“Good food, good eating, is all about blood and organs, cruelty and decay.” And so it was, that Anthony Bourdain burst onto the scene with his article for the New Yorker in 1999. The article was to be the catalyst to Kitchen Confidential, published a year later.
Bourdain’s exposé of the culinary underbelly pre-empted an explosion of interest in the kitchen. He opened the doors to the back-of-house in the days before the gram, (indeed, the internet was but a baby). While his words created the intrigue, they also created a community.
And he certainly had a way with words. The modern-day Hemingway? Our generation’s Elizabeth David? Attenborough in the kitchen? Perhaps all of the above. This was coupled with his way of capturing the details, things you knew to be true, that you had seen, but never thought to contextualise as he did. That is the true skill of a writer.
He also had a blunt honesty. The images he fed us through Kitchen Confidential were funny and candid, but they were also striking in their familiarity. Again, I come back to a pre-internet world – it’s nice, no, it’s fundamental to feel your experience is shared in life. At that stage, Bourdain was the one doing sharing for many of us.
And yet, I think there’s more to it than that. You will know the resumé that followed: the books, the television, the website, the productions. But this is not a story about “success”, nor about “celebrity”. (Those questioning how someone with such fame and riches could commit suicide are missing the point on a number of levels.)
I want to tell the story about what he did while he was alive, what he did with the twenty years that followed that first line in the New Yorker. It's a story about the absolute power of telling the truth: “As Bourdain’s career grew, the truths he was positioned to tell grew, too.” Many get this opportunity, not many use it.
Bourdain continued to open our eyes to the gritty beauty and wilderness of food, stepping out of the kitchen and into the world. The stories remained raw, at times desperately sad, at times difficult to swallow, at times heart-swellingly beautiful. And through it all, he continued to talk up to the world, rather than dumbing things down.
He saw the bigger picture and the little picture; he consumed both the food and the culture, and all the while he shared his table with us. He was intelligent and approached the discipline with both professionalism and hunger – hunger for knowledge, for the experience, cultural understanding and context.
He questioned the world, but was also not afraid to go back and question himself. Daniel Patterson, who has written “Why Cooks Loved Anthony Bourdain” noted: “One of Mr. Bourdain’s strengths was his restlessness and his openness to new ideas, even when that meant admitting that his old ideas were wrong.” He regretted the misogyny in Kitchen Confidential, he was a feminist (as all good men should be), he called his mates out, he called things for what they were.
In twenty years, and he did all of that. Twenty years!! So, I say, don’t look for a simple answer to his death, you won't find one (as Bourdain himself said – “The root cause of all life’s problems is looking for a simple fucking answer.”). Instead, let's look to other questions, the big ones, like, what are you going to do with the next 20 years?
Postcards from Tassie –
The book is done and I have just spent the most delightful week in Tasmania: incredible people, brilliant food, thought-provoking conversation. It had everything my body and soul required.
As fate would have it, my visit coincided with the Deep Winter Agrarian conference. It was interesting to be at a conference organised by farmers; the pace was slower, the conversations quieter, there was less noise, fewer egos, more time to ponder. A few thoughts that are percolating:
The importance of aesthetics across various fields: the basic premise being that beauty's more than skin deep – it can mean organisation, it can mean healthy soils, it can mean personal enjoyment, it can simply make going to work feel better.
The cycle in action: I visited an apple orchard where pigs are at the ready to turn up the land and eat the windfall apples of late autumn, while sheep are in charge of the weeds year round. Of course, they also take a place on the dinner plate. This was nicely contrasted with beef producers Bec and Bec’s (Big River Highland Beef) vision for a zero-waste niche abattoir, an aesthetically pleasing space where other artisans can also work to respect the whole beast - producing soap from the tallow, tanning the hides, working with the horns etc.
There was also a lot on the importance of a holistic approach beyond the field: to life, to business, to your plans, to your mental health.
But these conversations were just a tiny fragment of the many delicious conversations over the week.
I was staying with the incredible organic vegetable producer Tony Scherer. In his 47 years of farming (Tony was among the vanguard of organic vegetable growers in the Bay area in the 70s – supplying the likes of Alice Waters), Tony has watched the way we grow produce shift from farmer first to processor first, from flavour first to convenience first. It's a problem.
Unfortunately, that period of the 70s and 80s was not our finest, as the industrialisation of ag sent us down a rabbit hole of band-aid solutions to problems we had created in our quest for convenience. The majority of these changes have their roots in the post-WWII shift to a heavy reliance on pesticides and fertilisers, exacerbated by the convenience driven market that followed. Flavour was largely forgotten in the fall-out. But, it's important to remember it is only over 70-odd years that this change has taken place.
We also talked about connecting producers and cooks; how to get farmers to the soil, but equally important how to get producers to the plate. In fact, I was a little surprised at the lack of conversation around cooks and chefs at Deep Winter. Just as your cooking begins in their paddocks, so too does their toil end in your saucepans. Flavour education is important. That cycle needs to be tight and needs to cut both ways. How do you feed your farmers?
Words from philosopher Michael McCarthy crossed my desk this week: “For we forget our origins; in our towns and cities, staring into our screens, we need constant reminding that we have been operators of computers for a single generation and workers in neon-lit offices for three or four, but we were farmers for five hundred generations, and before that hunter-gatherers for perhaps fifty thousand or more, living with the natural world as part of it as we evolved, and the legacy cannot be done away with.”
They opened the Deep Winter conference with the Tasmanian agricultural timeline. There are Aboriginal Nations who have been tending to Australian soils not for 500 generations, but for 2,400 generations. What are we doing to celebrate that knowledge? To respect it? To preserve it? To understand it?
The Frenchies say plus ça change, plus ça reste, but I think otherwise. Let’s do it.