Men with loud mouths and a reputation for getting under people’s skin aren’t usually described as also open-minded and compassionate. But Anthony Bourdain, who died Friday morning of an apparent suicide, didn’t like to play by the rules. Instead, he followed his own instincts, which happened to involve a curiosity about other cultures, fiercely advocating for the marginalized (particularly Lantinx restaurant workers), and most recently, speaking up in support of the #MeToo movement, which hit the food industry hard after accusations of abuse against figures like Mario Batali became public.
These were Bourdain’s peers, yet his relationship to the accused never clouded his judgement. He was willing to do the hard but necessary work of naming and condemning the men in his own circle.
“Any admiration I have expressed in the past for Mario Batali and Ken Friedman, whatever I might feel about them, however much I admired and respected them, is, in light of these charges, irrelevant,” Bourdain wrote in a Medium post in December about two prominent chefs who were accused of sexual misconduct. He also included himself in these critiques: “To the extent which my work in Kitchen Confidential celebrated or prolonged a culture that allowed the kind of grotesque behaviors we’re hearing about all too frequently is something I think about daily, with real remorse.”
Bourdain positioned himself as a shining example of the kind of work #MeToo advocates were hoping for from the men around them. While many men in Hollywood, where the reckoning started with producer Harvey Weinstein, retreated, issued insincere apologies, or made excuses, Bourdain was there to call them on their bullshit. Sometimes directly on Twitter:
It wasn’t just his restaurant connections that encouraged him to step forward as an advocate, but also his relationship with Harvey Weinstein accuser Asia Argento, who he began dating in early 2017. That October, in a New Yorker report by Ronan Farrow, Argento publicly accused Weinstein of sexually assaulting her in the late ‘90s. Bourdain used his platform to encourage Argento’s voice, transforming his asshole persona of the 2000s into a bully with a cause. While women still face consequences and dismissals when speaking up about sexual harassment, Bourdain was a rare example of a man harnessing his privilege and using it to legitimize the words of those who normally go unheard.
That Bourdain of all people would became a moral compass for men grappling with a new world order was unexpected. When he made his first splash in the 2000 book Kitchen Confidential, he gave us a dishy, insidery picture of the restaurant industry’s very own boys club. It was as much about food as it was about drinking, drugs, and illicit behind-the-scenes liaisons. Bourdain reveals in the book that witnessing a chef have sex with the bride of a wedding party behind a seafood restaurant is what inspired him to pursue his career. Later, he described line cooks as “a thuggish assortment of drunks, sneak thieves, sluts and psychopaths.” This was before we’d come to realize that this was bro culture run amok. Which he eventually did with his usual unfiltered flare. As he copped to Slate in 2017, he was definitely “an asshole” during parts of his rise to fame.
“I became a leading figure in a very old, very oppressive system so I could hardly blame anyone for looking at me as somebody who’s not going to be particularly sympathetic,” he said.
His transformation wasn’t overnight. It wasn’t a sudden change of heart. It was what everyone remembers about Bourdain, what was in him all along: He listens to other people. In this case, women.
“In these current circumstances, one must pick a side,” he wrote in that Medium post. “I stand unhesitatingly and unwaveringly with the women. Not out of virtue, or integrity, or high moral outrage — as much as I’d like to say so — but because late in life, I met one extraordinary woman with a particularly awful story to tell, who introduced me to other extraordinary women with equally awful stories. I am grateful to them for their courage, and inspired by them. That doesn’t make me any more enlightened than any other man who has begun listening and paying attention. It does makes me, I hope, slightly less stupid.”
The loss of such an important advocate in the midst of the movement is one of many reasons Bourdain’s death hits particularly hard. Let us learn not just from his work but also from the steps he took to create it, and never underestimate the power of someone’s voice.