The Man Who Had Everything Figured Out – Joe Ricchio reflects on the life of Anthony Bourdain

Originally Published in the Portland Phoneix, June 15, 2018

On the morning of Friday, June 8, I woke up in a shitty hotel room in Ellsworth, Maine with a pounding headache from the previous evening’s excess. We were on the road filming two episodes of my web series, Food Coma TV, and it hadn’t taken long for things to plow off the rails. I rolled over to check my phone and noticed I had several texts and notifications, delivering news of probably the last thing I would have ever expected.

Anthony Bourdain had died by suicide.

I know I’m not alone when I say that Bourdain had been both an inspiration and a role model. I often used his career trajectory as a compass for my own, constantly reminding myself that he didn’t write Kitchen Confidential — and completely re-invent himself in the process — until he was 43. (I am currently 39.)

Sometimes, this information would give me an excuse to keep drinking heavily for another week, that I still had years before I needed to stop slowly killing myself and to “get my shit together — finally.” Other times, it was a fact that I utilized to continue pursuing the things I wanted in life, even during moments when everything felt lost.

Now, Bourdain was gone. The man who had everything figured out — on the surface anyway — was now hanging from a rope in a hotel room in France. My eyes teared up for five minutes, a combination of both shock and the emotional rollercoaster brought on by the hangover. Then, for the remainder of the day, I felt a sense of numbness whenever I would try to analyze the situation in my head. I discussed it with a few people, but really, I was still trying to process. I hadn’t quite accepted this reality.

I have spent, cumulatively, about 63 minutes of my life with Bourdain. I am confident that he would have had a tough time remembering who the fuck I was. This is not a humble brag; I just don’t have any misconceptions about my “connection” with him.

Bourdain took a profession that appeared to so many as mundane and laid bare all of its nuances. The first time I read Kitchen Confidential, it validated me on many levels. After spending my late teens and early twenties working in Chicago restaurants (while nursing a vicious cocaine habit), it was comforting to me that, with the book’s instant popularity, my behavior during those “throwaway” years could actually be quite romantic when viewed through the right filter. Restaurants were no place for anyone with thin skin, and anyone not on board with our way of doing things would be tossed straight off the pirate ship. His work made a lot of people aspire to be derelicts in hopes that they too would have stories like his to share. It also gave rise to a group of restaurant know-it-alls who got off by loudly proclaiming to waiters that they would NEVER order fish on a Monday, regardless of whether or not it made a lick of sense.

For a while, even though he had transitioned to TV, Bourdain maintained his image as a cook. The Les Halles Cookbook is still one of my favorites, unique in its no-bullshit approach to the basics of French cookery. It was the first cookbook that I owned to deploy the word “fuck.” The recipes were a joy to read, which inspired me to take on ambitious cooking projects like his cassoulet, assembled over the course of three days. To this day, any time I’m cooking, I can hear his voice in my head saying things like, “Dried herbs? Keep that trash away from my bird.”

Then came No Reservations.

I have watched the 2011 “US Desert” episode, where Bourdain visits the Mojave Desert with Josh Homme of Queens of the Stone Age, about 62 times. I pretty much have it memorized. There was nothing I wanted more than to be there hanging out with those two — to me it was the epitome of cool. The first season of No Reservations featured some of the most legendary episodes – most notably Uzbekistan, Iceland, and Vietnam – and solidified Bourdain’s status as not only a food expert but a cultural adventurer. You became invested in his life, and when he was brought to tears in the Decoding Ferran Adria episode in Season Two, so was I. So many of my heroes, from Martin Picard to Jim Harrison, made appearances on the show. As it turns out, those people were Bourdain’s heroes as well.

He came to film an episode in Maine and a segment had been planned for me to eat lobster rolls with him while drinking Champagne on the Casco Bay Lines. I was crushed when it was canceled due to a blizzard. In that episode, he found himself disappointed with specific dining choices that the team had made for him. I couldn’t help but feel that I could have set such a different tone for the day.

The silver lining was that I became friends with No Reservations cameraman Zach Zamboni while filming an interview as an add-on to the show. This enabled my ego, bruised by the missed opportunity on the Maine episode of No Reservations, to be soothed a year later when Zamboni hooked us up with Bourdain (and Eric Ripert) for an interview that we would feature on Food Coma TV. Even though I have a hard time watching that episode without cringing at my mannerisms, I am very thankful and proud to have had this opportunity.

There were moments when No Reservations would take on a political tone (notably the Beirut episode, filmed during the 2006 Lebanon War), it wasn’t until CNN’s Parts Unknown that Bourdain truly cemented his position as a cultural ambassador. This is the point where, regardless of whether or not the things he was doing were enjoyable, I began to envy this man’s life. I thought he indeed had it all.

Though his death last Friday revealed that — like all of us — Tony had problems that others couldn’t see, it didn’t break the “spell” he has over me. If anything, I felt *more* of a connection. I spent the weekend wondering about possible scenarios that would cause him to take his own life. I always thought that Bourdain would follow in the footsteps of Jim Harrison, retiring to the woods and living out his days surrounded by a select group of friends. Was it relationship problems? Did he want to leave a specific legacy? Was it a Michael Hutchence situation?

None of these things matter anymore. He lived an astounding life, during which he completely reinvented himself and became one of the most respected and recognizable human beings on Earth. It would appear he left no stone unturned, and if he decided that he was done being alive, then I would take his word for it – he knows a hell of a lot better than I do. He is gone. I miss him already.

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