Remembering Anthony Bourdain
1/ Reading Bourdain’s book inspired the feeling that he should be the focus of this week’s issue. As you know, he tragically died last year after hanging himself in a hotel room in Kaysersberg, a beautiful village in Alsace. Last Tuesday, June 25th, was officially #BourdainDay on Twitter, as that was the day he would have turned 63 had he not passed away. Oddly enough, Laetitia’s having the idea of ordering the book on Amazon made it arrive in our mailbox precisely on #BourdainDay. And so as I immediately started reading, I was literally carried away by all those tweets celebrating Bourdain’s legacy.
2/ I must be honest: I didn’t know who Bourdain was before he died. Seeing the wave of emotion overwhelming social media back then, I just had to ask: “Who is this guy? Why are all those people upset? And he died in France?” So I went on learning more, read his foundational article in the New Yorker, watched a few videos on YouTube (I like getting to know people by watching them speak), and then read much more about him. It made me realize: We have this idea that there’s a single Western culture and that we admire the same personalities on both sides of the Atlantic. But there must be dozens, even hundreds of US individuals as charismatic and exceptional as Bourdain that we in Europe have never heard about. It tells a lot about the worrying divide between Europe and America.
3/ When I got to know more about Bourdain, I realized his subject—restaurant kitchens—was familiar because of...Ratatouille! Indeed you can learn a lot while watching that excellent Pixar movie: how a kitchen works (the lines, the stations, the hierarchy); what matters in the restaurant industry (not an individual’s prowess, but rather speed, consistency, and purveyors); the singular crowd in the kitchen (immigrants, misfits, pirates); and why simple food is worth more than sophistication (the ratatouille itself). Just like Bourdain’s work, Ratatouille demonstrates that a restaurant is all about mastering a complex system rather than performing as a lone genius or artist. Although he was never a great chef (or so he said), Bourdain seems to have excelled at making a restaurant run like clockwork.
4/ Reading the book is quite an experience, as Bourdain’s style of writing is raw, authentic, and yet sustained. I recognize this mix, and I know where it comes from. Bourdain was from a privileged background, and attended good schools where he learned to write. But then he escaped into the underground world of New York kitchens, where he had to learn a VERY different language and attitude. It reminds me of Miles Davis: also from the upper middle class (from St. Louis, Missouri), Miles went to learn classical music at the Juilliard School and then embraced jazz. Crossing the border between different worlds defined his personality. No wonder reading Bourdain’s prose is an absolute delight. I felt again many of the sensations I felt when reading Miles’s powerful autobiography a long time ago.
5/ Significant sections in Kitchen Confidential are dedicated to immigrant workers in the restaurant industry. Throughout the pages, Bourdain expresses admiration and great respect for those hard-working immigrants that make America’s kitchens run. As he writes, “The Ecuadorian, Mexican, Dominican and Salvadorian cooks I’ve worked with over the years make most Culinary Institute of America-educated white boys look like clumsy, sniveling little punks”. This is a very important message. As I’ve written many times in this newsletter, immigrants are important not only because the most educated among them found the most successful startups. They’re also the ones ready to take any job, however hard and unrewarding, if it makes it possible for them to settle down and make a living.
6/ There’s a flipside, obviously: the fact that immigrants are ready to take those lousy jobs in restaurant kitchens somehow prevents the industry from getting better. This is Marx’s classical topic of the reserve army of labor: As long as you find workers willing to accept a low salary in exchange for hard work, it’s difficult for those who want to be treated better to force employers to bargain. On the other hand, there are so many advantages to an industry that doesn’t demand that you be white and educated before they give you a job. As stressed by Bourdain when referring to his early mentor “Bigfoot” (also known as Andy Menschel), in the restaurant industry “character is far more important than skills or employment history”—and that’s a lesson that many employers should learn in their own interest.
7/ By the way, those immigrant workers don’t wait for their employers to set up social insurance mechanisms. Bourdain describes a singular innovation that he observed in one of the kitchens where he worked: “Members of the crew took part in an unusual “banking” scheme where each week all the members of a large group would sign over all their paychecks to one guy. The recipient was selected on a rotating basis, and the way it worked...was that for about two months or so everybody squeaked by, doing their best to make do without a check, spending little… until the day it was their turn, at which point they came into thousands of dollars and could spend like drunken sailors.” As I explained in my book Hedge, this is how people invent their own collective safety nets, without waiting for governments.
8/ Another thing that I like about Bourdain is his insistence on studying the classics before you find your own style. This resonates with a conversation my idol, bass player Marcus Miller, once had with drummer Lenny White (as told in this interview): “'Man, I’m really looking for my own sound. How do I get it?” [Then Lenny] said, “There’s really no way to make it happen except to just play and to put yourself in a lot of different musical situations.” And he said, “Then one day, man, you’re going to hear a recording back and you’re going to recognize yourself immediately and go ‘Wow! That’s it! That’s me!’” Bourdain himself never really found his style in cuisine, but he did when he switched to writing and TV. Other chefs whom he writes about, like Scott Bryan, did find their own style—and as is often the case, a style diametrically opposed to what was assumed to be the right way. A great lesson for us all!
9/ The last part of Bourdain’s career was defined less by food than by travel. His TV shows, No Reservations and Parts Unknown (which you can watch on Netflix), are invitations to discover other countries and other cultures simply by meeting people and eating the food they offer to share with you. The wonder of tasting other people’s food in faraway countries is something Bourdain discovered late in his life. Most of his career as a cook revolved around New York and its surrounding area, which he almost never left—except as a child, when he travelled to France, where his father was born, and tasted his first oyster 😋! But then he embarked on that great journey all around the world, from which he never came back, and which turned him, according to Richard Florida, into one of the great urbanists of our time!
10/ Now before I close this section, let me just add a few words about Bourdain’s suicide. Obviously I hardly know him after just one year of getting curious, wandering through his work, and learning more about his persona. Apparently, like often in such tragic cases, news of his suicide absolutely surprised and shocked his friends and family members. So instead of adding my own (likely irrelevant) thoughts, let me just guide you toward this beautiful text written by entrepreneur and investor Chris Schroeder right after Bourdain’s death: Anthony Bourdain and the "Impossible" Suicide.