Our business recently lost a great representative, character and bon viveur in Anthony Bourdain, who took his own life at just 61.
I met him a few times and it inevitably involved a glass or two of bourbon. The last time was in a scruffy bar in Baltimore that served its drinks in filthy glasses. We kept drinking anyway, and the night descended into a happy blur of booze and conversation. Anthony was the kind of guy who filled a room, one of those rare personalities that was both infectious and imperious. He was one of the good ones.
He also did as much as anyone to change the perception of the food business over the last 20 years, making it seem cool and sexy and wild at a time when it was often seen as stuffy and pretentious and elitist. His book Kitchen Confidential made being a chef sound like being a rockstar, albeit one with loads of third degree burns. He’s been an incredible ambassador for the industry, championing food from across the world and bringing it to audiences who might never have come across it otherwise.
My hope is that his death shines a light on something that’s long been an issue in the food industry – depression, anxiety and addiction. Last year I wrote about my friend Jeremy Strode, who sadly took his life in Sydney at the beginning of 2017. Ironically, he was hosting a charity dinner in aid of suicide prevention charity RUOK, at which I was cooking.
Australia is one of the few places that’s seriously addressing the issue, but sadly it came too late for Jeremy, who had clearly been suffering in silence. Thankfully, more and more people are opening up and talking about their mental health issues when, in the past, they might have felt the need to bottle things up.
The food industry is a particular flashpoint for mental health issues – it’s got that work-hard, play-hard mentality that Anthony described so well in his books and his journalism, it’s a high-pressure environment with long, unforgiving hours that can isolate people from their friends and family. It’s easy to turn to drink or drugs as an escape, a momentary respite that ends up costing a heavy price.
I find myself talking about this stuff a lot since Jeremy died and people almost always seem relieved. Last weekend someone well known confided in me that they had mental health issues that were being exacerbated by financial problems (another big issue in this business).
I get stressed, too: I have work commitments, staff I don’t want to let down, restaurants with balance sheets to keep in the black. I find acupuncture helps, as does fishing, which is my means of escape; there’s something about being out at sea, or in a river with my waders, thinking about nothing but the gentle tug of the line. It makes my worries disappear, if only for a while.
I’m not saying fishing is the answer, but it’s important that people find something they can do to switch off that doesn’t come with the negative effects of drink and drugs. Sometimes it might be as simple as having a frank, honest conversation with a friend, or even just sharing a few stories with them. I’m proud to have a few about Anthony; like I said, he was one of the good ones.