Unlike most celebrities, he showed at least some of his complexities, damage and contradictions to the world. Not only did he not try to project an image of wholesome, untroubled perfection, his inability to do that was an integral part of his public persona. More like a rock star than any other kind of celebrity. Maybe I’m just gullible, but it seems to me the public and private Bourdain were probably very similar, the public version only slightly exaggerated for entertainment purposes. Reading the comments on Pete Wells’ NYT piece on Bourdain, I found myself agreeing with most of them – from the effusive to the disdainful.
At times I found him a little annoying, a little overexposed, a little over-the-top in his contempt for strident vegetarians, a little too stereotypical-no-bullshit-New Yorker (which could just mean he was New Jersey to the bone? I don’t know NJ well enough). And even as a depressive person I have trouble imagining the depths of despair that would prompt him to abandon his child this way, though I don’t go so far as to hate him for it.
But he also seemed to be a fundamentally good person. He was a very good writer and an insightful commentator. His open-mindedness was a breath of fresh air, as was his willingness to include less than pleasant incidents in his shows.
He did that from the beginning… in an early episode of A Cook’s Tour, he arranges for a dinner of the classic Russian fish pie, koulibiac, a banquet dish fit for czars and Party chairmen. Either somebody messed up or had a stroke of genius, because he wound up not at an interesting dinner party of Muscovites enjoying a fine koulibiac washed down with the best Georgian sparkling wine, but alone in a barely-post-Soviet kitchen trying to gag down a very unappealing and not-at-all-post-Soviet version of the dish.
Maybe the scene simply reflected the fact that he was still a relative unknown, without the clout to get virtually anyone on his show, but I don’t think he ever really lost the willingness to show the things that didn’t go right.
He probably taught at least a little something to anyone who was paying attention. Or maybe he just entertained them, or in the case of vegetarians infuriated them. He was good at both of those things too.
I’ll miss him.