© 2018 Photo illustration by W. Scott Koenig
Original published article at http://sdcitybeat.com/culture/features/help-needed/
It’s a quintessentially human response to tragedy: look for meaning. Faced with a death, whether a beloved family member, a hero or even sometimes a villain, it feels like it ought to mean something. Whether its the stuff of philosophy – ancient or modern – or more personal, it feels there must be something more to it than just the crossing of a thin line.
And so it was in the days following Anthony Bourdain’s death. It certainly was for me. I’d begun writing about food and culture (with doses of history and politics tossed in) before I knew of Bourdain, before Kitchen Confidential. But it took Tony Bourdain to really show me the way.
San Diego food blogger Scott Koenig speaks for many Bourdain fans when he says “Bourdain’s No Reservations motto of ‘I write, I travel, I eat…and I’m hungry for more’ struck a chord.” Bourdain showed fans starved for a larger world corners of this world they hadn’t seen and didn’t know they were missing.
Bourdain’s No Reservations Baja episode meant a lot to the region. Javier Plascencia says, “he didn’t put Tijuana on the map but helped get a lot of people’s attention to come and see.” The change had already happened, but Bourdain recognize it and told the world about it. “A lot of people came for the first time, especially younger people, and they wanted to go the places he went.”
But perhaps the group to whom Bourdain meant the most was Chefs. “He was an idol, people looked up to him, I looked up to him,” Plascencia said. “He was just a true idol because of how he lived his life, what he wrote.”
He meant even more to Latino chefs, shining a light on the fact that the back-of-the-house tended to be Mexican cooks. He brought them out of the shadows. “Nobody talked about that, it’s a big loss,” said Plascencia. “Talk to every cook – Mexican or Latino – they knowwho Bourdain was, he talked kitchen language. He was the real thing. He wasn’t faking it.”
Urban Solace Chef Matt Gordon, on the other hand, observes “Bourdain got out, he was the first to say he wasn’t a chef. He was a badass…basically, what every guy wishes he could be.” Chef Kat Humphus said the “chance to ‘get out’ of that rugged and grungy part of the restaurant industry” is exactly what Bourdain represented to those on the inside. “From a chef’s perspective, we didn’t lose a chef,” said Gordon, “he stopped being that before we ‘knew him.’” Humphus, though, points out “you can exchange the word ‘Chef’ for ‘TV Star/celebrity’ for ‘Rockstar on tour.’”
The first question asked by many, industry or non-industry, upon hearing of Bourdain’s death was: “why?” Why did the guy who was living the dream, the ex-Chef who “got out,” hang himself? Others dismissed the question itself as an invitation to a speculation on the unknowable. Gordon said it would be “irresponsible…to speculate.” Cesar Vallin, managing partner of Cloak & Petal, said he didn’t “believe it’s fair for anyone to speculate.” But most, even some of those who thought it was unfair to hazard a guess, knew and identified the cause: depression.
If depression was indeed the root cause of his suicide – and Bourdain left clues to that effect in his over 300 episodes – he would definitely not be the first high-profile Chef to go that route. Perhaps the most striking example was Bernard Loiseau, Chef-owner of then three Michelin star La Côte d’Or, at the time the single most recognizable Chef in France. More recently, Benoît Violier – the Chef of Switzerland’s three Michelin star Restaurant de l’Hôtel de Ville – took his own life. As Mission Avenue Bar & Grill’s William Eick pointed out, “many other successful chefs have killed themselves, almost none as publicized as Bourdain.”
Much of it is the nature of the job. Eick observes “the hours…are less than ideal in terms of mental health as well.” Davin Waite, Chef-Owner of Wrench & Rodent Seabasstropub says “to understand the mental health issues chefs face you first have to begin to understand the types of individuals that thrive in the kitchen environment.” It’s a love, a passion and a career he says, but also a compulsion. “We were born to do it because personally we are miserable doing anything else.”
Gordon describes starting in the industry in a terrifying, dangerous, locker room environment with after-shift drinking and drugs the norm, not the exception. Humphus says, “many kitchens were originally a place of refuge for people.” Even chefs at “those fancy schmancy kitchens that are insanely clean and attract only the very driven and serious, have some of the same tendencies as those [in kitchens with] coke heads and prebreaded chicken tenders.” The atmosphere is intensely competitive, its denizens unwilling to fail at all costs with showing weakness a fate worse than death.
There is nothing healthy about kitchen life. The hours all but prohibit a normal non-work life. Asked why he would put in those sorts of hours when he didn’t have to, Eick responded: “because that’s what we do.” And Eick’s an Executive Chef. The hours, the lifestyle: it changes you.
There’s talk of other changes; talk of support and finding ways to decrease the pressure, and maybe the hours and maybe up the pay (in an industry famed for its low margins, another cause of pressure). But how? At a time when it’s already getting harder for restaurants to find qualified, urgently needed back-of-the-house staff perhaps this, if ever, is the time.
In the end, opinions of Bourdain and his death depended on the viewer. For the fans, they lost the guy who was living their dream and showed them the world. For Latino cooks they lost the guy who made them visible. For Chefs they lost one of their own or the guy who “got out.” But still, what did it mean?
Perhaps if there’s to be meaning in Bourdain’s passing – on top of Loiseau’s and Violier’s before it – perhaps it might be a movement towards real change in an industry that is, less characterized by hospitality than by crushing pressure. Perhaps there could be movement to provide the one thing everyone agrees is needed: help.
The economics of the restaurant industry are not likely to fundamentally change any time soon. The pirate ethos of the back-of-the-house aren’t much more likely to change than that and, frankly, it might be somewhat counterproductive were it to do so. But many of the pressure-points in the industry aren’t unique to the industry — intense stress and pressure, in particular. Elsewhere, these are alleviated through systems, assistance plans and similar programs. In short: help. Perhaps the economics won’t change, but perhaps elements of the culture can. And that, actually, may be a very Anthony Bourdain answer: help needed.