Anthony Bourdain is why I'm a food writer; the pain of his death surprises me | Lunsford

Mackensy Lunsford
The Citizen-Times
Chefs Anthony Bourdain (right) and Eric Ripert host a cooking demonstration at the annual Cayman Cookout festival.

This is the opinion of Mackensy Lunsford, food writer for the Citizen Times. Reach her at

I was 21 or 22 when I read Anthony Bourdain's "Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly."

That means I was deep in the culinary underbelly myself, or at least the comparatively tame version that existed in Asheville at the time. 

I was alternately washing dishes and cooking at Salsa's, back when it was pretty much the hottest — practically the only — ticket in town. People would line up around the block, waiting for that open sign to be flipped in the window, and we would brace for the coming onslaught as the restaurant filled up with diners. Then again. And again. And again.

Read more: In wake of Anthony Bourdain suicide, Asheville chefs discuss perils of industry

When I cooked during the day, I would get out of work in the late afternoon. If it was Long Island iced tea day at the French Bar, I'd head over there, a copy of "Kitchen Confidential" in tow. If I worked at night, I'd be up until the wee hours. 

Like Bourdain, I started off as a dishwasher. Like Bourdain, I had a serious discipline problem, and I craved — and thrived in — the structure of the kitchen. There was a type of immediate accountability in cooking, and that in-the-moment nature of it spoke to me.

But still, also like Bourdain, I partied too much in those days. I stayed up too late, drank too hard, smoked too many cigarettes. In my early 20s, my knees hurt. My wrists hurt. My knuckles hurt. 

But here was a man, I thought while reading his book, who rose out of the obscurity of a kitchen (celebrity chefs were hardly a thing at the time) into a writing career. That, I thought, was something I could do.

I started by taking some writing classes and then, inspired by Bourdain's success as a cook-turned-writer, in 2005 answered a want ad for a weekly food critic position at Asheville's alt weekly, Mountain Xpress.

Somehow I scored the job and, after an ill-advised stint as a restaurant owner, dove head-first into writing full time, joining the staff in 2010. One year later, I would interview Bourdain, one of the highlights of my career. Months later, I would meet him. 

Someone in Xpress' design department printed that article out so it was album-sized, and I slipped it into the cover of Stevie Wonder's "Innervisions."

I headed down to Cúrate, where Bourdain was signing books and such in the downstairs dining room, and handed him the article to sign. 

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."

I practically swooned, but recovered enough to then hear him say, "Oh, you're the bull penis girl!"

Bourdain immersed himself in Asheville, travels

Let me explain: Bourdain, on his way to Asheville, decided to brush up on the culture. He read our news, listened to our podcasts, including one where I described a dinner in which I ate a bunch of weird animal parts and pieces. That was about 10 minutes in. He had listened to the whole thing.

I admired that about him: how he immersed himself so deeply in his travels and really did the work. He appeared to live life so fully.

I told him that day that reading "Kitchen Confidential" had inspired me to go from being a loudmouthed line cook who always seemed to be in trouble, to something approximating a writer with a modicum of small-town success.

I told him that he was the reason I did what I did. He smiled and seemed genuinely touched. He told me he knew I'd be successful. That we would eventually run into each other again in a different capacity.

How I wish that was true.

The author's article, signed by Anthony Bourdain.

Anthony Bourdain was just a celebrity to most. But he was so much more. He was a fearless traveler into, yes, parts unknown. He was unafraid to speak his mind. He knew that food writing could be more than the writer's perspective of the food before them. It could be breaking bread with other cultures, getting to the meat of the matter. It meant talking about often uncomfortable things. 

Today, we're talking about depression, suicide, anxiety and the toll the restaurant business can take on the psyche. We're talking about the hidden monsters that can live inside the most solid-seeming, gregarious, larger-than-life personalities. The people who seem most full of all the beautiful things life has to offer. 

So in the spirit of Bourdain, please talk about the things that make you squirm. Please reach out. Get help. Exorcise those demons. For yourself, and for everyone else who may find you an inspiration.

To help those at risk of suicide

If you or someone you know might be at risk of suicide, here are ways to help:

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 TrevorLifeline, a suicide prevention counseling service for the LGBTQ 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.