In the wake of last week I’ve found myself reading everything I can find about Anthony Bourdain. His death hit me hard, and I’m still trying to figure out why… I wasn’t a regular viewer and I hadn’t read his book. I figured I’d always have time to get to him in a more major way. “I must have thought you’d always be around,” as Jackson Browne put it in “For a Dancer,” his classic song of coming to terms with grief and loss.
And I suppose that sense of him as reliable is a big part of the shock and disappointment. You knew he was out there, exploring new by-ways and finding new people to meet, new cultures to shine a light on. He seemed like an adventurer and an old-school hero, masculine, stoic, impatient with bullshit and foulmouthed and funny about it. But also new school: open, non-judgmental, unafraid to admit vulnerability and failure. A guy who, if he ever happened to have a suicidal impulse, would just tell you about it, make a wry face, and toss back some more oysters and beer with a shrug.
You try to make sense of a suicide, and of course you can’t know why for sure even if you’re close to the person, but there was a clue in the long New Yorker piece about him that ran a couple of years ago. The interviewer asked how he felt about being called “Chef,” and he said somewhat testily that he had earned that title, but then he went on to say that it did bother him to be called “Chef” by somebody whose culinary skills were way beyond his. It seems he was a decent, hardworking cook but nothing out of the ordinary. So maybe he suffered from a form of imposter syndrome.
We want a hero, no more than that we need a hero, that’s a deep yearning of humanity from our earliest days up to the present. But if you’ve ever been called one, or treated like one, you know how ridiculous it sounds. “No man is a hero to his valet” the old saying goes, meaning you can’t regard someone as heroic when you’ve gotten to know them well, seen them in the fumbling, gross, clueless, haggard, indolent ways most of spend the majority of our time. And if you can’t be a hero to your valet, you certainly can’t be one to yourself, knowing how often you feel and act like a crushed, sad, helpless victim.
But if you can’t really “be” a hero, you can act heroically from time to time. Try something new, go outside your comfort zone, face your fears. Reach a hand out to somebody who needs it, treat a “lowly” person with respect, give somebody some appreciation for what they’re trying to do even if they’re not quite making it. A simple act of kindness or consideration can make a life-changing difference to somebody, and in that moment you are a hero to that person. And in that context, “Chef” or any other nickname isn’t a title as much as a thank-you, a pat on the back, a salute. People were grateful to Anthony Bourdain, because in a world of posers and users, he talked and reacted and laughed like a person. We need more of those.