The chef's lesson: Honesty is most important, in food and in life
By: Scott Woods
5 months ago
I am writing about Anthony Bourdain while on the road in Maine, nestled near an oceanside cove of beach, plucking words out of a vineyard of sorrow while staving off the shakes from a lack of television. This is one of two acceptable conditions under which one may write about Anthony Bourdain, the other being next to a plate of food; nothing pretentious, something comfortable and with a bit of the finger lick, a salty thing if it can be managed.
Anthony Bourdain is half the reason why I feel comfortable writing about food the way I do. I don’t do traditional reviews — “this joint’s beef noodle soup is needlessly salty,” “don’t ever eat here,” “4 out of 5 stars,” and so on. Food is cultural (and in my case, a religion) so when I have an opportunity to delve into the subject of sustenance, things tend to get broad real quick. My blog, “Real Black Talk on Real White Food”, practically owes its existence to Bourdain’s example as a writer and a foodie, not in tone or mission, but in allowance. Bourdain showed me that my takeaways about food were as valid as anyone else’s, and his headlong dives into cultures beyond a tourist guide level — into gentrification, political strife, and the oft-forgotten basic human happiness of realizing one is alive against all odds — inspired me to assert the authority of my gut, both instinctually and literally. Some of my best writing has come from the joy in unpacking what a good — or bad — meal can provide.
Writers should not just put their hands on a people’s culture and rend. You must come first with care until they show they cannot receive care, or do not want care, or care is not a word they wish to learn. Even if shade is your shtick, you must at least be open to the possibility that you can still be satisfied if you want people to take your opinions seriously. Bourdain once shoved an order of French fries away after tasting them, not in disgust, but because they were better than any fries he would ever make. In the dissonance of that act — to love and hate a beautiful thing at the same time – there was the critic fighting against the soul of a person (because critics are more tongues and ears and eyes than people), going to war in a brief moment with joy and ego.
I had read his work before that moment, enjoying and learning from it, but in that instance found a kindred soul, someone who grappled with himself and all the attendant trimmings of his humanity in some beautifully belligerent way. He was joyfully displeased with the satisfaction, as if a road he thought would run forever had turned a corner and abruptly come to an end. I had done similar things with food and books and the occasional person. I understood that struggle in my soul, and at that point Anthony Bourdain had become, as we say in the ‘hood, my man.
For years Bourdain was a fine chef, but transitioned out of the daily grind of being a cook and restaurant leader to writing, travelling, and celebrity. I thought about what it must be like to be able to do a thing masterfully and then deciding to stop doing that thing, but remaining adjacent in a way that forever kept putting the activity in front of you. I couldn’t imagine giving up writing and then spending the next twenty years reading people’s amazing books, even if I were paid to do so. But then nothing I have done as a writer, traveler or foodie are things Anthony Bourdain hasn’t done. I may have written a better poem than him, but only because he didn’t write any poems. Perhaps he knew his limits as a chef. Perhaps he detested the politics of the food industry. Perhaps he knew the process of creation is generally more satisfying than the end result, and conversely made a life of accumulating journeys.
I am writing this essay a hundred yards from the Atlantic Ocean, just off a beach in southern Maine. I am sure Anthony Bourdain has done even this better, in a place somehow more beautiful or tranquil or filled with the scent of cinnamon or well-shredded cigars. This doesn’t mean he was a better person than I am, or that my life is less exciting than his. All life has worth, each one is different, and joy is no one else’s job but your own. Anthony Bourdain was, like me, a consummate hedonist, a thirst-crazed hunter of sensations both physical and intellectual, a stalwart acolyte of hungers. Knowing how he died, I initially could not help but wonder if his probing questions to people about things that brought them joy or what a perfect day was comprised of were less an investigation of their lives and served instead as introspection. Was he looking for an answer he wanted or an answer he needed?
In the end, all that matters is the space such a presence leaves behind, and how the world decides to fill it. I do not know if Anthony Bourdain was a good man; I only know that he was my man. And in my man’s honor I will turn off this laptop humming somewhere in the woods of Maine, perched on a suitcase because my room has no desk, and go in search of something to eat that is filling, something also salty for a salty man. It will be a dish that has questions in it, and journeys, and hopefully, a joy.
Scott Woods is a librarian, writer, poet, and critic who runs one of the most successful poetry open mics in the Midwest. You can buy his books, Urban Contemporary History Month (2016) and Prince and Little Weird Black Boy Gods (2017), in all major online retail outlets.