Friday, June 8, started out well within the realm of the ordinary. Just before 7 a.m., I walked downstairs, put the coffee on and headed to my desk to make a to-do list for the day ahead. As I looked out the window of my home office and watched the fog rise from our bottom meadow, I drifted back to a conversation from the previous night. It was one I had with several friends about the time Anthony Bourdain visited last September, filming a scene for Parts Unknown.
That retrospective exchange also seemed routine by then. Ever since the West Virginia episode aired last April, I’d found myself immersed in endless chatter about Bourdain’s CNN show. Everyone in the state seems to have opinions about the outcome, and almost everyone has questions about the experience. “What was it like,” they ask, “you know, to have been on his show? What was it like to have had his film crew at the farm? What was it like to have met Anthony Bourdain?”
“It was surreal; It was stressful; He was cool, actually pretty down-to-earth.”
I’d offered up some combination of those answers dozens of times by then, often just before pivoting away from Bourdain himself, to the fair and honest way I thought Parts Unknown represented the Mountain State, or how I hoped our segment might play a small role in celebrating Appalachian food, something my earliest culinary mentors thought belonged in the garbage, not on television. I never minded talking about Bourdain, but my responses seldom matched the enthusiasm of those who’d ask with the widest of grins and a gaze of the over-enamored.
When I got the call about Parts Unknown in the summer of 2017, I knew enough about Bourdain to respect him, but I never embraced the fanaticism he seemed to attract. I hadn’t read his books, and having lived without a cable subscription for the past 15 years, I’d only seen a handful of his shows. While I appreciated Bourdain’s knack for telling underdog stories and digging beneath the surface in his travel destinations, my own limited exposure gave me few reasons to be enthralled by a celebrity with whom many seemed to have a wildly unhealthy obsession.
We had been in the front yard Thursday evening, the night before, when someone asked what Bourdain had to say while he was at the farm. It’s a question to which there are dozens of potential answers, in both on-camera and off-camera categories. But what I chose to share that night, and what was on my mind the next morning, was what Bourdain repeated while sitting at the dinner table just across from my partner Amy and I, under the canopy of giant sugar maples, as he sipped on hard ciders and poked fun at Brooklyn hipsters.
Facing the same meadow I can see from my office window, he’d remark just how beautiful West Virginia is. There were, of course, on-camera and off-camera versions of this statement, as well: “West Virginia is so beautiful,” and “Man, this place is f—ing beautiful.” It was obvious neither lacked sincerity.
At around 7:30 Friday morning, much earlier than my phone ever starts to buzz, notifications began coming in. I was suddenly bombarded with text messages relaying tragic, unexpected, unbelievable news. Bourdain, a new-found hero of Almost Heaven, and the subject of endless conversation thrust upon Amy and I for the past several months, had taken his own life.
Throughout the morning, I’d open Facebook and Twitter, each time more astounded by the hundreds of posts reflecting a widespread outpouring of grief. Personal, revealing, vulnerable in tone, these were no run of the mill tribute memes that tend to flood the social mediasphere when notable celebrities pass away. Before long, I realized my short-lived experience of hosting Bourdain meant so little compared to the intimate relationships some of my good friends and food industry colleagues shared with him for years, even if they’d never met in person.
As I sat speechless that Friday afternoon, still struggling to wrap my head around the news, I was impressed by the tribute my friend Matt Welsch strung together so quickly. In his blog post, “Goodnight, Tony”, Welsch wrote, “Every chef I know–every chef, line cook, and dishwasher I’ve worked with–I’d wager everyone in every back of the house everywhere, was touched and inspired by Anthony Bourdain.”
Long before Welsch returned home to the Northern Panhandle to open The Vagabond Kitchen, he aimed for other careers. While he was in college, he took jobs as a dishwasher and a line cook, experiencing his fair share of grueling, high-pressure hours in the kitchen. It was overlooked, often thankless work, but there was something addictive about it. After graduation, Welsch caught the urge to travel, eventually landing in the Rocky Mountains, where he worked as a sous chef at an Idaho ski lodge. There, he picked up a copy of Kitchen Confidential, the blockbuster memoir that gave rise to Bourdain’s global notoriety and heroic status among restaurant cooks.
“It was like Bourdain was holding up a mirror to the kinds of people we are,” he said, insisting the book’s mix of romanticism and brutal honesty represented somewhat of a rallying cry, a source of pride for restaurant laborers who reached their limits each night, but always came back for more. Bourdain had taken hardscrabble, behind the scenes work and framed it in a way that made chefs like Welsch adopt professional cooking not as a part-time gig, but as a career. “It was everything, what makes us tick, what makes us do what we do. Even the people who didn’t get it finally started to understand.”
A road warrior motivated by wanderlust himself, Welsch said he was inspired by Bourdain’s travels, especially the way he used his fame to connect broad audiences with people in the places he visited. “Bourdain used his fame and power in really positive ways,” Welsch said, pointing to the recent West Virginia episode of Parts Unknown as an example.
“I didn’t grow up as the son of a coal miner, but we definitely had some of the same challenges,” he said. “And I think that’s what he did, he made us realize, even though our experiences are very different, in a lot of ways, we’re all the same.”
I spoke to several people who felt similarly.
Is there someone out there who can fill the void Bourdain leaves behind? Of course. There are millions of us. What Bourdain did best wasn’t necessarily extraordinary — at least it shouldn’t have been. His gestures of compassion, open-mindedness and fairness lifted spirits, put opportunities within reach and saved lives. But they were merely simple acts, of which each and every one of us is capable.
As the days, weeks and months go on, I’ll probably find myself weaving in and out of innumerable conversations with friends and colleagues about Anthony Bourdain. With each instance, I’ll grow increasingly appreciative of the indelible mark he left in Appalachian kitchens long before the cameras started rolling in West Virginia last fall. In an industry in which mental health struggles run rampant, in a region which faces extraordinarily high rates of addiction, depression and suicide to begin with, we need each other. Those of us in the food business are more than just colleagues. We’re reinforcements, not rivals; comrades, not competitors. It’s downright haunting to know so many among us might not be cooking, might not be so outspoken, might not be so inspired if it weren’t for this guy who showed up at Lost Creek Farm in September.
Anthony Bourdain gave me some exposure. For that, I’m grateful. But what he’d already granted me, a cohort of supportive peers inspired to embrace their heritage, bring communities together and take up for the little guy—that’s more valuable than I’ll ever reap from several minutes on national television. While I’ll never be able to repay him, I’ll certainly be spending some time under the maples in the front yard, looking out over the bottom meadow, pondering how I might begin to pay it forward.
A version of this essay was originally published by 100 Days in Appalachia.