Anthony Bourdain was a great writer. All you need to do is hit up his 1999 piece “Don’t Eat Before Reading This” in the New Yorker. A lot of people quoted the first paragraph today, but the second paragraph is equally great. Bourdain writes:
Gastronomy is the science of pain. Professional cooks belong to a secret society whose ancient rituals derive from the principles of stoicism in the face of humiliation, injury, fatigue, and the threat of illness. The members of a tight, well-greased kitchen staff are a lot like a submarine crew. Confined for most of their waking hours in hot, airless spaces, and ruled by despotic leaders, they often acquire the characteristics of the poor saps who were press-ganged into the royal navies of Napoleonic times—superstition, a contempt for outsiders, and a loyalty to no flag but their own.
As Bourdain notes he spent the first twenty years of his adult life in professional kitchens. However his skill was (broadly) in communicating with others using food as a tool. Before Bourdain wrote his breakout book Kitchen Confidential he had already published two well-received mystery novels. As his editor, Daniel Halpern said today in Vulture in the wake of the news:
You couldn’t read a sentence out of context that Tony wrote where you wouldn’t recognize his stamp, and it was in his voice whether he was in front of a large group or talking to you over a table. His sentences were always unpredictable. His descriptions were just things you would never think of, but once he said them, they seemed inevitable.
This ability to “tell the truth” as Helen Rosner s was Bourdain’s superpower. It took some time, but Bourdain was able to turn that skill into a notable career outside the kitchen. The various incarnations of his travel/food shows were great television. Andy Greenwald writing at Grantland compared Bourdain’s television work to the great prestige dramas of the day. Greenwald writes:
More than firewater and street meat, Parts Unknown is about one man’s ongoing attempt to find his internal self in the midst of a vibrant, external world. Does this sound like the logline for every celebrated drama of the last 15 years? Kind of, yes…Thus, the most fascinating thing to track on his show isn’t the restaurants he chooses — although, yeah, I’m happy to notice those too — it’s the deepening of Bourdain’s curiosity and humility.
Curiosity is something Justin Charity writing at The Ringer also noted about Bourdain. Any great writer or host has to be genuinely curious, not question-filled note card curious. Charity writes:
His [Bourdain’s] great skill — the evidence of his empathy and curiosity — was just letting people talk. Indeed, Bourdain’s books and his travel shows weren’t tasting menus — they were journalism, compassionately crafted and genuinely revealing. A wisecracking bad boy otherwise, Bourdain traveled the world, exploring cuisines and regional histories, interrogating not just the quality of food, but the quality of life.
Humility, empathy and curiosity: these constitute a unique set of skills. We often dismiss our own skills because they may have come to us easily and don’t in certain sense feel ‘earned.’ Whitney Johnson at Heleo states:
What happens is that every single person has genius, every person has a superpower. Because it’s your superpower, it’s this thing that you do reflexively well, so you don’t notice it or value it at all…So part of the job of a great boss, of a great leader, is to identify the superpowers of the people who work for them and then persuade them that those superpowers are actually valuable and then get them to use those superpowers.
We were lucky to see Bourdain embrace his ‘superpowers’ for as long as he did. You could argue that the various incarnations of Bourdain’s shows worked so well, for so long, because you knew you were watching a unique, idiosyncratic human at play in the world. John P. Weiss at Medium writes:
You may not believe it, but the key to your success lies in rediscovering your innocence. Embracing your authenticity. It also requires that you develop your skills and attributes around your uniqueness…Embrace who you are and craft a winning combination around your quirks, idiosyncrasies and true self. Show the world the real you. Hone your talents.
It’s crazy to me that you can witness someone literally living their dream and giving so much happiness to others, yet still struggling personally with depression and other mental issues.
As much as ‘finding your superpower’ or ‘showing the world the real you’ may ring true, they are not sufficient in finding peace in the world. For that, there are no easy solutions or pithy anecdotes. I’ll leave you with a couple of lines I wrote not all that long ago:
We can’t see, or often understand, why other people make the decisions they do. Frankly it’s difficult to even figure out why we do what we do. The best we can do is try to treat ourselves with some compassion and help those around us along the way.