Anthony Bourdain

Joy and Sadness and Kindness

This morning the first news I read was of Anthony Bourdain's suicide. While I never did meet him, we exchanged barbs online. I was an early fan, one of legions of viewers of his travel shows. While I tired of his snark and cynicism, and mostly stopped watching, I noticed he changed a bit, too. I was sad to see his shifting relationships, but glad to hear his joy in fatherhood. I think some of his shows teetered into uncomfortable territory, reinforcing colonial stereotypes, and this has been written about by others, so I don't need to go over it here. 

So many of us connected with was the broken bad boy with big appetites and a take no prisoners attitude. If we're honest, we could've guessed the bluster was a mask. We dated this guy in college. Maybe we were this guy/girl then or even now. 

Later today I learned Kate Spade was in treatment for anxiety and depression. And still suicide caught her. Bourdain was in France taping a new show with friend Eric Ripert. In Bourdain's writing he spoke of his father's love of France and the family summers spent in oyster country. Presumably this was a happy place for him. And still suicide caught him. 

We see news of José Andres working with the World Kitchen staff to bring fresh food to families going to identify loved ones in Guatemala's morgues. This reminds me of Fred Rogers' advice in hard times to "look to the helpers." We can forget that in our pain; there are always helpers. Life is unpredictable and crushingly sad. Mental illness does not care how attractive, successful or well-loved you are. Sometimes people get to a place where they cannot see the helpers, they cannot imagine getting better. Our job is to notice when someone's hurting. To be helpful, kind, facilitate their getting to care. To watch out for each other. 

What I wanted to share this morning is this ancient blog post from 2006 when I'd been so moved to see Bourdain visiting Ferrán Adrià, and the kindness of a stranger who noticed my writing and linked to it. These things will always be linked for me: The magic of food and travel, its potential to lift the veil of everyday life from our eyes and teach us to be child-like, capable of joy. I forgot the capacity of travel to show us that state again, to remind us that child lives within us still. And, the kindness of strangers. We can notice someone, we can be kind. Even in small ways. And really, we must get better at this. Noticing and remembering we are our sisters' and brothers' keepers. You just never know when you might miss an opportunity to connect with someone in way that might literally crack open that window and let some light in. 


Bourdain encounters Adrià – and discovers more.

Decoding Ferrán Adrià
If I had been able to stay awake in my freshman Philosophy class (8 AM, what was I thinking?) I could probably give you a spot-on philosophical underpinning for the concepts inherent in this title. Alas, I can only share observations from the vantage point of a life well-lived, if not well-read or well-educated.

The recent Anthony Bourdain TV show “Decoding Ferrán Adrià ” was a gift. It was one of those exceedingly rare moments when the medium delivers on its potential. What can a TV show tell us about fundamental existential questions? We know what it can tell us about a celebrity chef. About a celebrity chef turned travel show guide. But just what might it tell us about ourselves when its topic is a highly acclaimed chef and his Michelin rated restaurant in Spain – a restaurant that is booked a year in advance?

Many of us will never dine at El Bulli or sadly, even make it to Spain. Most of us will not buy his books – huge tomes, both art and science. But any one of us could find immeasurable pleasure in his story, his mission, the things he devotes himself to. This was my introduction to Ferrán Adrià and for it, I will be forever grateful.

Ferrán Adrià is an icon in the restaurant/food world. His 3-star Michelin rated restaurant El Bulli is even harder to get into than Thomas Keller’s French Laundry. Adrià is probably best known for his use of a workshop or atelier. He is known for his team’s use of scientific principles to deconstruct and re-present food in new ways. Foam, people always talk about his foams. People talk about how he closes his restaurant for half the year to travel. Time Magazine hails him as an innovator. Many are in awe of him, others scoff at his innovation. Some understand his place (only) as a trendsetter. Many people, I think, fail to appreciate what drives him and what he contributes to world of gastronomy.

Bourdain meets Adrià 
How delicious to see a cynic squirm. Bourdain was actually nervous before meeting Adrià. You have to pay attention now. Adrià begins his encounter with Bourdain by posing a simple question: Are you an eater or a diner? Bourdain professes to a moment or two of panic. (I don’t believe he actually had a second of doubt, but, hey, it’s a TV show, I’ll let him slide.)

The question reveals much about Adrià. Is this (potential diner) a person who is enamored of artifice and pretense? Or, is he someone who is fundamentally open to and appreciative of the power of food? Is this someone who believes food has the potential to connect us to ourselves, to each other, to our history, to our future? I believe Adrià uses all his creativity and the innovation of his staff as a means to deliver one of the most meaningful experiences a person might have – an epiphany.

How we handle the familiar and the new
One of the fundamental struggles a person can face is to appreciate the utter solitary nature of one’s existence as it coexists with the equally compelling desire to connect with another. We’re usually trained to more “either/or” thinking, but the essential reality is “both/and.” We are fundamentally alone in the world. And, it is in our nature to strive for connection, even while we recognize that connection as ephemeral or unpredictable.

There are as many ways to cope with this dilemma as there are people on the planet. We can come face-to-face with the terrifying reality and choose to numb ourselves to its existence. We can adopt a lifestyle that taunts death. We can create a defensive shell to inure ourselves to the need which seems impossible to satisfy. We can ignore it altogether. These are just a few.

When we choose a numb or safe existence, or we choose a buffered, lubricated or otherwise medicated existence, it is only the rare experience, or the most unique person, that can force open the door we’ve nailed shut.

Giving us this experience is the mission, I think, of Ferrán Adrià . Reviewers who rail at the inaccessibility of his recipes or the over-reach of his application of scientific methods, miss the point entirely. Listening to him for the first time on the recent Bourdain show, I felt like he was giving voice to a phenomenon I’ve been lucky enough to experience. He is driven to help people experience the world through fresh eyes, a fresh palate. It’s not really about the science. The work of the atelier, even his food as ultimately presented, are merely his tools, a means to an end. That end for him is to break through our cynicism, our safe, jaded existence and be in a moment, an Innocent. To experience something in a new way, even if it is a thing as familiar as a pea. His delight was apparent and inspiring.

I’m always moved by the power of sharing a meal with someone, especially when the experience involves something new. The moment is precious because of its very nature. The meal can be eaten only once, the experience shared only once.

It’s presumptuous and possibly completely off-base for me to draw conclusions about someone I’ve never met…but I’d be surprised if I were too far off. Adrià is the rare innovator in life that, I’m quite sure, would have expressed himself in another medium had food not availed itself to him. I think this is where the comparisons to Dali originate.

Encountering the familiar, as new
I don’t believe his desire was to be an iconoclast, per se. It seems to me he truly delights in helping people achieve that sort of breakthrough his food enables. He’s like a Timothy Leary of food.

This will sound ridiculous to some, nonsensical to others, but I firmly believe the joy Adrià expresses when none other than über-cynic Anthony Bourdain tastes something that upends his paradigm, surprises and delights him, makes him feel like it is the first time he’s tasted it…that was authentic joy I saw expressed by Adrià .

It also makes perfect sense that he travels and his staff travels to keep refreshing their work. Travel is one of the few ways I’ve found to fight the natural tendency to creep toward competence, predictability and safety. When you allow yourself the experience of being in a new place where you cannot predict what you might see, taste, smell, or hear, you often find revelations in the seemingly mundane. The situation forces you into that child-like state of seeing the world as new. Maybe not a pure representation, but maybe as near an approximation as we can construct. It’s inspiring to see Bourdain undefended, re-discovering this sense of possibility in himself. It is what drives some of us to travel, to cook, to share. This, I believe, is Adriàs goal.

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