In the wake of Me Too, Anthony Bourdain didn’t use his precious platform to muse whether the movement had gone too far. Instead, he asked what he could have done differently.
“I’m angry and I’ve seen it up close and I’ve been hearing firsthand from a lot of women,” Bourdain told Slate in October. “Also, I guess I’m looking back on my own life. I’m looking back on my own career and before, and for all these years women did not speak to me.” He wondered why he was “not seen as the sort of person that these women could feel comfortable confiding in,” adding that he saw this gap as a “personal failing.”
When news broke Friday morning that the 61-year-old chef had died by suicide, I thought about that Slate interview. I thought about the deep well of empathy that was evident in all of his work ― about how, for Bourdain, empathy seemed less like a talent than an ongoing project, something to work hard at and worry about and measure and remeasure constantly. I thought about his public thoughtfulness and interrogation of the restaurant industry’s “meathead bro culture.” I thought about his support of partner Asia Argento, who accused Harvey Weinstein of rape and was slut-shamed so intensely by the Italian press that she left the country. I thought about the confidence it takes to be “the Elvis of bad boy chefs” critiquing bad boy chef culture. I thought about how the world so badly needs more men like Anthony Bourdain, not one less.
Bourdain was not afraid to speak out decisively against the behavior of other stars in his own industry. When public allegations of sexual assault and misconduct were reported against Mario Batali and Ken Friedman, Bourdain didn’t try to slink into the background or wonder if the women were liars or hem and haw about confusing sexual mores. He published an essay on Medium making it clear that any prior admiration he had held for Batali and Friedman was now “irrelevant,” declaring that “nothing else matters but women’s stories of what it’s like in the industry I have loved and celebrated for nearly 30 years ― and our willingness, as human beings, citizens, men and women alike, to hear them out, fully.”
He was refreshingly honest about his blind spots, particularly about the role that Argento and women like Rose McGowan and Annabella Sciorra played in opening his eyes to his own ignorance. Bourdain didn’t just state that he believed women; he truly listened to them, something that might feel small or obvious but is in fact astoundingly rare and valuable.
Women are so often asked to take on the job of not just offering up their pain over and over and over again for public consumption, but explaining its significance. Anthony Bourdain asked the women in his life to do neither.
“Late in life, I met one extraordinary woman with a particularly awful story to tell, who introduced me to other extraordinary women with equally awful stories,” Bourdain wrote in that same Medium piece, referring to Argento. “I am grateful to them for their courage, and inspired by them. That doesn’t make me any more enlightened than any other man who has begun listening and paying attention. It does make me, I hope, slightly less stupid.”
Most of us can only hope to have as many people as possible in our lives who make us “slightly less stupid.” Bourdain’s greatest gift was that he did that for the masses, allowing us to explore places we had never been, taste things we might never get to cook, and be brave enough to listen to people whose perspectives might irrevocably complicate our own.
If you or someone you know needs help, call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. You can also text HOME to 741-741 for free, 24-hour support from the Crisis Text Line. Outside of the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of resources.
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