My first day of culinary school, the chef was late. Twenty-five of us sat quietly in our starchy chef whites and checkered pants, and wondered if we were in the right classroom on the right day or if we had understood everything terribly wrong.
A few minutes later we heard an ambulance siren travel outside the school, and the head chef of the school walked in. His name was Chef DJ, which unlike my starchy white apron, wasn’t reversible for extended play. (Chef DJ for the cool mornings, DJ CHEF for the HOT NIGHTS.)
Chef DJ explained to us that our Chef had fallen and couldn’t get up. Our chef had a bum hip, he’d fricked it up again, and yes, that was him being taken away in the ambulance. If all went well, he’d probably be back in a few weeks, but for now, Chef DJ would be taking over our morning class, (and DJ Chef would take over the night class.)
In a few weeks, our original chef returned to teach the class, on crutches. DJ Chef actually had a bum hip of his own, and would often walk around with a cane to help himself out. I remember the beginning of one class, looking to the front and seeing two men in their late 40s, one with a cane, one on crutches, and asking myself “what the fuck am I doing?”
Everyone starts cooking because they love food – but what do you do when you can’t do what restaurants ask of you? What do you when you can, but don’t want to any more? Would I have a future, or is the future only the next 10 years of my life?
Anthony Bourdain showed me how being IN a kitchen can make you valuable OUT of the kitchen. He showed that being curious, smart and communicative could make me important in my field. I thought that I could live my life like he did, and be the glowing, silvered member of the community that everyone respects.
Not only all that, but heck, travel the world, eat food and make friends.
Like nearly any of the chefs & cooks you’ll stumble into tonight, crying into their beer & a shot at the late night happy hour, Kitchen Confidential was one of the most influential books I ever read, and was what informed many of my culinary choices. The series of events that make up Bourdain’s life is the most well-read series of events in my profession. We fucking love this guy.
Many years ago, I remember an ex-boyfriend of mine telling me that he’d been giving it some very serious thought, and realized that maybe his dream career was something like, “y’know, I dunno, maybe Anthony Bourdain’s. I think I could really like making shows where I eat interesting food and travel the world.”
I responded by just laughing at him, because I was a real B minus girlfriend. “Yeah, of course. That’s the dream, isn’t it? That guy MADE it.”
A year or two before I went to culinary school, I picked up my first copy of Lucky Peach. I was starting to educate myself with the buzzy & ever growing and glowing “Food World” happening around me and wanted to learn who was cooking what and who was writing and who mattered, and THERE HE WAS, Tony Bourdain, writing an article about food in films. It was the coolest article I ever read. He was curious, and drawing connections. He wanted to share and talk about food beyond the capacity of just being a mechanical line-cook. He knew that food really MEANT something. And he was being really crass about it.
Bourdain still sounded like he belonged in a kitchen. He still sounded like he was caught in the Ageless Zone that Kitchen People are caught in. Kitchen life is sort of a Never Never Land where you don’t quite have to be a grown-up, but you’re definitely not a kid. You’re (usually) allowed to swear! You’re wearing pajamas, barely showering, eating cake at weird times of the day, but you also have to pay taxes and clean up after yourself (can’t have it all, y’all).
In a kitchen, you want to be super flashy with your knives, knowledgeable with your products, and lightning fast at it all – but there’s a lot more going on than just that. You’re spending a lot of time together, and finding out what is the gooey nougat-filled center of the cook next to you. What are they into? What did they eat last night? What are they in love with?
People who work in kitchens often have one or two other skills they’re hoping to use some day, or dreamily, to use in conjunction with their love for food. My pet skill is always “Wellllllll, I’ve always been a wriiiiiterrrr…” and my kitchen idols have always been the literary types (Gabrielle Hamilton! Michael Ruhlman! Peter Meehan!).
Even chefs who stay focused on the daily grind of kitchen labor know they’ll eventually have to find a path out of there. When the only thing you hear yourself saying at the bar after your shift is “I stood on my feet for 14 hours today in 110 degree heat, didn’t have a meal besides candied almonds and some grapes, had two hours of sleep, and I’m alive”–professional longevity ISN’T desirable.
Anthony Bourdain was the chef that MADE IT. He was honest, he lived the kitchen life, and people wanted to hear what he had to say about it. Rich people who watch CNN wanted to see him have authentic experiences with people from other countries to which they would never travel. He was living well in a shitty world, and the people still caught in the shit respected him.
He was caught in an extraordinary cultural intersection that is exclusive to this time and to our country’s understanding of kitchen culture. We’re caught in a place where the media’s fascination with kitchens & food is at an all-time high, but chef’s and cook’s quality of life is not at a corresponding all-time high. However, it IS getting better…sorta. And, quite relevantly, it’s better than how Bourdain lived and chronicled in Kitchen Confidential.
And don’t get me wrong – as the next generation of chefs, Anthony Bourdain’s problems aren’t going to be my problems BECAUSE of Anthony Bourdain. I believe that 100%. He forever altered the world for us.
It’s very, very sad to me that he took his own life. It’s also very troubling to me, as a chef, that the guy who I’ve always said has “made it” was so unhappy he chose to end it all. However, I would much rather emphasize here that I have zero idea what he struggled with, and can’t possibly say why he chose to end his life…nor do I want to. Not only can circulating pure speculation be hurtful to those who were close to him, it makes me spend more time dwelling in the dark than I would like. I don’t want to color his legacy with only a dark palette.
Bourdain is still a hero, and still one of mine. He’s still a hero because his death doesn’t change his life…but his death does change MY life.
My idea of what “making it” is now forever changed. It is still a foggy concept, and probable illusion as it was before, and the Silver Hero who exemplified its essence is now gone. I think I have less of an idea of what “making it” looks like now, and that’s what all of this is meant to say.
For all of us chefs, cooks, kitchen types…these are hard times, but take your blessings where you can, eat real food, sit down sometimes, and let yourself cry in the walk-in.