Anthony Bourdain was an Idolater?

Anthony Bourdain memorial, Les Halles Restaurant in NYC, June 2018
(Photo by Donald Bowers Photography)

“Sometimes the greatest meals on vacations are the ones you find when Plan A falls through.”

I love that quote by Anthony Bourdain.

As a former merchant sailor, I was fortunate to travel all over the world. I loved trying different foods, learning about other cultures, seeing the spectrum of humanity—what we had in common and what separated us. My favorite mode, when arriving in port, was to wander and explore without a plan. My best experiences were the happy accidents of hospitality from interesting strangers.

Anthony’s popular tv career, jump-started from a successful book about his years as a cook and chef, began as an exploration of world cuisine which morphed into shows that took him all over the world and depicted the romance of that wanderlust.

Anthony seemed to have the ideal life so his suicide in 2018 at the height of his career came as a big shock. Even three years after his death, the subject continues to be explored in articles and a recent documentary by Santa Barbara native Morgan Neville (Roadrunner, released July 16, 2021.)

I realize now that his shows had the illusion of that romantic, wandering travel that I had the fortune to experience. Anthony was with a camera crew at all times. While there wasn’t a script, there was usually a plan of how and where the shows would be shot.

I didn’t watch every episode but caught many. He visited places I’ve been to and loved, so it was like a walk down memory lane, and also places I’ve never been to, which gave a vicarious thrill.

His shows ran for years, and I noticed, over time, a growing weariness and tired air about him. His endearing irritability and sarcasm became more vulgar, and some of the show content was getting darker, so I stopped watching. I didn’t have a good feeling about any of it and thought something had to give. I assumed the show would be canceled or he would retire. I was shocked and not shocked when he committed suicide.

Anthony didn’t profess any religion or faith other than a restless, endless search for new experiences, a sort of “be true to yourself” hedonism and exploration that he pushed to the limit. While many saw him as having an enviable existence, he never seemed to find any stable contentment, peace, or lasting joy. He displayed admirable qualities such as devoting some of his show content to off-the-beaten-path human interest stories. And he claimed, in his words, that he tries “to emulate Christ in small ways everyday,” but his good intentions and goods deeds didn’t seem to have any real foundation in faith.

No one knows the full reason why he committed suicide and what was going on in his head—God only knows.

But I can speak for myself. I’ve lived both as a believer and an agnostic, wandering seeker. When you don’t believe in God, then by default, you end up believing in yourself and the things of the world. If all you believe in is yourself, then at some point, you will exhaust that self. And even if you gain the whole world exhausting that self, what good is that? Or to quote Jesus, “what good will it do a person if he gains the whole world, but forfeits his soul?” In his book ‘A Cook's Tour: In Search of the Perfect Meal’, Anthony made fun of television food celebrities but acknowledged he was no better, writing, “One sells one’s soul in increments, slowly, over time.”

If you put your faith in the things of the world, at some point, they will betray or disappoint you. The Judeo-Christian faith professes anything you value more than God is an idol. An idol can be something society sees as a good thing. The very nature of idols is that the more you put your faith in them, the more they become all-consuming, like an addiction. And idols inevitably topple, fall, self-destruct.

Anthony was weary and confessed to his creative partners, who were also his friends, that he wanted to quit the show. They were supportive of that choice. But he lacked the resolve to quit. And no one challenged or questioned the lack of resolve even though he was clearly burned out. Why should they? The show was phenomenally successful. It was easier to go with the current or blame his “addictive personality.” No one seemed very interested in delving into the deeper problem and lack of which addiction was merely a symptom.

Am I suggesting that Anthony was an idolater? Maybe, but more so that we’re the idolaters for romanticizing and idolizing him and putting such a huge demand and pressure on him to live vicariously through him.

(Posted 8/31/21)