I have a confession to make.
For some years I have harbored a far-fetched yet beautiful fantasy about the celebrity chef and writer, Anthony Bourdain.
It was a simple, innocent fantasy: that he would somehow become the US Secretary of State, and set the the table for all of us global citizens to feast on a buffet of global peace, love, understanding, and unrestrained bacchanalia for the next 1,000 years. Who better to lead our nation’s diplomacy, at a time when United States foreign policy is utterly crumbling around us and the world order staggers on, rudderless and broken?
Indeed, who better? Bourdain is thoroughly and uniquely qualified for the job. He doesn’t simply write essays about geopolitical theory in scholarly journals that only 120 nerds read, like many in the halls of power. He was born to be the man in the arena- whether a hot and stuffy kitchen, or deep in the Amazonian rainforest. His work was simple and accessible and could be understood by the common person in any country. Tony has done far more for the American people through his forays into other countries, through teaching and bridge-building, through charity causes and exploration and adventure, than the corrupt two-bit thugs in our government charged with our diplomacy right now. Tony was a better human being and a better diplomat than these douche bags will ever be.
And what an interesting guy. Anthony Bourdain would go anywhere, eat and drink anything, meet anyone, and “risk everything” in his own words to satiate his hunger and thirst for MORE knowledge and human connection through food, history and culture, no matter how unfamiliar, hard, gelatinous, raw, strong, smelly, dangerous, or difficult. He strove to challenge his beliefs about the world, and ours. He encouraged us to eat offal. On the flip side, in Kerala he marveled at how good vegetarian food could be- and that if he lived in India, he could even BE vegetarian, that eater of intestines, tripes, and sweetbreads. Tony destroyed accepted narratives about nations and people, and eviscerated those celebrity chefs and politicians who promoted vanilla and small-minded fear of the other. He floated in and out of friendly and hostile countries alike, the common thread being that he ALWAYS made new friends along the way, eating their food or graciously making them his own.
At achieving the goals of unity and love, Tony was the best among all of us. He bucked the stereotypes. He was the opposite of the “Ugly American” most of us who have been fortunate to travel the world often encounter, eating at a T.G.I. Friday’s and drinking a Budweiser during a trip to India of all places (or a F***ING T.G.I. F***ING F***DAY’S as Tony would have said, with extreme prejudice).
Tony’s work was also personal for me. In 2001, I read his first book Kitchen Confidential, a wonderful spinoff of his seminal 1999 essay about NYC resto secrets in the New Yorker magazine. During this time, much was going on in my life. I had just moved to New York City to begin my full-time local government career, and also worked in a West Village restaurant at night, harboring earnest dreams of running my own restaurant one day soon. I was fresh-faced out of college. 9/11 went down and shook the ground all around me- and became the main topic of conversation at the restaurant bar I tended for the next few months, walking distance from Ground Zero. I served people who lost their best friends and family members, or cops who were finding flattened and bloody dead bodies in the rubble. I poured them badly needed drinks. It was here that I learned what New York was made of and why it would forever endear itself to me. Tony was the quintessential New Yorker and restauranteur. And from Tony’s eloquent words I learned everything I would ever need or want to know about the restaurant business, the most important lesson being that I would never own one after all, a decision reinforced through my real-life view of restaurant hardships and challenges.
On the other hand, it wasn’t just back-breaking work and sweat. I experienced so much of what was positive about restaurants too: busy shifts flying by with a room full of dinner guests enjoying the food, wine, and music. Wild birthday parties late at night with the rest of the staff after closing down a long and hard shift, new friendships with people from around the world, overhearing weird and inappropriate dinnertime conversations (“the best way to stop the terrorists is to bomb the shit out of Mecca in retaliation for the Twin Towers…”), big tips from flirty gay men, gorgeous girls writing down their phone numbers for me on napkins, taking orders from a number of celebrities, and the team’s constant experimentation with new food and drink recipes. The chefs constantly attempted to bribe me with my favorite food in exchange for more whiskey than they were supposed to get for their shift drink. All of the good, the bad, and the ugly about restaurant life was happening right in front of me, and Tony reinforced it all by writing every single thing I experienced, such as the universal “barter system” between chefs and bartenders, better than I ever could. He nailed the life for millions of us who were in and out of it.
Around that time Tony hung up his chef’s hat, renewed his passport, and became America’s premier jet-setting ambassador for the last 17 years of his life. Even casual fans knew there was something dark and painful inside Tony. He went through crippling addictions and bouts of depressions and terror. Despite the laughs and the joys, the darkness was always there just below the surface if you peered closely at the man’s facial expressions, his weather-beaten features, his self-deprecating jokes about death, his near perpetual state of mental and physical hangover, and even his ambling gait. Tony had quite obviously been through the wringer and back a few times. Just like so many other rock stars who shone brightly and flamed out too soon, Tony’s pain and battles with his inner demons, which he openly spoke about to the public, made him the talented firebrand that he was, larger than life but still relatable to anyone from President Obama to a tribal warrior living a lifestyle unchanged since the 17th century.
The best lesson he gave must also go down in history as a foreign policy North Star, if those of us who live on care to listen. Imagine a world where critical political negotiations only started after a few hours of delicious food and drink, accompanied by talk of more food, friends, families, pets, songs, jokes, and holidays. Treaties and peace and love would flow down like a waterfall. The best way to warm up to a people, a tribe, a country, and a culture is through putting stuff, no matter how strange, into our mouths together. Tony was the perfect vessel for this message, completely giving up his ego and his personal safety to deliver it. Tony’s gift to us lives on, because he has painstakingly climbed that mountain in the darkest night and pointed out the North Star for all of us to follow. He is still enough here to be made our Secretary of State after all.
Mahanth S. Joishy is Editor of usindiamonitor