'Bear' and Anthony Bourdain's legacy serve as reminders of hidden monsters; how to find help

Mackensy Lunsford
Southern Kitchen

This year, the anniversary of Anthony Bourdain's death slipped by me. As did "Anthony Bourdain Day," on June 25, which chefs Eric Ripert and José Andrés have declared as a day of remembrance for the chef-turned-TV star.

Bourdain, who died by suicide in 2018, was the author of "Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly."

I read that book as a 20-year-old line cook. At the time, I worked in the kitchen of the tiny and impossibly busy Salsa's, a Mexican-Caribbean restaurant in Asheville, North Carolina. 

It was so busy in the late '90s that people would line up around the block to get in at opening. Once the dining room filled up, the rest of the line would hustle to the takeout area and pummel the kitchen with to-go orders. 

I clearly remember the ticket machine droning as it printed out order after order so quickly the tickets would snake to the floor. I still have dreams about those tickets, and the mix of anxiety with the rush of adrenaline. 

That feeling came alive for me watching "Bear" on Hulu, a fictional show about a lauded chef who takes the helm of a disorderly restaurant previously owned by his brother.

Anthony Bourdain stars in Morgan Neville's documentary, "Roadrunner," a Focus Features release.

While watching the lead character have his own anxiety dreams about ticket machines, thoughts of Bourdain and his influence came to me in a rush. My memories of the chef, who later in life would star in CNN's extraordinary "Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown," are closely intertwined with both my early cooking and journalism careers.

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Like Bourdain, I started off as a dishwasher with a discipline problem who thrived in the structure of the kitchen. The in-the-moment nature of professional cooking spoke to me.

But even in my early 20s, I knew the lifestyle was unsustainable. The founder of restaurant industry sobriety group Ben's Friends once noted to me in an interview that bars are about the only entertainment options available after restaurants close. On top of that, vacations are few, hours are ridiculous and benefits such as insurance are hard to come by. 

Bourdain, I thought while reading his book back then, rose out of the kitchen by parlaying his insider knowledge into a writing career. I hoped to follow suit, so in 2005 I answered a want ad for a weekly food critic position at the local alt-weekly newspaper.

Somehow I scored the job, but I was so green that things didn't always go smoothly. One review I wrote was so mean-spirited that the restaurant held a public burning of a stack of newspapers.

By and large, it all turned out and, after an ill-advised stint as a restaurant owner, I became a full-time staff reporter in 2010. One year later, I would interview Bourdain, one of the highlights of my career. The following month, I had the chance to meet him.

The author's article, signed by Anthony Bourdain.

Bourdain was signing books at a restaurant before a speaking engagement. I waited in line for him to sign the article featuring his interview, which I had tucked into the cover of Stevie Wonder's "Innervisions." He smiled warmly when he spied the album cover and said, "You know, no one ever asks me this question, but this is my favorite record. You have excellent taste in music."

Not only did Bourdain remember who I was, but he had also listened to one of my podcasts to brush up on the local news. He described what I talked about in detail. I admired how he immersed himself so deeply in his travels and did the work in advance. He appeared to live life so fully.

I told him that reading "Kitchen Confidential" had inspired my writing career, and he seemed genuinely touched. He said he knew we'd meet each other again. Seven years later, he was dead.

People like to speculate about what happened, about whether the loss of privacy was a factor for a chef who's spoken openly about mental health issues. I asked him about that in the 2011 interview, and he said it was worth it. 

"You know, you give something up, but you get so much, particularly in my case," he told me. "I might have to sign an autograph (while) running through an airport looking for a bathroom, but on the other hand, I get to travel anywhere I want in the world and create these self-indulgent shows with friends without any creative interference from the network."

Compared to working a really busy brunch at a restaurant you hate, he added, life was "pretty (expletive) good."

In "Bear," it's revealed in bits and pieces that the main character's brother died by suicide. The pressure of the industry, the razor-thin profit margins and the resultant substance abuse wore on him.

That character battled the same hidden monsters that can live inside the most solid-seeming, gregarious, larger-than-life personalities, like Bourdain. That's why, every year around this time, I like to send out a reminder that help is available to anyone at risk of suicide.

To help those at risk of suicide

Call 1-800-273-8255 to reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. It provides free and confidential support 24 hours a day, seven days a week for people in suicidal crisis or distress. 

Call 1-800-273-8255 to talk to someone about how to help another person in crisis.

For crisis support in Spanish, call 1-888-628-9454.

For the Trevor Lifeline, a suicide prevention counseling service for the LGBTIQ+ community, call 1-866-488-7386.

Text HOME to 741741 to have a confidential text conversation with a trained crisis counselor from Crisis Text Line. Counselors are available 24/7.

Text STEVE to 741741 to reach the crisis text line for students of color. 

Parts of this story were originally printed in the Asheville Citizen Times on June 8, 2018, the day of Anthony Bourdain's death.

Mackensy Lunsford is the food and culture storyteller for USA TODAY Network's South region and the editor of Southern Kitchen.

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