Bourdain’s NJ episode captured Jersey’s grit — and his own
Anthony Bourdain is gone. It's very hard to believe. Just days shy of his 62nd birthday Anthony took his own life while in France working on an upcoming episode of Parts Unknown. Born in NYC but raised in Leonia, Bourdain always struck me as a typical Jersey guy: Tough yet friendly and disarmingly smart. He didn't look like a TV personality.
In fact, he wasn't until much later in life. Anthony grew up with a dad who was a classical music exec with Columbia Records and a mom who was a staff editor for The New York Times. But he fell in love with culinary arts and made that his living until his 40s. He ran kitchens in New York City and became an executive chef.
It wasn't until he wrote an article called "Don't Eat Before Reading This," which appeared in The New Yorker, that his path changed. That became the beginnings of a book called Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly. This was in 2000. There were more books. His skills as an amazing storyteller became known and television followed.
Eventually his CNN series Parts Unknown grabbed an audience with its unique style.
Naturally, being a Jersey guy myself born and raised, his episode on New Jersey was my favorite. Season 5, Episode 5. (See clips of these episode at end of article.) The way he describes it was they purposely did everything that wasn't obvious. The obvious would have been to showcase for the world the overlooked parts of New Jersey like it's beautiful beaches, it's mountains, the reasons why it's called the Garden State. Not Bourdain. He wanted to focus on the "screwed up" parts of New Jersey like Camden, Atlantic City, etc.
"Let's make them look beautiful. In fact, let's shoot the Jersey Shore in winter. Let's do everything wrong and go to all the wrong places and show people that Jersey is still awesome."
It was genius. It was showing Jersey's grit. It was showing Jersey's past by holding a mirror to its sometimes decaying present. And in its timing and texture, the episode was one of the most beautiful things you've seen on television. It showed the character of New Jersey, how it is now and the ghost of how it was then, warts and all, and it didn't care if you didn't appreciate it.
For a guy raised in Leonia this had to be a labor of love. I know Bourdain was trying to capture the state's own beauty even if faded and worn, but I don't know if he realized he was also capturing his own. Watching Bourdain in this episode you saw into his soul. There were moments when his eyes looked both haunted and perfectly at peace at once. You saw a Jersey guy, who'd had a hell of an interesting life, starting to get older and yet looking perfectly comfortable in that skin.
It took you for fried hot dogs in Fort Lee at Hiram's. A cheesesteak at Donkey's in Camden. A meal at Doc's Oyster House in Atlantic City. This amazing episode featured Southside Johnny. (If you don't know who he is, you're not from New Jersey and shouldn't be reading this.) It featured a heroic tenacious woman named Tawanda Jones who gave kids in a crime-ridden city like Camden hope and focus through Camden Sophisticated Drill Team. Comedians Bonnie McFarlane and Rick Vos.
But the star of this show was New Jersey, with Anthony Bourdain's brilliance getting equal billing.
It's a strange dynamic when we lose a celebrity. For we feel like we know them, when of course we don't fully. It's a one-way relationship, but we root for them, we feel for them, sometimes learn from them and can certainly be inspired by their work. They touch our lives even if from a great distance. We are sad when they're gone. But when we lose a celebrity to suicide, it's painful.
When Robin Williams took his own life we were not only shocked but felt a little guilty. How could we have taken so much laughter and joy from this man while he faced lifelong suffering and we had no idea?
The world lost Chris Cornell to suicide then his best friend Chester Bennington the same way.
Kate Spade killed herself recently.
Now Anthony Bourdain.
The Tyler Durden character in the movie Fight Club said, "We've all been raised on television to believe that one day we'd all be millionaires and movie gods and rock stars...but we won't." As if this should be the end game. We think if we just had these things all happiness and peace would be ours. The thing is, we can't glitz or buy or fame our way out of humanity. Anthony Bourdain's net worth was $16 million. He was well loved. He was well traveled. In the end, everything around you is never as big as what's inside of you.
I feel so bad about whatever darkness was there. In some of us those demons waltz endlessly on the edge of our blackness to music no one else hears. But for some, it's always there, lying in wait, deep inside parts unknown.
The number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255.