I was drinking coffee when I found out Anthony Bourdain had killed himself.
Just a few weeks prior I had binge-watched Parts Unknown on Netflix and had become enamored with the larger-than-life character that was Bourdain.
I wanted to be just like him.
Not a world adventurer, but certainly an adventurer in my own life and in my work at Honey Copy.
Like Bourdain, I wanted to straddle the line between caring so much about the things that mattered but not giving a fuck about the things that didn’t. I wanted to be charismatic, witty and, at times, abrasive — totally unafraid to speak my mind even if doing so meant rubbing someone the wrong way.
I wanted to be unapologetically me.
So, when I discovered Bourdain had hung himself at the Le Chambard hotel in Kaysersberg, I was devastated.
I felt like I had lost a mentor I had never met before.
To be candid, a part of me felt wildly silly for being devastated. After all, I had never met the man.
I had never joined him as a wide-eyed willing and able side-kick on one of his foreign explorations nor smoked marijuana with him in a cold wet alleyway in Seattle nor dined on something heaped with truffle on a train to Montreal.
But, I felt like I had.
And, that feeling Bourdain gave me… that feeling of being there with him (without being there with him)… is what made me the writer I am today.
What I learned about writing, living and eating from Anthony Bourdain.
Anthony Bourdain was famous for food, but he will be remembered for his writing.
While his book, Kitchen Confidential, launched his career in television and is hugely polarizing among foodies, food critics and chefs alike… I think its prose is criminally over-looked.
The mother fucker could write and he could do so with stunning unpretentious prose that both Michelin chefs and fast-food lovers could (and still can) get lost in.
Better yet, as I mentioned just moments ago, he had the ornate ability to make the reader feel like they were there. Like, they were snorting coke on a knuckle-worn bar-top in New York City, tripping acid on a beach in Provincetown, slicing their fingers open during a busy dinner rush at Les Halles.
But, in addition to teaching me through action how to place the audience in the same room as him… here’s what else the late great writer taught me about writing, living and eating.
Set the scene with a damn good sentence.
If you’ve read me before, you know I’m quite fond of a damn good sentence.
In fact, it’s one of the first things I teach in my copywriting guide: How to write words that sell like a Florida Snow Cone Vendor on the hottest day of the year.
Bourdain was a master at setting the scene with a single sentence. He kicks off one chapter in Kitchen Confidential with…
“They were assembling machine guns for sale in the employee bathroom when I arrived.”
After reading a sentence like that, it’s quite difficult to dog-ear the page for the evening and hit the hay.
Here is another sentence he wrote, mid-chapter…
“The only other sign that anyone had ever lived there was a lone chef’s jacket on a hanger in one of the closets — like an artifact, evidence of an ancient astronaut who’d been here before me.”
I have yet to find anyone describe a chef’s jacket with such prose (not that I read much about chef’s jackets). Anthony, like so many great writers that have come before him, shows us that all good writing begins and ends with the single sentence.
Don’t be an asshole and if you are, write about it.
In Kitchen Confidential, Bourdain reflects on his youth, a youth he isn’t by any means proud of, where he writes…
“I treated the world as my ash-tray.”
This is a very pretty way of saying you were an asshole. Bourdain was exceptional at explaining the obvious in interesting ways.
Perhaps, this falls under both life and writing.
Half the battle of being a decent writer is saying something interesting — saying something in a way that has never been done before. And, half the battle of living is fessing up when you’ve been an asshole.
Maybe, it’s all about telling the truth in an interesting way.
The best cooking and the best writing is most often simple.
Bourdain pokes a great deal of fun at pompous chefs in Kitchen Confidential who he feels need 101 ingredients to make something taste spectacular.
In giving cooking advice to the reader he writes…
“Use fresh! Good food is very often, even most often, simple food. Some of the best cuisine in the world — whole roasted fish, Tuscan-style, for instance — is a matter of three or four ingredients. Just make sure they’re good ingredients, fresh ingredients, and then garnish them.”
I’d argue the same could be said for writing.
There should never be any reason that your reader needs a dictionary beside her while she’s reading your work. She should be able to recognize the words you use.
Bourdain shows us — both in his writing and his approach to cooking — that creativity is doing something brilliant with something simple.
Visual, tangible writing is good writing.
The metaphors and imagery Bourdain uses in Kitchen Confidential are uncanny. They made this little scribbler’s heart skip a beat time and time again. Just read this small masterpiece of an excerpt he wrote about a fucking broiler…
“… the mighty broiler. I can’t describe to you the sheer pleasure, the power of commanding that monstrous, fire-breathing iron and steel furnace, bumping the grill under the flames with my hip the way I’d seen Bobby and Jimmy do it. It was tremendous. I couldn’t have felt happier — or more powerful — in the cockpit of an F-16.”
Or, this excerpt where he reflected on his time in culinary school…
“They’d let us practice our knife-work on whole legs of beef, my novice butcher classmates and me absolutely destroying thousands of pounds of meat; we were the culinary version of the Manson family.”
If you can learn to turn a broiler into a “monstrous, fire-breathing iron and steel furnace” or wide-eyed students into “the culinary version of the Manson family” you might have a chance in this game.
Don’t be afraid to go down a rabbit hole.
Some of the best damn creatives I know have the ability to drag their readers, listeners and watchers down a rabbit hole or tangent of sorts, and then bring them back up to the surface again.
Bourdain does this in a number of places in Kitchen Confidential, where he takes a simple idea and then goes off on a rant or a tangent, beating the dead horse in a lively way, a way that you want to keep reading and reading and reading.
Here, he describes the nasty reality of starting a restaurant…
“And with every dime you’ve got tied up in your new place suddenly the drains in your prep kitchen are backing up with raw sewage, pushing hundreds of gallons of impacted crap into your dining room; your coke-addled chef just called that Asian waitress who’s working her way through law school a chink, which ensures your presence in court for the next six months; your bartender is giving the bar to underage girls from Wantagh, any one of which could then crash Daddy’s Buick into a busload of divinity students, putting your liquor license in peril, to say the least; the ANSUL System could go off, shutting down your kitchen in the middle of a ten-thousand-dollar night; there’s the ongoing struggle with rodents and cockroaches, any one of which could crawl across the Tina Brown four-top in the middle of the dessert course; you just bought ten thousand dollars worth of shrimp when the market was low, but the walk-in freezer just went on the fritz and naturally it’s a holiday weekend, so good luck getting a service call in time; the dishwasher just walked out after arguing with the busboy, and they need glasses now on table seven; immigration is at the door for a surprise inspection of your kitchen’s green cards; the produce guy wants a certified check or he’s taking back the delivery; you didn’t order enough napkins for the weekend — and is that New York Times reviewer waiting for your hostess to stop flirting and notice her?”
By the way, that was all one sentence.
That’s called not conforming.
That’s called running off on a bit of a tangent.
That’s called going down a rabbit hole
That’s called making good art.
Lastly, tell the truth in an interesting way.
Writing non-fiction, creative or not, is about telling the truth. Unfortunately, history has shown that human memory leaves something to be desired.
Trying to remember what someone said yesterday can be as challenging as a game of go fish blind-folded, let alone attempting to remember what someone said a decade or so ago.
So, I’d argue that there is no such thing as non-fiction that is 100% true. Perhaps, 70% true and if we’re being optimistic 80% true. But, being that our memories are extremely imperfect, it’s impossible to be totally truthful when writing.
However, there is a fine line between remembering differently and flat out lying. One thing I admired deeply about Bourdain’s book Kitchen Confidential was that while he may have “misremembered” in a few places… he didn’t pull any punches when it came to describing the good, the bad nor the ugly of life in the restaurant business — even if it meant him being self-deprecating.
And, best of all, while he was slaying himself, others and the restaurant business as a whole… he was doing so in an interesting way.
But, I digress.
By Cole Schafer.
You gotta check this out — Sticky Notes is my email list reserved strictly for entrepreneurs and creatives looking to sell like a Florida Snow Cone Vendor on the hottest day of the year.