At the end of May, renowned chefs Eric Ripert and Jose Andres took to Instagram to ask that the world share memories and tributes to the dearly departed Anthony Bourdain on his birthday, June 25. By all accounts, Ripert, who was the one to find his best friend dead a little more than a year ago, could have been an emotional mess, but he and Andres were jubilant in making their request.
I, a complete stranger and fan, mourned when I heard the news. I didn’t know what to say — suicide makes us ask why, even if we can never really get an answer to that question nor should we. I still don’t know what to say. I started writing this post then hit a wall, so that’s why it’s come a day after Bourdain Day. It hurts, therefore I avoid it.
My life in a nutshell.
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I didn’t write anything until a month later, and even then it wasn’t about Bourdain. The universe must have been feeling particularly cruel because it rocked the food world again when Jonathan Gold died as a result of pancreatic cancer.
I can’t explain why I wrote about his death and not Bourdain’s. Perhaps it was because I had been reading Jonathan Gold’s reviews a lot longer — since I was a teenager, to be exact. Or maybe it was because my relationship was with Gold’s prose and not the person. It wasn’t until the last few years that Gold went public with his appearance, and even then, it wasn’t comparable. He was still a man of words and thoughts and imagination while Bourdain was the one who pulled you alongside him into far-flung locales.
In short, they were both important, no one more so than the other in my eyes. Here’s what I had to say about Jonathan Gold on July 22, 2018, the day we all found out:
It was a long time before I realized how lucky I was to have grown up in Monterey Park. As far as I knew, every kid grew up eating hamburgers and hot dogs, dim sum and dumplings, tacos and tamales. My friends all ate about the same way. But when my aunt, uncle and cousins from Thousand Oaks would come visit, everything I thought was normal — chow mein with pan-fried noodles, cha siu bao, not-instant ramen — was a mind-opening flavor experience for them.
One thing that reinforced my belief that my culinary upbringing was normal was that Jonathan Gold, then the LA Weekly’s restaurant critic, treated the restaurants in my hometown with the same culinary weight as fine dining restaurants in Beverly Hills. I thought everyone felt the way he did, the way I did, about the food I grew up with.
Obviously that couldn’t last. It blew my mind when I met someone in community college who said they flat out didn’t like Chinese food. Wait, what? How could that even be possible? Had they ever tried Mama’s Lu or JJ Cafe? Didn’t they read Jonathan Gold? If they had, they surely couldn’t feel the way they do.
It became clear that Gold was doing more than writing about restaurants. He was working to teach Angelenos about the incredible food all around them — in trucks, in strip malls, in plain sight but entirely overlooked — and the culture that goes with it. It was a noble cause, a cause that I wanted to take up. When I wrote my first restaurant review for the East Los Angeles College Campus News, of Cook’s Tortas in Monterey Park, I modeled my writing after his. My editor, a fellow student, told me that reviews should be more “this is good, this is bad” than about the people behind the restaurant or the culture represented in the food. I told him that I respectfully disagreed and made a few changes to placate him. He hadn’t read Jonathan Gold.
I made a commitment after transferring to UC Berkeley to write about news. There are far more news reporter jobs than restaurant critic jobs out there, and I would still have plenty of cultural impact with my writing. But after one semester, seeing that The Daily Californian had no food section — in a city that prides itself on the quality of its food — convinced me that it was my job to build a food section for the then-142-year-old newspaper. That came in the form of the Eating Berkeley blog on the Daily Cal website. It has restaurant reviews, food and restaurant news, recipes and cooking tips. It does a service for Berkeley, which is something I continue to be proud of.
I haven’t gotten to write as much about food as I’d have liked to professionally, mostly restaurant opening and closing stories. I miss it, and I always tell myself I intend to do that sort of writing in my free time, but I haven’t done it yet. Now might be the right time. Jonathan Gold’s death leaves a gap in Los Angeles that won’t be filled if every fan and wannabe like me puts pen to paper.
A couple months ago, I had lunch with friends at The Legendary Restaurant, one of those make-your-mouth-numb Sichuan restaurants, in Alhambra, which Gold had reviewed more than a year before. The flavors were fantastic, and I’m so glad that Gold wrote about this place because it would’ve been so easy to simply drive past given that it sits just before at the busiest intersection in the entire region. It won’t be the last of the restaurants he reviewed that I plan to visit, but the thought of going forward without his expert opinion on new places that pop up is hard to imagine. I’m heartbroken, but all I can do is be grateful for the impact he’s had on my life and try to accomplish the same goals he had with my own writing.
I had a fair amount to say about Jonathan Gold, and it was one of countless odes to the man who dutifully chronicled what it’s like to live and, naturally, eat in Los Angeles. But I didn’t give the whole story.
When I interviewed potential staff members for the Daily Cal’s Eating Berkeley blog, I would ask the candidates who they read. Whose writing about food interested or influenced them? I was impressed several times when those interested in reviews said they read Jonathan Gold, even ones not from LA. Other names came up — M.F.K Fisher, Ruth Reichl, Michael Pollan — but the name that dropped far more often, almost every interview if I recall correctly, wasn’t any of those.
It was Anthony Bourdain, specifically his seminal autobiography, “Kitchen Confidential.”
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I was in my early 20s when I finally read “Kitchen Confidential.” My sister Stephanie, a pastry chef trained at a local Le Courdon Bleu campus when they were still doing that in the U.S., left a copy lying around our parents’ house, and at her insistence, I took it to read for myself.
I’m the kind of reader who will either take a small eternity to finish a book or blaze through it with as few breaks as possible, and “Kitchen Confidential” fell into the latter category. Stephanie has never really enjoyed discussing the finer points of her career (or personal life) with the rest of the family, so I really had no idea what that world was like before reading Bourdain’s first novel.
After I finished, I asked her if his account of an industry of people teetering on the edge of burnout propped up with cocaine and calmed with booze was accurate. I became very afraid for her safety for a hot second until I realized that not only was she always the more reliable of us siblings, she had also already survived in that industry for several years without looking any worse for the wear.
I had previously enjoyed “No Reservations” on the Travel Channel, but it was mostly to enjoy his snarky takes and jabs at the Travel Channel and generically pleasant host Samantha Brown. It was always very clear there was a depth to “Kitchen Confidential” that could never be explored on the Travel Channel.
I rejoiced when CNN announced that Bourdain would be heading there for a new show, “Parts Unknown.” I recall there being quite a bit of confusion about this — why would one of the most respected news outlets in the world produce a travel show hosted by a celebrity chef?
It became very clear early on that “Parts Unknown” wasn’t “No Reservations.” It featured food and foreign countries, yes, but it delved deep into the cultures, traditions and histories of those places. In short, it was a work of journalism.
He took us to politically fraught places like Russia and Myanmar, potentially dangerous places like Libya and the West Bank and Gaza, and places with dark histories like Los Angeles’ Koreatown.
One episode stuck out to both me and one of my colleagues — the one that told the story of Detroit’s fall from being an industrial center in the United States into a state of urban decay. The major takeaway was that people are still there, and with efforts to rebuild communities, there’s hope that not all is lost for Detroit. It was a beautiful story about human resilience that I’m sure struck a chord with far more people than Steve and me.
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A friend of mine, writer and trivia entrepreneur Lynn Q. Yu, went on assignment to South Dakota a few weeks ago, and she mused about how she was thinking about Anthony Bourdain while waiting to fly out of LA:
I’m sitting in an airport thinking about Anthony Bourdain, a year after he stopped breathing and his work began to figure into mine. I’m sitting here thinking about how this country is too big, too violent, too capricious for any of us to speak of a universal American experience, and when we do speak of an American experience, we refer to a narrow regional one.
I’m sitting here thinking about how I would like to have Great Interesting things to say, and I hope I have Great Interesting things to say about South Dakota, but it’s very possible that by the end of this week, the only thing I’ll have to say about South Dakota is that it was a nice, flat place.
This will be my first time in eight years traveling to the middle of the country. A country that really is too big, too violent, too capricious for me to speak any sort of truths about, as hard as I spend my life and my career trying. A career that would ideally have me span this big and violent and capricious place, but which necessitates, ironically enough, my presence in Los Angeles and Los Angeles alone. I hope that my projected truths will at least be true, and that South Dakota is a nice, flat place.Lynn Q. Yu
I felt a dam break when I read Lynn’s post. I still hadn’t written anything about Bourdain’s death, not anything worth posting, at least, but I found a few words just then.
You hit the nail on the head as always, Lynn. If Bourdain taught us anything, it’s that there are no universal truths. Regional stories come together and contribute to larger narratives in their own ways, but those stories stand on their own because they belong to the specific people telling them.
I think what I learned about the violence and capriciousness is that no matter how terribly those things taint and stain culture and history, people persevere and find ways to get through life and struggle together, especially with food at the center to provide sustenance and comfort to counter violence and other awfulness. And those stories are worth telling. He told them, and he continues to inspire me to tell them to this day.
That is, succinctly, how I feel about the matter, and maybe with time I’ll be able to write more, but for now, I celebrated with a tasty, comforting Double-Double, which is far from the last way I’ll honor Tony for years to come.