I SEE A DARKNESS
Chef David Chang Pays Tribute to ‘Uncle Tony’ Bourdain: ‘My Mentor and My North Star’
The chef and host of ‘Ugly Delicious’ also used the opportunity to open up about his own struggles with depression.
The morning after Anthony Bourdain was found dead by apparent suicide in his hotel in France, chef David Chang posted a black box on his Instagram, along with the lyrics from Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s “I See a Darkness.”
“Well, I hope that someday, buddy / We have peace in our lives,” he wrote. “Together or apart / Alone or with our wives / And we can stop our whoring / And pull the smiles inside / And light it up forever / And never go to sleep / My best unbeaten brother / This isn't all I see.”
Until today, that was all Chang was ready to say about his longtime friend and mentor. But on an episode of his new podcast, Chang goes deep on what Bourdain meant to him personally—,and how his death has made him think about his own struggles with mental illness and depression.
Chang begins by saying that he is still in “denial” and is “refusing to accept” that Bourdain is gone. “He is, to many people that have never met him, their friend,” he adds, still referring to him in the present tense. “What you see on TV or read about in his books, that’s actually Tony. He’s been Uncle Tony to many of us in this business. The cool uncle, the sage, the oracle, the person who will dole out advice. In many ways, he’s been my mentor and my north star, because he trail-blazed a path that would not be available to me otherwise.”
“I miss him so much,” Chang continues. “And I regret not getting to see him more the past couple of years, but he was on the road and he wanted to spend time with his kid.” In additon to thinking about Bourdain’s family, Chang said his heart also goes out to Eric Ripert, “one of the best chefs in the world,” who found his friend Bourdain dead last week. Calling them the “silver fox club,” he says, “Those two guys, they had a real bond together.”
His voice on the verge of tears, Chang adds, “It’s going to be tough, but the intrepid traveler, the fearless leader, we will move on and do it in his honor and make it better.”
Chang’s recent Netflix series Ugly Delicious owes a huge debt to Bourdain’s No Reservations and Parts Unknown. Instead of basing each episode on a location like Vietnam or Charleston, South Carolina, Chang centers each installment of Ugly Delicious on a theme like pizza or tacos. But otherwise, the two shows share a very similar DNA and ethos. Before launching that show, Chang also became the season one subject of the Bourdain-produced PBS show The Mind of a Chef, his first reluctant foray into the world of food TV.
As Chang told The Daily Beast earlier this year, “Mind of a Chef was never supposed to be a TV show,” explaining that it got “repurposed” from its original concept as a series of stories for Lucky Peach magazine. “I never would have signed up for that if it was like, ‘Hey, let’s do a TV show.’” But he was ultimately grateful for the boost it gave his career and later embraced the opportunity to make Ugly Delicious for Netflix.
Over the course of the 25-minute podcast, Chang also opens up about his own struggles with mental illness and depression, revealing that he has been seeing the same psychiatrist on a near-daily basis for the past 15 years, mostly to deal with what he calls “PTSD” from his early restaurant work and the “trauma” of cooking. “It’s been the most regular, and longest relationship, I’ve ever been in,” he says.
“I don’t think I’ve ever hid my mental illness [from] those that are around me,” he says. “For me, I’ve always stated to myself and to my shrink that my depression is often times like fighting some sort of invasion artificial intelligence of my psyche.” Chang describes every day as a “battle” in which he has to “fight” the “most awful thoughts” that someone can have.
Chang describes opening his first restaurant, Momofuku Noodle Bar, in 2004 as a “challenge” he set himself to “get out of the depths of despair” that he found himself in. “Opening a restaurant is one of the most stressful, most difficult, and high failure things you can do,” he says. “It was going to help lift me out of depression by the simple fact of doing work. And even when I had days that were hard to get out of bed, it was like training for a marathon. It was just something you had to do.”
The hard work and perseverance paid off for Chang, who now has an empire that includes dozens of restaurants, including the recently opened, wildly successful Majordomo in Los Angeles. Like so many other young chefs, he got an early boost from Bourdain when No Reservations visited his second restaurant, Momofuku Ssäm Bar, for a 2009 episode dedicated to “food porn.”
“When you have the opportunity to sit down at one of the hardest to get reservation restaurants in the city, with its brilliant, mercurial, and highly-sought after chef to walk you through a full-on assault of the whole damn menu of delightfully pantagruelian, wildly creative combinations, you do it, baby,” Bourdain said at the time. “You train for that motherfucker. Because if you're lucky enough to get a crack at it, you go all the way, to the other side, consequences be damned.”
Near the end of his podcast episode, Chang tries to find a “silver lining” in Bourdain’s death. “One of the good things is that this is going to not make talking about all this kind of stuff so embarrassing, and so hidden,” he says.
“If you haven’t had any help yet, or if you’re trying to find help, or if you need help,” he tells listeners, “don’t lose hope. You have to hope for a better day. And you have to hold onto that harder than you have ever held onto anything."
“This is not fun stuff. And because it’s not fun stuff, it’s why no one fucking talks about it,” Chang adds. “But like many of our fucking problems in our world today, they’re problems because we don’t fucking talk about it. We have no dialogue, there is no communication about it, it is swept under the rug. And you know what? I think that’s going to have to change.”