Charlie LeDuff woke up in Denver Friday morning to the news that his friend and onetime collaborator Anthony Bourdain was gone.
“Detroit should know it lost a true friend,” LeDuff said of the cultural icon who was found dead Friday of an apparent suicide in France at 61. “He had a real love for the city and its people.”
LeDuff said he’d gotten to know the late chef, writer and TV star over the years. Bourdain’s mother, Gladys, was his copy editor during the Detroit journalist’s stint at the New York Times. And Tony – as everyone called him – was a fan of LeDuff’s 2013 book on the Motor City’s decline, “Detroit: An American Autopsy.”
So when Bourdain’s CNN travel show “Parts Unknown” came to town that year, LeDuff played local guide, taking the crew to a home-style barbecue on the east side and tagging along with the Detroit Fire Department.
The two stayed in touch after the shoot wrapped and LeDuff reached out every now and again for career advice.
“Do what you want to do,” LeDuff said Bourdain told him when he was making the decision to leave Fox 2. “Because it eventually ends for all of us.”
In the midst of his own book tour, LeDuff cautioned against the pitfalls of fame, admitting his surprise at Bourdain’s suicide while simultaneously striking a tone of inevitability.
“At the end of the day he was a man,” he said. “We all have our demons. Even the most interesting man in the world hurts.”
If anyone was more involved with Bourdain during his time in Detroit, it was Flowers of Vietnam chef-owner George Azar, who acted as the local fixer during the 10-day “Parts Unknown” shoot.
“Visibility is the reason why he’s not here anymore,” Azar said.
Azar said he thought he was dreaming when he first heard the news of the passing of the man whose stature had grown in the last two decades from burnout chef to breakthrough author to television host to veritable food culture guru and pop celebrity.
“When you talk to Tony, he’s more socially awkward to talk to you than you are to him,” Azar said. “He was a pioneer of a whole genre and it didn’t seem like he knew. You can tell that it’s genuine. We got drunk together at Buffalo Wild Wings because he wanted to watch the fight!
Azar said he was first introduced to Bourdain as a young line cook when his chef gave him a copy of Bourdain’s breakthrough book, 2000’s “Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly.” Azar said he devoured it in a day.
“He’s the one that bridged the gap for people who are civilians not in our industry,” Azar said. “(Expletive) just food. It goes beyond that. He’s one of the more respected voices in our society.”
Azar vividly recalled one of the last days of the Detroit “Parts Unknown” shoot, when the young chef witnessed the impact time in the city had had on his idol:
“On the way home after the shoot, we’re in the Red Zone on the east side and he’s like, ‘George, what the (expletive)? I swear to you I have seen war-torn countries that are in better shape. They forgot about you guys. They literally turned their backs on a pillar of American society, Americana at its purest form. That’s wrong. Where’s the National Guard? Where’s FEMA? Are they seeing this?’ … That’s what he felt. People don’t realize that his show is a genuine representation of what the (expletive) he feels. It’s not anything else.”
Azar said his connection to Bourdain gave him a newfound sense of validity and earned him respect in spaces where he’d previously commanded little.
“He’s all about the authentic underdog that nobody believes in,” Azar said. “I’m telling you he’s a romantic, like Don Quixote.”
Former Guns ‘n’ Butter chef Craig Lieckfelt also appeared in the Detroit “Parts Unknown” episode and had the chance to cook for Bourdain.
Lieckfelt couldn’t be reached by phone Friday, but provided a written statement via text message:
“It’s an extremely sad day and he was the reason I decided to become a chef. I loved him and admired him. I wouldn’t have a career if it wasn’t for him. I became a chef after I read his book. Cooking for him was the ultimate honor. He was inspiring to cook for. Words can’t express how much he meant to me.”
“He definitely seemed fatigued,” Rigato recalled. “I was a little surprised at how mechanical he kinda seemed. He seemed tired. Felt a little bit like he was being propped up. I don’t know how much he was enjoying himself.”
To Rigato, it seemed that Bourdain had been a little lost and soul-searching the last few years of his life.
“He just definitely seemed to become something that he was always fighting,” he said. “I think he had a lot of demons. I think there was an internal battle with him like most of us have. I think part of him always felt like a mediocre, underdog chef. But at the same time, he got so big and so famous. I imagine putting yourself out there every day for 20 years, you end up feeling like Dumbo. You’re in a cage, then you’re on a stage and then back in the cage. You start to lose sense of self. I think when you’re a celebrity and you’re known for something, it’s very hard to evolve and grow and be an individual. When you get that big you lose the sense of purpose. You have all the money. You’ve been to every country. What’s next?”
Still, there’s no debating the impact that Bourdain had on restaurant culture in America.
“He was like the Nirvana of the food scene,” Rigato said. “He completely shifted gears. And now it’s OK to be a bad boy. Now it’s OK to be a rockstar. To be raw and real and say, ‘You know what? Garlic presses are stupid. And soup in a bread bowl is (expletive) lame.’ He made it OK to be a punk rock chef. He made it OK to, like, suck. Which is huge, because most of us suck. He said, ‘I suck. And Bobby Flay sucks, too.’ He humanized this whole chef movement. But 20 years later it’s hard to sort it out because now he’s more famous than Bobby Flay.”
For Rigato and countless others who’ve spent the day processing the news of the unlikely star’s death, Bourdain’s high-profile suicide is a cautionary tale that will surely lead to some self-reflection in the restaurant world and beyond.
“He made a lot of contributions,” Rigato said. “But I think it’s very important to think why. Why did he do this? Why did he kill himself? What needs to change in our industry to prevent this kind of thing? This isn’t the first chef figure to commit suicide. There’s a lot of mental health issues in the restaurant industry. For our main man to go out, that’s intense. We don’t really have another one.”