While this is not meant to serve as a tribute to a man who became terminally lost, it is instead meant to serve as a collection of thoughts and feelings around the loss of said person, without whom, this site would not have been.
This is a collection of emotions surrounding a man who inspired so many while living in constant fear of steering the masses astray and the consequences of those actions. This is a self reflection on a man I didn’t know and couldn’t possibly pretend to inhabit, yet allowed himself to help direct the course of my life without ever having known who I was.
This is not meant to serve as a tribute. It’s an acknowledgment of soul crushing pressure that also serves as an admiration piece about someone who changed the world, yet likely had an inability to see it through his own eyes.
A particular life goal of mine was to have him over to my house for a few cheap beers, a hearty steak dinner (complete with perfectly roasted marrow bones), and some even cheaper whiskey while engrossing ourselves to the sounds of The Stooges, the New York Dolls, and the Dead Boys as we simply coexisted within the same space. Just a typical round of bullshit between two people.
There was a time, before his name was globally recognized, that I recall watching episodes of A Cook’s Tour late night on the food channel. The same one that he grew to love to talk shit about. It was the first time I’d ever seen a food show represent Minnesota and having just moved to Minneapolis, it was fascinating to see the places he visited and the people he spoke with. People whom I’ve since come to actually know and love. The very same people who would inspire me to push on doing what I do despite all of it’s incredible hardships. He introduced me to them. He showed me things I didn’t know about this city in a way I could have never imagined.
Of course, he went on to feature our local affairs many times throughout the years. After a while featuring a variety of friends, acquaintances, and even more people that I simply wanted to meet. He had the power to do this in my own city. To think that this outsider could come in and open my world to new things in ways I hadn’t imagined was inspiring. It made me want to do what he did.
And in that, I know I’m not alone.
Later on, he would show the world what a simple food and travel personality could really do. When he traveled to Beirut and was quickly engrossed in the erupting conflict there, he persevered to tell a story that most people will never know first hand. He showed us his strength, resiliency, and compassion all while being scared absolutely shitless. From within the horrors of war he was able to prove what was possible through food journalism and it changed my world and probably a lot of other peoples, I guess.
I should maybe mention that this is also not a love letter to his love of food or passion for story telling. At least, not really. While I don’t know at any point what was going through his mind and, again, having never met the man, I can’t say anything with any degree of certainty about this thoughts, feelings, loves, or passions. I cannot accurately speak to his concerns, misgivings, or fears. I can only speculate in my own way. I can only use my own experience to try and extrapolate what may have been going on upstairs and in that, I could be way the fuck off. Fortunately (or not) for anyone who has made it this far, I don’t care.
When you’re immersed in a world, people can make a lot of assumptions as to why, however, what seems to be a reoccurring theme is that they don’t always see it through the same lens that you do. It doesn’t matter how good of communicator or storyteller you are, they just don’t see it because they have a different set of lenses. By and large that’s fine, but it can also be frustrating and I imagine he suffered a bit of that.
For him, food was a doorway into culture. It was the gateway to understanding. It was an entrance into the unknown, but it wasn’t about food. It was about people and it was about himself. In many instances, it was about the very same people who failed to understand the things he came to learn.
I remember reading somewhere (I don’t recall where), his fear of promoting food colonialism. He was afraid of sending people all over the world to experience food and cultures in a way that you could only do by diving in deep. In doing so, he was afraid of generating large Black Friday style lines at small mom and pop shops around the globe filled to the brim with people elbowing each other in their throats just to get to a fresh bowl of pho.
As funny and ridiculous as it might sound, it actually happened to a few places he featured and he felt bad about it. I imagine other travel celebrities have struggled with that same thing from time to time, but I think he took it really personally as it was contrary to his vision. It was his anti-mission.
The idea was to get people out and experiencing other cultures, not to impose their own.
In addition to that, he was heralded by the culinary community as true voice of the industry, often times in the same breath, hearing them talk about how he hadn’t been a chef in years. I would wager money that, at least at certain times, he felt like a traitor. He had written a book about the trials of the industry and then hauled ass away from it as soon as he could.
But, if you were paying attention, that made a lot of sense.
Kitchen Confidential was not a love letter to the industry. It was an expose into an underworld of people who are frequently drawn into acts of self-sabotage and depravity in order to escape the abuses of an industry that frequently chews people up and spits them back out onto the streets. Yet many sing the books praise as the thing that helped them to fall in love with the kitchen.
Again, how do you not view yourself as a hypocrite in that regard?
It should go without saying that I’m not personally calling him a hypocrite or a traitor, but its easy to see how he could feel that way given his circumstances. I know I would and in various interviews over the years I’ve heard him vaguely hint at these things in a way that I feel like most people wouldn’t notice or understand to notice.
Having personally written close to, if not more than, 500 professionally published articles in various big local and national print and online mediums along with a cookbook, hundreds of videos, TV appearances, radio interviews, podcasts, and various public speaking engagements, it can become daunting. Recommend a restaurant someone hates and you’re done. Highlight a beer that someone isn’t into and it’s game over. Make a small typo and the grammar police come out in full effect to tell you that you have no business doing what you’re doing. If you make one wrong move, people will tear you down. Personally, I think that’s one of the reasons you see a lot of overly friendly reviews these days. When was the last time you saw a zero star review of a restaurant that didn’t belong to Guy Fieri? In the court of public opinion, he’s low hanging fruit. It’s like writing a bad review of a Nickelback album. No one is going to turn on you for that, but still, the anxiety in the anticipation of blow back is very real. It’s certainly something I’ve been subject to a few times and when you get into doing this kind of thing you learn fairly quickly that you have to have pretty thick skin, but at the heart of it, it’s not Mr. Joe Blow internet troll that’s the issue. It’s the people you know; family, friends, or professional colleagues that can be the hardest and most of the time, they don’t even know what’s happening or that anything is wrong.
Now, I didn’t just ramble off my resume for no reason. As I said, a lot of people just don’t understand what that kind of pressure can be like especially on top of the pressures of everyday life. For instance, despite the constant, looming fear and anxiety of ridicule and failure, it was impossible to find work for over two years. I had many heavily trafficked articles, some that exceeded hundreds of thousands of views, yet couldn’t find someone to pay me more than a few bucks per piece. It wasn’t necessarily the money issue (although it was really hard going completely broke just trying to do your job), but the pressure that stems from your work being consumed en masse tied into the daunting, constant fear of crashing and burning while also feeling as though you have no value to anyone or anything. That shit compounds fast and even without the money factor, I imagine that at his level, he still very much felt those constant work and life pressures and that’s on top of all the other aforementioned stuff.
The same things can be said about most celebrities or people in the public-sphere, but most celebrities didn’t recently commit suicide. He did and on a certain level, I get it. He was a man that had more value than he thought. In his mind, his death would be little more than an evening news soundbite and would be forgotten by the weekend and his message and legacy would be gone with him. That’s why I needed to write this little long winded rant. I may not have ever been able to tell him to his face all of the things I’ve written about here, but I wanted to make sure that I got to say it at all. It may be too late and coming from me it probably wouldn’t have meant much to him, but considering how much he inadvertently did for me, he deserves it.
As a reward for making it to the end, here’s a link to recipe for Roasted Bone Marrow & Parsley Salad. It’s something he said he’d want as his last meal.