Anthony Bourdain died today. He hung himself.
Just like any time a famous person dies, it was all over social media. People expressed remorse and condolences. But unlike every other time a famous person died, Anthony’s suicide felt different. It felt like I lost someone close to me.
I’m not a chef, but I’ve worked in restaurants and bars since I was 16. Due to the nature of my work, and the hours that accompany it, most of my friends are tenured to the industry for as long as, if not longer than me. We are the chefs, the line cooks, the hosts, the barbacks, the servers and managers and bartenders and dishwashers who prep and rinse and prepare and deliver and sweep stray grains of rice off the floor so that the establishment is worthy of a tip and a five-star Yelp review. We are the ones waiting for recognition as we steal smoke breaks by the dumpster.
I can’t speak for everyone in my industry, but I think a lot of my friends felt Anthony’s death in a way that hurt— not just because we are fans. We feel the hollow in our hearts because, unlike with an actor or celebrity removed to a certain degree, we saw ourselves in him. He was one of us. More than that, he’d made it— out of the hot kitchens, drinking Coke out of plastic deli containers— into the “after.”
Regardless of who you are in the restaurant, whether you’re greeting guests or plating the food that they eat, there’s an unspoken camaraderie among us. It exists in the space before the doors open and after they close, and echoes beyond yelling “corner” as we carry trays or “behind you” when coming up on a coworker. We eat family meals together. We bring each other coffees. We talk each other down after a bad shift— “tomorrow will be better.” We celebrate the good nights. We lend an ear when someone goes through a breakup. We cry when someone loses a loved one. We hug when someone finds out they’re about to be a parent.
Despite the arguments, we have with the line when the wrong cheese tops a burger, or a plate is delivered to the wrong table, we know that everyone hopes for more.
We’re all hoping for the “after.”
For what comes next.
Whether it’s a creative pursuit or moving to a nicer upscale restaurant, there’s always something after, even if we don’t know what. For a lot of us, the ultimate dream is to create that “what” for ourselves. Anthony Bourdain proved it could be done. He was living proof of the “after,” and taught us that the only end of the line is the one in the kitchen.
We related to him and we read his books and watched his shows because he was, first and foremost, a failure. He stood where we stand, tired and sore and having to pee. As recent as 1998, he was preparing meals in a New York restaurant that closed its doors. But when the floor sunk beneath him, he used the failure as a springboard to catapult himself into “what comes next.”
He built a brand around his image. He traveled. He wrote books about what he saw and ate and experienced. He gave meaning to what often feels meaningless.
And it sold, but I don’t believe for a second it was bullshit. Wild and unapologetic, he was a living embodiment of his dreams. And he made us believe we could be, too.
I don’t believe that suicide is something to be celebrated, and I don’t think there was anything heroic about how Anthony died. But I don’t believe he should be condemned or called a coward, either, because I think we can still learn from him, even after his death.
In walk-in coolers and beneath booths at even the nicest restaurants exist demons. It doesn’t matter how much money we make or how well-known we are within our fields. Behind smiles and perfect garnishes exist depression and addiction and alcoholism. It’s rampant in this industry as we exist here— before what’s next. A lot of us don’t know what the fuck we’re doing and we lean on substances and escapism to remedy our confusion.
I’ve watched my coworkers, my friends, my family— people I love— ladder down the barrel of rifles, too sad and wet to realize they’re drowning. I’ve experienced the unthinkable weight of what one night out and one drink too many can be.
But we’re still here, still waiting for the after.
And let us remember, thanks to our friend— we still have time to find it.
Rest easy, Chef. You won’t be forgotten.