When Bourdain visited Lost Creek Farm, I knew who he was. It took his tragic death for me to understand why he truly mattered.
Last Friday morning 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 in late-April, I’ve found myself immersed in endless chatter about Bourdain’s CNN show, in its 11th season. 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’ve offered up some combination of those answers dozens of times by now, 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 last summer, 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 were in the front yard Thursday evening 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 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.”
Welsch was raised on a dairy farm in the Northern Panhandle, his father a laborer in a glass factory, later in an aluminum mill. He said while the episode didn’t necessarily reflect his own upbringing, he could identify with and take pride in the stories Bourdain told.
“He showed that we can all be connected,” Welsch said, describing a message he hopes will live on, even after Bourdain’s passing. “We can stop making choices about other people based on their religion or their skin color.”
At a very young age, years before AuCo Lai imagined moving to what she calls her adopted home of Appalachia, she struggled with cultural identity, experiencing the ridicule and intolerance Bourdain so often spoke out against.
Lai, now a sous chef at The Wrigley Taproom in Corbin, Kentucky, is the first American-born member of her family. Her parents, both refugees from the Vietnam war, attempted to impress an appreciation for Vietnamese culture upon their young daughter. But in their suburban New Jersey neighborhood, they struggled to balance Vietnamese culture with American norms and ideals Lai was exposed to around her young friends and classmates.
“It was actually a real source of pain for me during my adolescence,” she said of the cultural tension. At some point in her early teens, an interest in food led her to follow Bourdain’s travels on television. When he ended up in Vietnam for two consecutive episodes of the Food Network series A Cook’s Tour, Bourdain made her feel comfortable embracing her family’s heritage for the very first time.
“Here’s this guy talking about Vietnam in a way that my parents tried to show me, tried to get me to appreciate, but in a language that I could understand, especially through food,” she said. “He was eating all the foods that I grew up with, that all my friends told me were fishy or stinky or weird. He was savoring it, and valuing it for all of the things that I had been made to feel ashamed of.”
In 2012, while living among a large Vietnamese community in Minnesota, Lai suffered through a challenging bout with depression. In a moment when, she says, Bourdain “saved me from some of my darkest moments”, she read Kitchen Confidential and realized she wanted to turn her affinity for cooking — more specifically, Vietnamese cooking — into a career. Once she finished the book, she quickly picked it back up and read it again.
“I read it twice, back to back. It was talking about this career I wanted to be a part of, this process of making food for others, making food that people can care about,” she said. “It set me on the career path that I’m on now. It gave me the OK to cook Vietnamese food, or Vietnamese-inspired food, to make comfort foods and present them in other ways, to show that it doesn’t have to come from a high-end restaurant.”
“He made it safe for me to exist the way that I do, in the field that I do, and in the world in general”, she added of Bourdain. “I owe him so much.”
In the Appalachian foothills of Eastern Kentucky, Lai says she feels a special bond with her friends and neighbors, many of whom struggle with stereotypes, cultural identity and mental illness. She says such deep, empathetic connections solidify her decision to stay in Appalachia, passing up recent opportunities to earn more money in larger cities like Lexington, Louisville or Chicago.
“So many of my friends and people I’ve met in passing have so many similar stories that I relate to,” she said. “People here get it, and we care about the land and we care about food and we care about each other, even though it’s conflicted in many ways.”
“Conflicted” would be one way to describe the experiences of Blair Campbell, chef and owner of Pretty Penny Cafe in Hillsboro, West Virginia. For almost twenty years, Campbell has watched Bourdain, who, she says, inspires the way she travels, the way she interacts with the community, the way she’s strived at times to become a voice for the voiceless.
“I feel like I just lost a friend,” she wrote of Bourdain’s death Friday morning, before telling me she never expected the death of a celebrity could affect her so deeply. “I’ve watched all of his shows. I’m talking all the way back to the very first ones.”
She said she appreciated the way Bourdain ended up off the beaten path, telling stories about people and places most celebrities and television hosts would never think to visit.
“There are all kinds of famous people who have a platform, and they’re never going to use it to go somewhere else, to lift people up and tell a story,” she said. “They’re just going to use it for themselves.”
Campbell says Bourdain could “always see the good in a place, but he wouldn’t sugarcoat it,” pointing to the uncomfortable conversations Bourdain tried to spark about issues such as race, women’s rights and gentrification, to name a few.
“He wasn’t afraid to open the door to issues people were scared to talk about,” she said. “He brought up things about how we interact with each other and the space we all share.”
Last month, when asked which issues Campbell wished Bourdain could highlight if he were to someday return to West Virginia, racism in her community was at the top of her list. It’s a deeply personal issue for Campbell and her family. Her husband, Charlan, a native of Jamaica, and the couple’s young children, Oliver and Penelope, are some of the relatively few people of color in rural, sparsely-populated Pocahontas County, which, according to 2010 census data, is almost 97% white. The National Alliance, which the Southern Poverty Law Center says was “for decades the most dangerous and best organized neo-Nazi formation in America”, was once headquartered just a couple miles from Hillsboro. Some of its members and relatives of former leaders still live nearby. In 2014, Pretty Penny was vandalized by a disgruntled former employee’s acquaintance, who had spray-painted a racial slur on the building’s white wooden siding, an incident to which the community responded with a vocal outpouring of support for the Campbells and the cafe.
Campbell says while racism shows up in everyday life, it’s an issue residents are hesitant to discuss openly. That is certainly not a dilemma unique to Pocahontas County, or anywhere else in America. She says the conversation isn’t as simple as identifying victims of racism, or accusing others of racism, because in small, rural communities like Hillsboro, residents with drastically varying backgrounds and ideologies interact with each other routinely. They send their kids to the same schools and babysitters, support each other’s businesses, and, in many other ways, rely on each other to survive. The dynamic is nothing, if not conflicted.
“It wouldn’t be a pretty conversation, but I think he could have had it,” she said, noting Bourdain’s ability to challenge his subjects and ask hard questions. “Is it going to change anything? Maybe. Maybe not. But at least you can shed light on it and give people a voice.”
Although it will never be Bourdain facilitating, she hopes such a dialogue is still possible. She says, while he could have started the conversation, it would have been up to the community to keep it going. Starting this week, Campbell says she’ll start airing past episodes of Parts Unknown each Wednesday evening, hoping the conversations Bourdain had in communities around the world might inspire residents of Hillsboro to sit down together, share a meal and start talking.
“It will be interesting to see if conversations like this can still happen,” she said. “He’s left a major hole to fill, and I just hope there’s someone out there who can keep it going and have these conversations that are bigger than any one person.”
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.
Food editor Mike Costello (@costellowv) is a chef, farmer and storyteller at Lost Creek Farm in Harrison County, West Virginia. Through his cooking and writing, Mike strives to tell important stories about a misrepresented and misunderstood region he’s always called home.