The outpouring of grief and sadness over the death of Anthony Bourdain has reverberated as far around the world as the peripatetic chef, author and television star traveled, but his apparent suicide at the age of 61 has struck the food industry particularly hard.
“Anthony was a dear friend,” chef and restaurateur Eric Ripert told the New York Times. Ripert, who appeared on several of Bourdain’s shows, was the one who found his friend unresponsive in a hotel room in France. “He was an exceptional human being, so inspiring and generous. One of the great storytellers of our time who connected with so many. I wish him peace. My love and prayers are with his family, friends and loved ones.”
Chef, restaurateur and cookbook author Edward Lee counts himself among the many people touched by Bourdain’s generosity. “I owe him a lot,” said Lee, who was featured in “The Mind of a Chef,” the Emmy-winning PBS series that Bourdain narrated and executive produced. “Everyone in the food business in this generation owes him a lot.”
Lee, a Korean American whose restaurants, including Succotash in Washington, often combine Asian and Southern fare, said Bourdain “fought for the diversity of cuisine.” He credits Bourdain with helping shine a light on Korean, Japanese and Vietnamese food, among others, when they were still unfamiliar to most Americans. Especially through his three globe-trotting television series, “A Cook’s Tour,” “Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations” and “Parts Unknown,” the CNN series he had been filming at the time of his death, Bourdain exposed viewers to food cultures and dishes they may never have encountered before.
Lee said he’s just one example of the impact Bourdain could have on a smaller scale. Being featured on 2014’s Season 3 of “The Mind of a Chef,” for which Bourdain picked the featured chefs, “changed my whole career,” Lee said. “That changed my life.” But Lee said, Bourdain had given him a boost even before that. Lee’s agent was soliciting blurbs for Lee’s first cookbook, “Smoke and Pickles: Recipes and Stories from a New Southern Kitchen,” and knew Bourdain, so the agent sent a request to the chef. Within a week, Lee recalled, Bourdain had not only sent back a blurb but also a personal note to Lee.
“When someone like that gives you that affirmation, you start to change the way you think about yourself,” Lee said. He’s not even sure Bourdain fully grasped the impact he could have.
Chef, restaurateur and former “Top Chef” contestant Spike Mendelsohn said he doesn’t think Bourdain “ever really knew how much he impacted my career before meeting him.” Mendelsohn says he was a “lost soul” when he started culinary school and that reading Bourdain’s seminal, best-selling book “Kitchen Confidential” inspired his career and his love of travel and Vietnamese cuisine. Bourdain was a judge on “Top Chef: All-Stars,” when Mendelsohn got a shot at redemption on the competition series. He had to cook with scallops, the ingredient that got him kicked off originally, and Bourdain responded to the new dish with a characteristically profane compliment that we can’t publish here. “That was the one validation that I had been looking for” from Bourdain, Mendelsohn said.
The two became friends. Mendelsohn said Bourdain “had that voice kind of for everyone.”
“I think he was able to be relevant to many different people across the gamut, whether you were a high-end, super-obnoxious foodie or a guy throwing a burger on the griddle,” Mendelsohn said.
“I really feel in an age of celebrities, he really fought for the underdog,” Lee said. “It makes people believe that there is hope and there are people fighting for the good cause . . . . He helped chefs. He helped people.”
Mike Curtin, chief executive of D.C. Central Kitchen, agreed. Recruited by good friend José Andrés, Bourdain was a longtime host of Capital Food Fight, the nonprofit group’s annual chef-competition fundraiser. Curtin credits the two big personalities with turning a sleepy evening into a powerhouse event.
“I don’t think Tony was comfortable with his fame entirely, but he knew he had it” and could use it to help people, Curtin said.
Curtin said he was also blown away when Bourdain chose to feature the organization on the Washington episode of “No Reservations” in 2009. D.C. Central Kitchen’s initiatives include a culinary training program that helps people who have been formerly incarcerated or homeless or, like Bourdain, battled addiction.
“He was much more comfortable talking to us in the kitchen” than a crowd of thousands, Curtin said.
Bourdain could be boisterous when needed, said Washington chef Marjorie Meek-Bradley, who won the Capital Food Fight one year that Bourdain judged. “He had this charisma about him that I think people were always very, very drawn to,” said Meek-Bradley, who had just started working in kitchens when Bourdain’s seminal, best-selling book “Kitchen Confidential” came out in 2000. But he could be “chill” when not on stage, she said.
Lee described Bourdain similarly. “He’s a very complex person . . . . He’s gregarious and quiet at the same time. His wit is so sharp, and his mind is so quick. He’s a very funny man but not in a comedian way.”
Lee said Bourdain will be remembered differently by many people — as a chef, a writer, a producer, a TV personality and more.
“It’s crazy,” Lee said about Bourdain’s death. “The world needs more people like him, not less.”