Anthony Bourdain needed to leave Charlotte and catch a plane to his next stop – but the phone wouldn’t stop ringing at Park Road Books. Restaurant dishwashers were calling to say, “I’m almost off shift. As soon as I finish I’m on my way. I want a book.”
But Bourdain had to leave before all of his fans could get there. So the chef-turned-author signed a special stack of books for them.
“He made me promise I’d sell them only to kitchen workers,” remembers bookstore owner Sally Brewster.
He inscribed each copy with drawings of knives and cleavers and added phrases such as, “From one bad boy to another.”
Like lots of his fans, when I heard the news of Bourdain’s death by what is reportedly a suicide, I went to my bookshelf. I thought back to that night at the bookstore, and how I told Bourdain I’d cooked for a crew on a sailboat. I found his book, with the defiant inscription that in retrospect now takes on a darker and distressing tone: “COOK FREE OR DIE.”
Bourdain had visited Charlotte to promote “A Cook’s Tour: In Search of the Perfect Meal,” back in 2001. He’d already exposed the inner workings of restaurants in his bestseller “Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly,” but hadn’t yet become the TV star millions of viewers would follow for his irreverent yet heartfelt curiosity about food. He came back to Charlotte in 2011 with French chef Eric Ripert in what the pair called their “Good vs. Evil” stage tour.
In the 10 years between those visits, Brewster says: “He went from skinny and intense to a little bit chubby and super-intense.”
That intensity was Bourdain’s trademark, along with his bad-boy image of heavy drinking, smoking, and drug use. He criticized celebrity chefs, even as he morphed into one himself. He hung out with rock stars. He became a rock star: someone to envy and emulate. As a TV host of multiple programs, he introduced armchair travelers to the food – and more importantly, the people – around the world whose stories surprised us while revealing our elemental connections as part of a deeply hungry and all-too-human family.
Charlotte Observer Food Editor Kathleen Purvis wrote a remembrance today that gave us more glimpses into Bourdain’s outsized personality, and noted that it’s harder to accept his death because it seems not to be the result of past excesses and bad habits he’d written about so colorfully.
Eventually, we’ll learn more about Bourdain’s passing, and we’ll try hard to make sense of the loss. This is especially grim work when a celebrity has acquired all those things regular people could possibly desire: success, fame, family, respect, love, and meaningful work.
We’ll have discussions about suicide and depression. Well-intentioned people will ask, “What did he have to be depressed about?”
That’s the wrong question. It implies that depression is focused externally. It simplistically supposes that depression is just a feeling of sadness when that’s only one facet of a disease that can be as virulent, debilitating, and damaging as anything science can see under a microscope. And it can take the loss of people we admire to make us understand.
We’ll miss you, chef. And we’ll do our best to “cook free” while staving off death as long as we can.
If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, help is available by phone, text, or chat 24 hours a day at the National Suicide Prevention Hotline, 800- 273-TALK (8255).