One of my favorite books about one of my favorite New Jerseyans is Pete Hamill’s Why Sinatra Matters, published in 1998, the year of Sinatra’s death. It is a miracle of a little book: succinct and pointed, but also nuanced and indelible. A masterstroke portrait of Ol’ Blue Eyes and his everlasting influence on us all. I thought of the book and its stop-you-in-your-tracks title again after witnessing the outpouring of love from every corner of the globe upon the news of the passing of another extraordinary New Jerseyan: Anthony Bourdain.
I first met Bourdain in 1997. He was my husband’s close friend and the three of us, with Bourdain’s agent, Kim Witherspoon, conceived of what would become Kitchen Confidential, which I published in 2000. The details of that origin story have been told before and don’t need retelling here. What is most relevant is how that story led to another and another until even those who didn’t watch Bourdain’s shows or read his books felt compelled to stand witness to his death. Everyone wants to talk about what happened on June 8, and it got me thinking about why Bourdain matters.
Bourdain crossed all boundaries. His métier was food, but he was also expert in politics and history, culture and travel, music and film. His fans are young and old, male and female, straight and queer; they are blue and red, east and west, black and white; they are hip and square, adventuresome and timid, paleo and vegan, armchair and inveterate travelers alike. He was one of few examples of someone who could piss people off and still maintain their respect in the wake of their rancor. Bourdain not only crossed boundaries, he collapsed the divisions we insist on building between us—those false but persistent barriers that are meant to safeguard but only serve to segregate. His influence ran deep by making a virtue of not insisting on being likeable or nonconfrontational. I can’t think of another public figure who garnered such deep admiration and love by being so resolutely him or herself, including being comfortable making fans a little uncomfortable. In his profane, cranky, and beguilingly charming way, he made it okay for others to be themselves.
Bourdain caught and held readers’ and viewers’ attention by telling stories. Many of those stories were his own—certainly in the beginning—but he was particularly attuned to other people’s stories. He listened and made them important, because everyone’s story is important. And in a world where story can be twisted for the point, Bourdain would tell it like it is.
First and foremost, Bourdain was a writer. Besides spending two decades writing and creating for television, Bourdain penned 14 books and had other works in progress when he died; he took storytelling seriously. Stories are how we connect and, in a world where real connection seems to be losing ground, Bourdain was there to help others claw their way back up. His gift was to connect cultures and people by finding what there was to honor, to share, and to be grateful for, even in the most tenuous of circumstances or in the least expected places. And it is this very connection that ultimately holds us all together—even in our pain. In his tragic death, Bourdain’s story once again connects us, this time in sorrow. I wish those stories and connections he was so expert at creating kept him with us for another day; with Bourdain himself gone, we need them more than ever.
He will be missed, he will be mourned. We can be grateful that among the gifts he left behind are his books and TV series—so redolent of his voice—a treasure trove to which fans can return again and again. Anthony Bourdain went from Jersey boy to citizen of the world, just like his compatriot Frank Sinatra. And from this Jersey girl, to her friend and author: You mattered, Tony. You fucking matter.
Karen Rinaldi is the founder and publisher of Harper Wave. While president and publisher at Bloomsbury USA, she published, among other titles by Anthony Bourdain, Kitchen Confidential, A Cook's Tour, Les Halles Cookbook, and No Reservations. She is the author of the 2017 novel, The End of Men (Harper Perennial).