Business Lessons from Anthony Bourdain
No, these aren’t terms people have used to describe me. Well, I’m sure there are some of those words that others would apply, but I digress. These are the words the friends of Anthony Bourdain used to describe him after his untimely passing a little over two years ago. If you’re not familiar with Mr. Bourdain’s fine work, do yourself a favor and change that. However, let me give you the “Reader’s Digest” version:
Much more than a “celebrity chef,” Anthony Bourdain was a travel documentarian hosting programs focusing on exploring different cultures, people, and human conditions through the vehicle of food. Before hosting Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations and Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown, he was a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America and a veteran of working in many professional kitchens, including a long stint as executive chef at Brasserie Les Halles in Manhattan.
He is also well known for writing the book Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly, which serves as both a professional memoir and a behind-the-scenes look at restaurant kitchens. He takes a no-bullshit approach in the bestseller as he alternates between a confessional narrative and a harsh commentary of the restaurant industry, providing many insightful quotes, stories, and anecdotes of the cooking trade. For example, he advises restaurant-goers to avoid ordering fish on a Monday as it is usually leftover from the weekend – or earlier. Good advice.
Using food as a vehicle to unite people, he was a complex, prolific, entertaining, and, as mentioned above, an unapologetic individual. Sadly, he committed suicide while on location filming Parts Unknown in France. He left behind a legacy of fabulous entrepreneur, leadership, and business lessons that I do my best to apply daily.
Be Bold – Bourdain knew how important it was to push beyond his boundaries. If he had been content with being a successful chef be the zenith of his career, no one outside of New York City would have heard of him. However, he refused to be defined by “merely” being a chef – so he wrote books and hosted multiple travel programs where he used the dinner table to understand his fellow man better. At 50, I wasn’t content with my career. The same can be said about my business partner, Kelsey – although she’s 35. There is no rule saying that we weren’t allowed to start a business, so that’s exactly what we did. Much like Bourdain, we both realized that we’re not limited to where we were, so we boldly created the professional future we desired.
“Without experimentation, a willingness to ask questions and try new things, we shall surely become static, repetitive, and moribund.” – Anthony Bourdain
Be Continually Active – Of the many words used to describe Bourdain, “still” would not be one of them. He was always in motion because he knew when you stop moving, you stop growing. This is why it’s so important to never rest on your laurels, what you’ve accomplished, or embrace the accolades too tightly. The moment you’ve decided you’re doing everything exactly right and that the greater populate has nothing left to teach you, you’re done. Constant learning and continual movement towards knowledge are what will keep you thinking forward, sharp, and competitive.
“If I am an advocate of for anything, it is to move – as far as you can and as much as you can. Across the ocean, or simply across the river. Walk in someone else’s shoes, or at least eat their food. It’s a plus for everybody.” – Anthony Bourdain
Be Constantly Curious – More than anything, Bourdain was in his element sitting in a stranger’s living room in a foreign – usually developing – country. Always respectful, he invariably made an effort to be the least important person in the room, usually stuffed with curious locals gawking at the strange American. He ate and drank things far outside his comfort zone and very rarely grimaced. He knew that curiosity was the gateway to new experiences. We can’t know what will make us better in business until we open ourselves and try new things. Continually asking, “what if we tried that” keeps a company fresh and innovative.
“Without new ideas, success can become stale.” – Anthony Bourdain
Be Respectful – If you’ve watched even one episode of No Reservations, you know how deeply respectful Bourdain was concerning other people and cultures. He always took the time to learn phrases to show gratitude and local customs to ensure he wouldn’t inadvertently offend. He politely tried any food offered to him as he knew full well that the families themselves often could not afford to eat what they gave him. While opinionated and harsh at times, Bourdain revealed his real character in his respectful actions. In business, it’s far too easy to fly off the handle at the slightest inconvenience. The world is not perfect: clients will miss deadlines, people will make mistakes, deliveries will be late. None of us ever know what is going on in anyone else’s life, so when things go sideways, step outside of yourself, look at the larger picture, and give people grace. How you react in uncomfortable situations will reveal much about your character.
“Skills can be taught. Character you either have, or you don’t.” – Anthony Bourdain
See Potential Where Others See Boundaries – In a letter to his business partner, Bourdain wrote, “I do don’t doubt – in fact I know and have experienced – delicious new takes on pizza, even that beloved carbonara. It is possible. It is, I guess, only right, that new generations of Italian chefs are flexing their creative minds and their skills in the interest of moving things forward.” Great business people don’t see walls – they see possibility. Always strive to push toward excellence, even if – especially if – you have to knock down barriers to do it. At first, people will doubt and, perhaps, even mock you because of their own fear and self-doubt. Remember, a great pleasure in life is doing what others say you can’t.
“I’m not afraid to look like an idiot.” – Anthony Bourdain
More than anything, it’s crucial in business to be loyal to the ordeal of your choice. Bourdain spoke a great deal about a traumatic boat trip through the Congo and how often he wanted to pull the plug and turn back. Instead, however, he kept pushing forward because he was compelled to see it through to the end. At times, building a business and a brand becomes achingly difficult, seemingly testing us beyond our limits. It’s in those moments where it’s best to embrace that the test and adventure are the rewards. We don’t just love our companies for what they give us; we love them for how they change us.
When I think of Anthony Bourdain, I think of a man who enjoyed life. He unapologetically forged his path, which is one of the many reasons so many people gravitated to him. He reveled in the fact that it was his journey – the rest of us were just lucky enough to come along for the ride. We only get one life – just this one. If you’re not happy with your business or how it runs, change it. Do something else. Change directions. Follow your gut. Be Purposeful. Enjoy the ride. The last thing you want 10 or 20 years from now is regret.
“Your body is not a temple; it’s an amusement park. Enjoy the ride.” – Anthony Bourdain