By Robert Velazquez
The death of Anthony Bourdain was a sharp knife into the tender belly of an industry he inspired. For many cooks like myself, aimless teenagers with nothing better to do than drop acid, smoke pot and glue themselves to a television in a desperate attempt to ignore the mundane and often painful reality they were surrounded by; Bourdain was a call to arms. Though he would often describe himself as a cautionary tale and not an idol, it was hard not to look at him as such. A man seemingly incapable of judgment or criticism to a new experience; he never asked you to share his point of view and instead just led by example.
He was never the greatest chef but his words from the trenches were enough to inspire a generation like myself to work hard through the meritocracy that is the restaurant world. Work yourself to the bone in the best restaurant in your hometown with hopes of moving to the big leagues one day. Far and away from the narrow scope of one town, one kitchen, one reality. My personal case took me from small town Gainesville, Florida into the Michelin starred kitchens of Momofuku and WD-50 in New York City. A period in my life I can only describe as transcendental. To be raised from the mediocrity of suburban life to the likes of global heavy weights through exposure and inspiration from a book and television series is something I will be eternally grateful for.
This period of my life fed me, it paid my bills, and it helped me see the United States and a little bit of the world. In 2014, I started a pop-up restaurant from Atlanta, GA. The ill-fated Booze Pig concept was a project that gave me the ability to travel and cook for the country, with dates in Nashville, Austin, New Orleans to name a few. I was given the opportunity to tell my personal story through 5 course meals in unorthodox locations. I built a kitchen in a boxing ring in New Orleans and cooked to a soundtrack of the Notorious B.I.G and the Wu-tang Clan. It was an experience so strangely beautiful and exciting my dreams couldn’t possibly write.
I was able to travel to Paris. I ate street food, drank wine in cafes, stood in confusion at the Pompidou, learned the language enough to ask the local butcher if the chicken in the case was better for roasting or for braising and I cooked a meal in an apartment overlooking the Eiffel tower, proposing to my fiance there. I traveled to Amsterdam to sit through politically charged opera, to eat bitterballen along the canals. These were experiences that, in retrospect, would have not been a possible thought without the work of Anthony Bourdain.
Speak to anyone worth their salt in the restaurant industry and you will see frustration, depression and anxiety hidden under a heavy layer of confidence, alcohol or substance abuse. Worse more, most are living underpaid and overworked with no health care benefits and rarely a chance for a vacation away from the bustling job. Bourdain represented the ultimate success; if years of toiling in almost war zone conditions of a professional kitchen paid off you might land a book deal or T.V. show and everything would be okay.
The ultimate loss of Anthony Bourdain to suicide is a devastation unlike anything I have personally experienced. The particularly crushing blow for me was that I suffered with suicidal ideation for many years, from time to time I came painfully close. I was able to step away from the darkness and get desperately needed help from friends and family. With all of his resources and platform, a lot of cooks like myself are left asking “Why?”.
Anyone asking why the suicide of a celebrity can have such a tremendously personal effect on people needs to understand the effect that inspiration can have. For a generation lost and without a clear view or expectation of the world to find a way in the words of one man is truly something special. Even if you never set foot in a professional kitchen; he urged the world to suspend judgement and just give it a try. Live, if even for a moment without fear. Bourdain never asked you to see things his way, he was fearless enough to tell it to you how it is. The man always approached a conversation or situation with humility and a desire to learn. A genuine curiosity and goodwill that the entire world can benefit from.
I urge you to move, travel and change but never hesitate to get help when things start to hurt. There’s always more beautiful beyond the darkness.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline – 1-800-273-8255