On two separate occasions, I was fortunate enough to been able to ask Anthony any question that I wanted to in person. The first time, I asked something along the lines of when he’d get around to filming an episode of No Reservations in Philadelphia and if his reluctance to do so was a reflection of his opinion on our city. He responded by clarifying that, although rumors throughout the Internet at the time suggested otherwise, he loved the city of brotherly love and promised that a Philly based episode was inevitable. At the time I was a recent college dropout in the early stages of what would be a years-long struggle with anxiety, depression, and finding out what life had in store for me (if it had anything for me in the first place). I drank too much, wrote too little, and had no real interest in pursuing anything that would otherwise give a hopeful sigh of relief to those who cared for me and saw my true potential. Call it depression, untreated ADHD, lack of ambition, or whatever term I used to justify my lack of character back then.
I was an idiot those days; more so than I am now if you can believe it. Like all chronic daydreamers with no direction, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do with myself or where I wanted to be in any sense of the term. All I knew was that I belonged somewhere that involved anything that distracted me from the daunting anxiety that plagued me after I left my dead-end job everyday. As you may have guessed, all of those things happened to be what Tony had exposed me to through his writing, his travels, his stomach, and his unwavering fascination with how people live their lives over the course of his remarkable career: enlightenment through world travel, unforgettable experiences with beautiful people, and a passion for life that grew with every bite of food. I had all the ambition to get those things; just not the balls or mental energy to get them.
Fast forward years later to when, fed up with myself, my stagnent surroundings, my shitty excuse for a career, and my inability to live life on my terms, I started to slowly but steadily put money away for what would later be a life changing solo trip to Spain, which was solely inspired by Anthony’s documentations of the country throughout the years on A Cook’s Tour, No Reservations, and Parts Unknown. That entire trip was not only inspired by those episodes, with their cinematically beautiful images of vibrant culture, rich food, colorful people, and the romantic culture of Spain, but acted as constant motivators to someone who, frankly, didn’t make anywhere near enough money to justify a two week trip to Europe for the first time by himself. My belt was already tight enough to choke the thinnest runway model and those who sent me bills every month certainly weren’t going to let me off the hook.
Still, I was at rock bottom in terms of self-esteem and had nothing to lose. I miraculously stayed the course and kept putting an unreasonable percentage of my already embarrassing income away every paycheck. Many nights that would’ve otherwise been spent at the bar or a new restaurant with friends were put on the back burner in exchange for quiet and often lonely evenings at home. When times were tough and life decided to throw a curveball my way (whether it be a personal or financial one), I was quick to emotionally shut down, lock myself in my room, roll one of several joints, and vicariously escape through Tony’s travels on TV, fantasizing of better days, warmer weather, and an excuse to forget about everything and everyone if only for fourteen days. “Just a couple more months,” I’d tell myself every time another installment went into my savings account, “and I’ll be able to escape from all of this.”
Needless to say, Tony’s stories of Spain were an invaluable source of strength and inspiration to me until I, after roughly nine months of financial suffering and second guessing myself, finally set foot inside La Sagrada Familia, the intoxicatingly intricate and emotionally overwhelming cathedral designed by Spanish architect, Antoni Gaudi. I’d be lying if I told you that sitting inside the pews of that infinitely tall and painfully beautiful basilica didn’t bring tears to my eyes, and I’m not even religious. Maybe it was the church’s large and refreshingly quiet setting that brought a profound sense of safety to me. Maybe it was because I had accomplished something that I genuinely thought was impossible and realized that nobody was with me to share the moment.
Much like Tony’s writing and documentation of the world at large, that trip had changed my worldview forever. Also much like his body of work, it taught me the beauty of the human condition and people’s capacity to love, help, and break bread with those that they just met, even if things weren’t going great for them (something that countless others have shown me throughout my travels that I try to implement in my life to this day). It taught me that the world is much more accessible to you than you realize and that seeing it in person is worth any cost. It taught me that if there’s anything worth struggling for, its to live a life filled with new experiences, new people, new food, new music, new art, new anything that stimulates your mind, and to share those things with anyone who could benefit.
Years later, I asked him a second question while he was on stage at his one-man-show at the Merriam Theater. At that point, I had a considerable amount of new life experiences, traveling, and overall growth under my belt and was enjoying the fruits of my labor as a now notable food blogger and “public figure” (I know, I cringe when I use that term too). Instead of asking the usual food and travel questions most would have for someone like him, like his favorite (or least favorite) foods, I asked him something that I now admit may have been unusual. I asked if, although he had earned himself a life that would be called enviable by any sane person, if there was anything that he struggled with at this point in his life. Before answering, he paused with an understandable amount of hesitation one would have when asked such a thing by a complete stranger.
“Look,” he finally said after cutting himself off once or twice, “I struggle with the same things anyone else does. I want to be a good dad; a good person. I try to make the right decisions and do right by those around me. And I’m away from my home and family two hundred and fifty days out of the year, which is hard.”
He went on to explain that regardless of what life threw at him, his gratitude for reaching such heights never waivered and that, although he has become somewhat jaded at times, he always acknowledged that his life was one to be appreciated and one worth keeping. I couldn’t agree with him any more; now more than ever.
This brings me to what I want to tell you or anyone else who will listen.
We’re all suffering for one reason or another. We all struggle with inner toxicity spawned from our past or deal with personal behaviors and inner thoughts that we, for one reason or another, can’t seem to stop no matter how hard we try. What someone may call an envious life packed with extravagant people, soul-enriching food, and mind-expanding experiences may seem sufficient to define a “perfect” life, but one’s pain can only be swept under the rug for so long before it gets unbearable, uncontrollable, and irreversible.
Talk to those in your life who you think may be suffering beyond their threshold. Acknowledge and even sympathize with their pain, tell them that there’s always hope for a path back to a fulfilling life, and always be on the lookout for their best interests. Tell them they are seen. Tell them that they are heard. Tell them that they are loved.
I owe so much to Anthony Bourdain that it’s impossible to articulate through words, as ironic or cliché as that sounds. It goes without saying that this man’s work alone has inspired me to do things that I truly never thought I’d be able to do, befriend people that I would’ve otherwise never met, eat food that I would otherwise never have tasted, and see parts of the world that I was convinced were just fictional images in books and TV. He’s given us an entire sub-culture of like-minded people who’s greatest joy is to share their passions and learn from each other. He’s opened the world’s door to countless losers like me and built a legacy based on complete strangers breaking bread together regardless of age, personal beliefs, or dispositions.
… And you can be damn sure that there wouldn’t be Philly Foodporn (or most of today’s food bloggers worth knowing at that matter) without him paving the way for us. For that alone I owe him an eternal debt of gratitude.
With that said, I’ll leave you with two things from Tony that have resonated with me the most. The first being an excerpt from his book, Kitchen Confidential, which perfectly exemplifies a much too large portion of what I, and countless others had struggled through in terms of keeping their lives together. It’s a perfect example of what many of those with crippling anxiety and insecurity encounter much too often in everyday life and is something I always reminisce over when I think of how different of a person I’ve become. It reminds me that times of self-doubt are, at the very most, transient and worth fighting through if only to look back on with relief that it’s over, as he must have when he wrote this.
“A lone civilian stopped in for a quick, midday maintenance cocktail, answering the bartender’s ‘Howaya?’ with an entirely-too-chipper-for-my-taste account of vacation in Aruba, a golfing trip to New Mexico, a mention of the comparative merits of the Beemer versus the Mercedes coupe. Then he answered his ringing cellphone with a dirty joke. I couldn’t help eavesdropping and then- in an awful epiphany-saw that all the other chefs were listening in too, wistful expressions on their faces as they perhaps imagined, like me, what it was like to take vacations, own a car, combine a little golf with business. I felt myself sinking into a dark funk.”
Finally, I’ll finish with the song “Strange Religion” by Mark Lanegan which, like most other things Tony’s exposed me to, has enriched my life and gotten me through good times and bad. I’ll never be able to listen to it or sing the lyrics without thinking of him. I hope it gives you the same comfort that it gives me.