery Parent” at her school, the kids only asked about Andrew Zimmern. “It’s all about fucking Andrew Zimmern,” he complained, good-naturedly. “He’s a god to those kids eating bugs, and snakes, and God knows what else. He’s a legend.”
Tony talked about how cooking pancakes for his daughter after sleepovers changed his mind about his old bugaboo, brunch. He spoke of the radical paradigm shift his daughter’s birth occasioned. “When you have a kid, you’re no longer the star of the movie. I may be busy. My work may be all about me. But, right away the whole universe shifts to the right or the left. That’s a huge relief frankly, and a joy.” So here he was, this bad-ass motherfucker, tattooed up the wazoo, lean and muscular, tall and handsome, who had — true story — partied with Iggy Pop the night before, being just a great dad.
It was a real relatable moment — not that I merchandise anything…or cook breakfast or even really know what a steamer clam is — in the sense that here was a guy who had a very well-defined public persona, one synonymous with a range of bad decisions, who treated being a dad with the same bear-hug enthusiasm he brought to doing blow and hating brunch as a younger dude. You could be you and also a dad, which is like, a better you.
I never told Tony this and it wouldn’t really have been appropriate to do so, but that hour, hour and a half we spoke had a profound effect on me as a father. I am — let’s face it — a Bourdain epigone, less successful, less handsome, but outspoken and outraged nonetheless. To see that you could be soft too and that it didn’t take anything away, not one little fucking bit of your badassery was perhaps a remedial lesson but one I very much needed from a man I will very much miss.