Anthony Bourdain knew how to talk about what he didn’t know. He was excited about places he’d never been and food he’d never tried. He carried around the world with him a sense of glee and awe — that new information, new ways of tasting, of seeing and understanding, were out there always, are out there still.
So it is not surprising that Bourdain brought eloquence and insight to the #MeToo movement, which has seen dozens of men facing microphones spew inarticulate and/or victim-blaming blather at the universe. Presented with new information — this time sickening, harrowing truths about the industry where Bourdain built his career — Bourdain responded not with defensiveness but humility, not by lashing out but by looking within.
It was after another star in the culinary world, New Orleans chef John Besh, was at the center of sexual harassment swirl — the Times-Picayune reported that his company ignored sexual harassment claims and that Besh had also been a perpetrator of that harassment — that Bourdain started tweeting about “institutionalized Meathead Culture in the restaurant business.” (This was before celebrity chef Mario Batali responded to allegations that he’d sexually violated female employees for 20-odd years by acknowledging their accounts sounded about right to him and then sharing a recipe for pizza cinnamon rolls.)
Bourdain could have said nothing — that’s quite the common tactic, even among self-identified allies. And there are plenty of no-comment-comments available to the man who would prefer to stay uninvolved.
From men who are what you could call “accused-adjacent” — family, friends, colleagues of the #MeToo women — you can often hear, underneath whatever they’re saying aloud, this defensive reflex. Annoyance mingled with exhaustion. The whiny whisper of: what do you want from me?
But Bourdain, who on Friday died by suicide at 61, took the opposite approach. His was, by far, among the most insightful responses to #MeToo by any man in public life.
Bourdain’s partner, Asia Argento, says Harvey Weinstein sexually assaulted her; she was among the first women to go on the record about Weinstein’s alleged violence. In an interview with Slate, Bourdain spoke about how watching Argento go public with her story, and seeing the unimaginable toll it took on her, showed him “the kind of the difficulty of speaking out about these things, and the kind of vilification and humiliation and risk and pain and terror that come with speaking out about this kind of thing. That certainly brought it home in a personal way that, to my discredit, it might not have before.”
Clearly, sexual harassment and violence is as rampant in the culinary world as it is in many other industries. Yet Bourdain admitted he was largely unaware of that reality: “Other than one woman chef restauranteur friend from Canada, nobody has really been speaking to me about this until recently.” It took the Weinstein case, and his connection to Argento, to change that. Since the Weinstein story broke, Bourdain said, “I’m starting to hear personal stories from a lot of women.”
Bourdain actually did what so many women wish all men would do: He looked inward.
And as he listened to the women in his life describe the sexually degrading, threatening, or violent experiences he’d, until then, had no idea they’d endured, Bourdain began “looking back on my own life. I’m looking back on my own career and before, and for all these years women did not speak to me.” He went on:
“But I had to ask myself, particularly given some things that I’m hearing, and the people I’m hearing them about: Why was I not the sort of person, or why was I not seen as the sort of person, that these women could feel comfortable confiding in? I see this as a personal failing…
I’ve been hearing a lot of really bad shit, frankly, and in many cases it’s like, wow, I’ve known some of these women and I’ve known women who’ve had stories like this for years and they’ve said nothing to me. What is wrong with me? What have I, how have I presented myself in such a way as to not give confidence, or why was I not the sort of person people would see as a natural ally here? So I started looking at that.”
Not long after that interview, Bourdain visited Trevor Noah’s Daily Show, where the subject came up again. “I’d like to say that I was always enlightened, or that I was an activist, or virtuous,” he said. “But in fact, I have to be honest with myself. I met one extraordinary woman with an extraordinary and painful story, who introduced me to a lot of other women with extraordinary stories and suddenly it was personal. That woke me up — to the extent that I ever woke up, that certainly had an effect. So I think, like a lot of men, I’m reexamining my life.”
He did not try to contextualize Besh’s behavior as part of the macho world of restaurants in the same way that Weinstein’s attorney Benjamin Braffman told press that his client “didn’t invent the casting couch.” In fact, when Bourdain called his celebrity-securing book, Kitchen Confidential, a “meathead bible,” he did so to reckon with its influence — to grapple with the fact that his book, however inadvertently, could be seen as encouraging the toxic misconduct Boudain did not want to tolerate.
Amid the crush of men whose reactions to news of a serial sexual predator in their world go something like “wow, he was always nice to me” or “I’d never heard anything” or “look, I didn’t do anything wrong” or some such pathetic distancing maneuver, Bourdain actually did what so many women wish all men would do: He looked inward.
As he said on The Daily Show, “I look back, like hopefully a lot of men in that industry and think — not necessarily ‘what did I do or not do?’ — but ‘what did I see and what did I let slide? What did I not notice?’”
Bourdain reflected on his own behavior, his own complicity, his own willful ignorance. When he thought about women who did not tell him about their experiences, he did not react by wondering what was wrong with them or see their silence as their failure. He saw it as a failure on his part: A failure to be, to his female friends, the kind of person survivors of sexual violence could talk to. Where others flail about for excuses or, worse, seem to expect a prize for just not being a rapist — such a high bar, gentlemen! — Bourdain understood that he, too, had a responsibility to the women in his life, and that responsibility did not merely start and end with not sexually harassing them.
While we have watched famous men — the male cast members of Arrested Development come most readily to mind — fumble in desperate, misguided attempts to stick up for the maligned man in the room in accordance with some insufferable bro code, Bourdain, as he told Noah, was not “in a forgiving state of mind.” He did not, as too many have, speculate about when men who have committed acts of violence against their female colleagues and subordinates would be able to stage their comebacks. He said, simply, “That shit ain’t okay.”
Girls (because it really does start in girlhood) are trained to think about the outsized implications of so much innocuous behavior. Be careful what you say, what you wear, what you drink, where you go, when you go there, how you get home. Girls learn that friendliness can be misread as flirtation. Girls learn that this is, naturally, their fault. Rejection, delivered incorrectly, will not only destroy a man but could also prompt some incel-style slaughter for which you — the girl who did not want to date this sociopath in the first place — will be held at least partly responsible, even if you are dead.
Boys, it’s interesting. In theory, men are responsible for everything of import in this world. We do not even allow women to be responsible for our own bodies and lives. Men lead and have always led every branch of our government. There is not an industry on Earth that one could not accurately modify with “male-dominated.” And yet ours is a culture that teaches boys to evade responsibility always — that for actions that are, objectively and obviously, the fault of the man who takes them, there will be a woman in the vicinity on whom blame can be placed.
Bourdain was, in stereotypical ways, a paragon of masculinity: Brash and profane, muscled and tattooed, adventurous and rich. He was, by profession, a man of voracious appetites he happily indulged, and he was also the kind of guy who could invite President Obama Hanoi for a beer and chat him up about Hawaiian street food.
So for him to say, in one interview after the next, that the important takeaway from the revelations about these #MeToo men was to reflect on his own responsibility — that it is a requirement for, not a deviation from, being a man to do so — was powerful, and remarkable. If the emotional default setting for 2018 is despair, there was in Bourdain’s insistence that men could, would, had to be better, a reason to be a little more hopeful.
If you need help, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24 hours a day at 800–273–8255.