Sean Beckwith: Anothony Bourdain and the power of voice

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The most meaningful compliment I — as a writer or whatever you want to call a part-time columnist — can receive is “You have a good voice.” It’s like complimenting a baker’s perfectly airy bread, or a fly fisher’s handmade lure. Think about the most ideal quality for a given occupation and then getting lauded for how good you are at it; that’s what it’s like when someone tells me I have a good voice.

It’s why I can write a sentence like “The only thing that will make you feel more helpless than rooting for a Mike Riley-led football team is rooting for a Bill Callahan-coached football team” and people who know me can hear me saying those words in their head. Like a sommelier pinpointing wine regions and vintage years sans bottle, I can do that with certain writers. Whether it’s Shea Serrano dumbing down the logic behind a list of disrespectful dunks like a school teacher breaking down a math problem, or goose-bump inducing dialogue of a tense scene in an Elmore Leonard novel, I love how distinguishable a writer’s voice is.

Perhaps the most unique, identifiable delivery of all the writers who have influenced me is the voice of Anthony Bourdain. I stick mostly to articles and columns over books, but I read “Kitchen Confidential” in three sittings; the final session coming because I forced myself to ration those last biting, incredibly entertaining pages like whatever Tom Hanks scavenged in “Cast Away.” (That is if he actually scavenged anything. I don’t know, I never saw the movie.)

Bourdain is a massive reason why I’m obsessed with the food industry and, at the same time, the motivation behind never wanting to work in a kitchen. The way he described the thankless job of a line cook, an uncomfortably hot workplace — with vivid details of sweat spewing from every orifice imaginable — and myriad other aspects of chef life was exhaustingly honest. It’s something I believe readers appreciate, and something I try to emulate.

He was the first person I can remember that approached travel journalism without lace and doilies. It was similar to the way Nirvana ripped the scab off pop culture with grunge music, ending Milli Vanilli and all those repulsive late ’80s glamour bands.

All-inclusive resorts meant to shield tourists from “undesirable” locals were to be avoided and ridiculed. He ate at chic, world-class restaurants but also recommended wandering down an alley and into a random eatery. His love of a good dive bar and unhealthy street food — with the accompanying “Look at this beautifully disgusting, greasy, wonderful bite of food” voiceover — made me smile every time.

His unrelenting shots at culinary staples like Rachel Ray, Guy Fieri, Olive Garden and other unholy products of the Food Network and chain restaurants really opened peoples’ eyes to what food should be. Bourdain widely hated hipsters, foodies and trends like Instagramming your meals, but he has to be partially credited with furthering American palettes and food culture in general. The uptick in the popularity of Korean, Indian, Ethiopian and other worldly cuisine in the U.S., for me, began with watching him — from my couch often while nursing a hangover — saunter around continents, looking for that perfect stomach-mellowing, headache-clearing meal.

He comes off as an all-knowing encyclopedia of international food, however, you could tell he had a hefty appetite for learning, as well. For somebody who could be entertaining people watching and roasting rubes and businessmen alike, he also was profoundly good at listening. He recognized that even though he was the host of a TV show — “No Reservations” and then “Parts Unknown” — he was a guest and ambassador for himself as well as his prying camera crew in many homes and at intimate family ceremonies and celebrations.

His ability to ingratiate himself into countless cultures without overdoing it or coming across as phony was uncanny. Obviously chefs welcomed him like the patron saint of the kitchen that he is but he was able to make a tribe in the Amazon or Africa feel comfortable enough to let him, and subsequently the audience, into their lives.

When I woke up Friday and read a text message from a friend about Bourdain’s death via suicide, it was as if someone snuffed out a puppy. This bright, beaming fountain of joy had been ripped out of the lives of his family, friends and fans at only 61.

He was confident and self-assured, but at the same time always carried a dose of darkness. He was an incredibly gifted writer who got great happiness from colorfully venomous adjectives and insults. He didn’t have a problem calling Kobe beef sliders “the epicenter of douchedom” or referring to truffle oil as “Astroglide,” but couldn’t bring himself to share his inner turmoil.

As powerful as his voice was, I wish he would have sought help and used it when he needed it most. He passionately championed the #MeToo movement, migrant workers and other overlooked segments of society, but I guess even he couldn’t broach a subject as stigmatized and personal as depression.

This is about the time in “Parts Unknown” when Tony’s voiceover would come on and he would try to tie the experiences into a common theme, conjuring insight he picked up during his travels. I don’t have a three-sentence combination to sum up his truly inspiring life or describe this soul-crushing loss.

All I can say is if you’re struggling with depression or know someone who is, please reach out. There are people who want to and can help.

Sean Beckwith is a copy editor at The Aspen Times. Reach him at