Brittle Days

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Anthony Bourdain

Anthony Bourdain profoundly changed the direction of my life. Here’s a story of how that happened and why I am coping so very badly with his death.

One of the obits doing the rounds made the extremely salient point that good memoirists share their history in such a way that the reader feels close to them, present in the story. That’s blindingly obvious when you read it, so it must be true. That’s part of why Bourdain’s death has been so deeply felt by so many people. I cannot remember my first oyster, but I can remember reading about his. Maybe what follows is all a false memory, or a paean to self-service. Your narrator is, if nothing else, unreliable.

I’d always liked to cook. More precisely: to eat. It was leaving home at 17 that proved that cooking well meant eating better. Being a student meant having time to learn to turn base ingredients into delicious gold. The house I shared with James and Rosie, amongst others, was a haven of roast pheasant, deeply-discounted truffled pasta, slowly-braised oxtail, and the finest wines known to the £5-or-less aisle.

My father and I are always talking food. What’s cooking, what’s in season,  hilarious culinary disasters, recipe tweaks. The usual dinner table conversation involves what we need to prepare for tomorrow. He recommended Kitchen Confidential to me in the early 00s after hearing an extract on Radio 4. It was a sound tip. At 22ish, when young men typically get really into Bukowski, Ellis, Hemingway, or Kerouac, I was smitten with Bourdain’s description of the quasi-criminal underbelly of restaurant cooking. The central narrative was exceptionally compelling, in no small part because of its veracity. A nice middle-class boy, educated at the CIA, becomes a culinary pirate on the high seas of the restaurant industry and emerges as a zen master of the kitchen.

But it wasn’t until I was in the death-throes of a fairly dead-end office job in London that this became anything more than an intellectually-interesting sidebar. As a meta-narrative, Bourdain’s memoir showed that a person can change. They can leave one career and start another. As a chef can become a writer, an office-worker can become a cook. I dipped my toe and signed up to learn to cook properly. A month of focused class training and stages in some decent kitchens. I loved the work: the adrenaline rush of service and the quiet focus of prep. Brittle cold mornings spent quietly chopping mirepoix for stock are some of the happiest memories I hold. No thinking, just doing. Keep your mind and workspace tidy. Move efficiently. Nothing matters other than doing this one thing right, right now.

And as it was Bourdain’s career-change that brought me there, it was Kitchen Confidential that kept me away. The stories he tells about the people he meets on his journey as a chef seem larger than life – that’s part of their appeal as a memoir. The people I met in kitchens were real; beautiful, hilarious, passionate, skilled individuals to a man (and they were almost all men). Guys I would gladly spend a career with but for the fact that they were so, so broken. Men in their late twenties, holding down good jobs in the sort of restaurants that you’d go to for your birthday rather than because you can’t be bothered to cook one night. All of them unable to have a normal relationship with their family, girlfriend, or bank manager. All destroyed by an uncaring industry in which no-one is irreplaceable. Bourdain was not exaggerating and the horror was very real.

The dream was a failure. So I chose to stay in technology and was lucky to fall in with a good crowd. The people I work with now are creative, bold, industry leaders. They write books and run conferences. Some of them have their restaurant dinners interrupted by fans who ask for selfies. It’s a privilege to spend time with them. Most of my colleagues are doing this work for the safety that doesn’t exist in their calling. They’re really musicians, or artists, authors, comedians, radio presenters, distillers, distance-runners, film editors. One is a cook. We all failed our first careers.

Bourdain changed his calling without changing his essence, the core of Bourdain-ness. He’d shown us a better way to think about food, work, culture, travel, humanity. He’d emerged scarred yet smiling, beer in hand. Proof that a person can discover that their dream is not; they can find another one. If this giant of a man simply couldn’t take it any more, what hope for the rest of us? What hope for me?

And that’s why Bourdain’s death has hit me so hard.


Compassionate, adventuresome, funny, communicative, honest, warm, egalitarian. Bourdain’s masculinity sets him apart from the toxic concepts of manhood that his industry harboured.

The same week that he died, I had two conversations with men who were struggling. That they felt comfortable to share their feelings and seek support gives me hope that we are moving from toxic patriarchal definitions of masculinity and towards a near future where all of us can be more like Bourdain’s life than his death.

Written by tomsulston

12/06/2018 at 16:18

Posted in Uncategorized

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