I’ve worked just about any position you can think of in a restaurant. I’ve been a server, a cashier, a dishwasher, a prep cook, a line cook, and a manager. Regardless the position, it’s a thankless job filled with long hours, excruciating conditions, hard labor, and, worst of all, people. It takes a special kind of person to dedicate their lives to the art and craft of food service. For years, I thought I was that person. As it turns out, I was not.
Not that I’d exchange my years in the industry for anything in the world. True, it was a brutal experience in the worst of times and a mind-numbing one in the best of times, but the camaraderie of the restaurant worker was something special. Something I will probably never find again. A well-ran crew of a restaurant is a thing of beauty and of art, with each cog in the greater money printing machine operating at maximum efficiency and coordinated effort. It’s a delicate dance, as moving as any ballet, filled with people from disparate backgrounds and experiences working in tandem for that greatest of American pastimes: making money.
I romanticize it now, as is the case with memory. Being nearly a decade removed from the last dish I served affords me that right, I suppose. But I also know that the time I spent in restaurants was a time of massive depression, self-loathing, burgeoning addiction, and physical pain. Show me a restaurant, and I’ll show you a crew of barely socialized miscreants trying their best to hang on to whatever small threads of sanity they have at their disposal.
For them, Anthony Bourdain was something of a saint. With his book, Kitchen Confidential, he brought to life the problems and the thrills of the restaurant industry like no one has managed before or since. Land pirates, he called us. And he was right. With an unflinching honesty and bold bent towards the truth, he captured the experience of working in a restaurant in a way that was humorous, heartfelt, and reverent.
For me personally, he was something of a guiding light. A reminder that, no matter how far down the black hole of depression I might sink, there was honor and joy to be found in the career into which I was unwillingly thrust. At night, as I watched the black soot swirl down the drain following a long 12 hour day of working in the grill, I comforted myself by remembering that, if nothing else, Anthony Bourdain would respect what I was doing to survive. When the pains of burns, strained knees and backs, and tension headaches made it impossible to sleep, I knew that somewhere out there, Anthony Bourdain would understand me. He would, if not like, at least respect me.
There really isn’t enough I can do to explain how much Bourdain got me through some of the darkest times of my life. Times when bills couldn’t be paid, cops needed to be dodged, cars needed to be fixed, and buses needed to be caught. My roommate and I watched No Reservations almost as a religious rite. We quoted passages of Kitchen Confidential and The Nasty Bits. We reminded ourselves that if he didn’t make it until he was in his 40s, then we’d be okay too.
His death in 2018 hit me hard. Harder, perhaps, than any other celebrity death has. As someone ensconced in the world of pop culture, I do tend to take the deaths of actors and musicians somewhat poorly, but this one was different. While the world fell into collective mourning, and episodes of No Reservations and Parts Unknown catapulted to the top of streaming charts, I retreated. As much as I usually love the celebrity mourning ritual of watching your favorite movies or listening to your favorite songs, this time I couldn’t. It feels somewhat silly to say, but on the morning of June 8, 2018, waking up to the news of Bourdain’s suicide in France, I shut down. I not only didn’t participate in the collective ritual mourning, I wound up never going back.
Watching Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain was the first time I’d heard his voice in over three years. It was an immediate gut punch. Memories of sleepless nights, too amped up from the adrenaline of dinner rushes and the caffeine and drugs used to get through, flooded me, as did all the times watching or reading his works got me through so many shitty times. I was reminded of what he meant to me, and what he means to world at large.
Director Morgan Neville is certainly no stranger to documentaries about culturally important men. His previous documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, was as stunning a tribute to the life of Fred “Mr.” Rogers as any that will ever be produced. And while Roadrunner might not pack the same kind of punch that that film did, it’s certainly a glorious reminder of not only everything Bourdain ever accomplished in his life, but how sorely needed his philosophy is today.
Watching Roadrunner is to be immediately taken back to the day when Bourdain was seemingly at the top of everyone’s pop cultural radar, and an awesome reminder of why that happened in the first place. Neville assembles his documentary in such a way as to allow Bourdain to tell his story for himself, using bits of interviews, unaired portions of No Reservations and Parts Unknown, intimate personal footage from all of his various lives, and even, somewhat creepily, a few AI deepfakes of his voice (the ethics of which can, and should, be debated).
What emerges is an amazing portrait of a truly one of a kind man, one that doesn’t shy away from the warts and foibles that made him so human and so inspiring. We’re reminded that spent much of his youth as an addict, aimless and wandering (and not the kind of aimless wandering for which he would one day be known) before falling into the world of kitchen work.
In today’s world, there’s a unique respectability to becoming a chef, or even a line cook. Bourdain reminds us that it wasn’t so long ago that this wasn’t the truth. Just a few decades ago, restaurant work was indeed an industry one turned to when they had nothing left (a fact that is still somewhat true, though necessarily the whole truth). It’s thanks to people like Bourdain that the industry became something to aspire to, to dream of, and to thrive in.
But, as Neville painstakingly details, Bourdain became so much more. Interspersed with interviews with close friends and family, Roadrunner is all at once a myth breaking and myth making endeavor. All myths contain within them a kernel of truth, and all truths have the capacity to evolve into myth. What Neville does is peel back the façade of myth to reveal a truth bigger than the myth itself.
The truth, as it so always is, is complicated, dirty, ugly, and, somehow, beautiful all at once. Bourdain was a man who lived in a world without borders, both literally and figuratively. When he saw something he wanted, he went for it. When something piqued his interest, he explored it. Roadrunner is all at once a portrait and an ode, and a beautiful reminder that the best lives are lived with no reservations.
Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain is now playing in select theaters.