When he was "one of us" he was just another washed up, dime a dozen, cook in New York. He'd come up from the 80s and 90s, been around during the heyday of sex, drugs, and Ramones, and was in the process of ruining his body and sanity with the usual trifecta of coke, broken relationships, and long hours.
Then something changed. He'd been writing bad fiction for years, with little success. Turns out, truth is his thing. He's amazing when he talks about the industry, and even though we don't agree on a few things (he thinks vegans should be flogged and immolated, I think they should be flogged, tarred, and feathered, for example), he sounds like he's retelling the story of pretty much every cook in the city.
I loved him for trouncing Padma for calling him a chef ("I am not a chef, you're not a chef," best food TV moment of all times, sadly also one of those Scripps is not re-airing), squealed when he publicly said what every sane person thinks about Zimmern, Fieri, and other Food Network abominations, and could have hugged him for calling Alice Waters the names she deserves to be called.
To understand Tony you have to understand the dining and cooking culture in NYC in the '90s. Everyone knew everyone. Cooks rarely held a job for longer than six months to a year, and the peristaltics of the industry washed everyone past everyone if you didn't drop out from exhaustion, drugs, or worse. To take on this industry, to lift the veil and expose the restaurant industry for what it is, even a doped up cook thinks twice before alienating bosses, coworkers, and the dining public. Worse, cooks in NYC's 90s were untouchables, lower than dirt, easily abused and replaced stooges for the criminal underbelly of the city, lightly wrapped in a teamster/union fake cover of legitimacy. Mentioning any of this wasn't generally a good idea, either.
In a sea of losers who don't deserve the title "chef" and are bubbling shite-buckets of brotastic douchebaggery, lies, homophobia, racism, sexism, cronyism, and worse, appearing on TV, Tony is, even though he knows and insists that he's not a chef, one of the few I'd actually consider one, if just as an emeritus title.
Every cook hopes for "a break." We have no idea what that break will be. We're addicts, the kind you see on COPS or late night intervention TV, the ones who always have a scheme to make the world better tomorrow for themselves. And we truly believe it. That, if not tomorrow then in a few days or weeks, the skies will open and some ethereal deity will shit something beautiful right in front of us, for the taking, to make the pain go away, the long work hours, the shit shifts, the bad pay. Few cooks understand that it's actually hard work, that propels us out of the cramped back of a restaurant into better paid environs. Tony got there through hard work and determination. Luck, as they say, is preparation plus opportunity. He did that.
What makes him authentic is that he didn't plan to be a world traveling writer. He put in the 20+ years of hard work. Not to get there, just to get by.
Seriously, fuck those wannabes who, after five years in a cushy six figure job in a lofty open office in San Francisco decide to "travel" ("Hi, my name is X and I left my job in Y to travel the world as a digital nomad..."). Bourdain is proof that it's better to do something for completely different reasons and then talk about it with authority than to do something just so you have something to talk about. THAT is what makes him authentic. He's not a traveler, he's a guy who happens to travel and talk about it. He's not a "chef," he's a cook who made it in the mobbed up shithole that was NYC in the 90s and talked about it.
We like Tony because he shows us that we, the washed ups, the coke addicted, the perpetually night-eyed, buffoons, whose idea of intimacy is to shag a waiter or waitress between shifts or to get foodie-head behind the dumpsters after work, and who consider "permanent" anything that doesn't run after three months, cooks or lovers, still have a chance to leave. To see the world. To eat as well as we cook. And to be someone other than the nameless, faceless, worshiped upon for all the wrong reasons, cook or chef in a restaurant at the end of a street.