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Who Was Bourdain Day For?

Public figures die all the time, but losing Anthony Bourdain felt like losing a friend

anthony bourdain smiling Photo: Paulo Fridman / Getty Images

When Anthony Bourdain died last June, it felt almost as if the entire world was united in a feeling of unspeakable loss. The tributes came pouring in — reflexive expressions of heartbreak and pain, stories from the people who knew him, painstaking excavations to uncover every last memory and quote, so desperate was everyone to hold fast onto the remaining fragments of this figure who meant so much to so many.

Even after the usual initial flood of obituaries, tributes, and essays receded, the remembrances — unlike with most deaths — never really ended: Last July, when it seemed there were no more new words of Bourdain’s left to share, Popula published an interview with him, and in December, GQ published a monumental tribute with anecdotes from the people who knew him. Eventually, the professionally polished takes and commemorations ebbed, but Bourdain’s fans continued to mourn publicly in their own, smaller ways. Many left messages on the last photo Bourdain ever shared on Instagram: an overhead shot of a plate heaped with meat, captioned “Light lunch. #Alsace” which was posted four days before his death. Others have taken to less public spaces like Facebook groups or subreddits, forming communities in which the common glue is a man who few of them could claim to know personally, but who nevertheless touched their lives irrevocably.

This past Tuesday, June 25, would have been Bourdain’s 63rd birthday. It was declared “Bourdain Day” by his close friends and fellow chefs Eric Ripert and José Andrés, who called on people around the world to toast and celebrate Bourdain and his legacy on the day of his birth, rather than on the day of his death, June 8. “I hope that this is a place that many people will go, will enjoy life, will have a drink. They will cook, they will go to a food truck. They will go to [a] picnic. They will go to [a] street vendor. A hot dog, a fancy restaurant, whatever. And they will toast Tony and wish, ‘Happy Bourdain Day,’” Andrés told Esquire.

It’s not the first day that has been dedicated to a deceased, beloved star — Jan. 20 was declared “David Bowie Day” in 2016, and June 7 “Prince Day” in Minnesota — but the outpouring of emotion from fans ranging from celebrity chefs and food writers, to line cooks and home cooks and just regular ol’ non-cooks, felt unexpectedly moving. Many, it seemed, still had so much they needed to say one year later, their feelings of connection to Bourdain not yet severed, but rather living and shifting even now. Some, like the Washington Post’s Tim Carman, used the occasion as an opportunity to speak candidly about depression and mental health. Others, like polar biologist Angela Zoumplis and singer Alison Mosshart, shared freshly told anecdotes about their encounters with Bourdain, gifting the world a few more scraps of Tony to hold on to.

Tens of thousands of people addressed Bourdain more directly on social media, posting videos, photos, and messages that, upon first glance, could be read simply as “happy birthday” wishes sent to a faraway friend. Particularly striking are the comments left on Bourdain’s last Instagram post, now numbering at more than 66,000. The comments cannot be shared, are not ranked hierarchically by engagement, and offer little chance at clout; given the way Instagram works, most of these will likely not be seen by anyone. They simply exist to express a true, honest feeling — “I miss you so much,” “things ain’t the same without you,” “Sometimes you don’t feel so far away. We love you.” — expecting absolutely nothing in return. The internet-age equivalent of placing flowers upon a gravestone.

With Bourdain, there was a feeling that despite not knowing him the ways his close friends and family did, you were somehow really connected to him. He was this lion of a figure, one of the most famous and worldly of men, and yet seemingly so accessible, granting viewers the intimate experience of being able to watch his adventures right from the comfort of their living rooms. And in his adventures, as in all his creations — his shows, his essays, his novels — it was never solely about what was on the surface, whether that was food or travel. Politics, race, culture, labor, immigration, complicated histories — he shared all of this with us, along with the rare, tiny slivers of himself that helped engender such a sense of familiarity. He was Uncle Tony, Tito Tony, Anh Tony.

Above all, there was such a singular sense of truth to the way he moved through the world, as Helen Rosner wrote for the New Yorker last June in a powerful tribute to Bourdain. He was forthright about his own privilege and his role participating in and inadvertently glamorizing toxic “bad boy” chef culture with the publication of his canonical book Kitchen Confidential. He was a complex, complicated figure who ultimately strived to do good.

Mourning — which, despite Ripert’s and Andrés’s best intentions, is still the foundation on which celebrations of Bourdain Day are built, one year out from the loss of Bourdain — is not really about the person who has died, so much as the people who are left behind. The majority of the people mourning Bourdain did not know him personally. While they won’t ever know that specific, terrible pain, neither will they know the closure of saying goodbye to a person who exists in their boundless imaginations, forever. Bourdain Day was that rare opportunity for people to meaningfully remember and consider one’s relationship with this beloved figure, among a community of others who are doing the same. For some, it may be the only way. So we’ll take it.