YouTube is wearing me out. My daily wading into the waist-deep morass of videos ranging in topics from shmups to anti-racism has gone from exciting to droll. It’s more like Netflix these days, wherein I end up with a rewatch or a sore mouse hand from endless scrolling.
But YouTube did me a solid just recently, because popping up like a shrew came the full spread of episodes from Cook’s Tour, Anthony Bourdain’s first show on Food Network.
I paid little heed to Bourdain after his passing. It was a sad thing, naturally, but I did not do the usual song and dance those three years ago. I did not watch the news stories or pour over the thoughts of others regarding the suicide of a celebrity personality. I felt sad and I moved along.
But the appearance of Tony put forth by the algorithm (all hail) became a stern reminder of why I so enjoyed the man’s creative output for so long. Even the early, admittedly rough, presentation of Cook’s Tour and the first season of No Reservations are besotted by Bourdain’s style and that of his gifted production crew. The real bump came upon my discovery of a CBS Sunday Morning story from this summer which highlighted the film Roadrunner, a documentary about Anthony Bourdain. Therein were five minutes of people remembering and sharing things about him, the highlight being the phrase, “the nicest asshole you’ll ever meet.”
I’ve no desire to watch Roadrunner, for the same reason I did not finish Bo Burnham’s Inside: I know the story. Uproar around some AI-generated monologues did not move the needle either.
So to my own nostalgia I must go, and offer the following thoughts here three years after the death of Mr. Bourdain.
There aren’t many…perhaps any television programs for which I recall my initial exposure. Lost and Deep Space 9 may be exceptions. But I most certainly remember exactly where I was when No Reservations caught my attention: the Goodyear on Whitlock Avenue during a routine oil change. It was the episode where he goes to Malaysia, fending off both flora and fauna in pursuit of booze, authentic morsels, and understanding.
I was immediately impressed by his voice. Not only his distinctive physical voice, but his voice as a writer. From the jump it rang true as someone who was practiced with the keyboard, who had paid his dues by digging into the rock and striking water, profanity and all. To those with ears to hear Bourdain was the realest of the real, and his voice showcased this authenticity sight unseen.
Upon inspection that intuition proved true. In a television cosmos full of those in search of a formula by which to adhere, the equation whose result meant fame and fortune, Bourdain was in search of the truth. Food and booze were the beautiful flowers of the pitcher plant; travel the nectar; self discovery the digestive fluid inside. While he was teaching us about Israeli cuisine, he was really teaching us about himself and, thusly, our own selves.
Coming into his own in his forties meant he arrived on the scene with decades with some mileage, some years of addiction, sorrow, hard work, and sleeper novels on his back. He was not a communication student with aspirations of daytime tv; he was a writer and a cook and a punk who had seen some shit.
Had he begun his television career in his twenties, either his impact would have been that of a cotton ball or he would have been dead sooner. As such he stood out from the crop, a tanned and gnarled acacia among the rigid pines. Here was someone in the mainstream we could care about. One of us: the fuckups, the embittered critics, the losers, the searchers.
Bourdain showed that you can be yourself, even unto death, and still be successful. He didn’t flop television networks three times for no reason. If you’ve got something to say, people will pay to hear it and the masters will pay you to say it. And you knew that should corporate fuckery appear then Bourdain would let you know about it, some way and some how, because he was accountable to us as readers, viewers, and fans. Ultimately he was most accountable to himself, that most harsh and unflinching of judges, in an odd concoction of Boomer self-reliance (he was my dad’s age), DIY punk integrity, and mental illness.
The Roadrunner documentary, which again I will not watch, alludes to this: Bourdain was his own worst critic, his own white whale, and ultimately his own demise. But he remains, indelibly, a martyr for modern seekers (and, I daresay, mental health advocates) and a disturbed saint to many.