CHARLESTON, W.Va. — West Virginians are remembering Anthony Bourdain for how he broke bread and shared stories with an open mind.
Bourdain, a chef and the host of CNN’s “Parts Unknown,” has died at age 61 of an apparent suicide. He made an impression just weeks ago as “Parts Unknown” opened its 11th season in West Virginia.
This place moves me like very, very few other places. And I been everywhere. #WestVirginia
— Anthony Bourdain (@Bourdain) September 13, 2017
During about a week of filming, Bourdain shared meals and ideas with West Virginians.
Orbie Campbell, who owns The Coffee Shop in War, where Bourdain had a breakfast of biscuits and gravy with fried eggs, heard of his death this morning from customers.
“He was just a wonderful guy. Amazing. I thought he’d come in and suit and tie. He was just like the rest of us, and he enjoyed it,” Campbell said today. “It was just a shock when the girls told me.”
Campbell says she calls everyone family who comes in to the diner she has run with her husband for the past 50 years.
She said Bourdain, a New Yorker, was no different as he dined with guests on camera. “I let him do the talking,” she said.
One of Bourdain’s fellow diners that morning at The Coffee Shop was Elaine McMillion Sheldon, a documentary filmmaker from West Virginia. Sheldon had spent significant time in McDowell County for her own project, “Hollow,” and had helped guide the “Parts Unknown” advance crew.
“It’s so tragic. He was a huge force in storytelling,” Sheldon said today.
“Everyone who has spent time with him in these hills is sad for the loss of a great storyteller and chef. We all spent limited time with him while he was in West Virginia but we’re better for it. He was so kind to the people of Appalachia and gave the nation a nuanced view of the place we call home.”
Bourdain visited King Knob Motorsports Park in Philippi, where he dared to ride a rock bouncer, a vehicle that went vertically up a sheer West Virginia hillside.
He also dined outdoors that day on frog legs, snapping-turtle patties, barbecued and fried catfish and smoked bass. Bourdain was a guest of Mike Benedum and Amber Williams, who run the motorsports park.
Williams’ father, Eric, caught the snapping turtles and prepared the meal over an open fire.
“It was good,” Williams said. “My dad was stressing out though. He was like, I’m cooking for a famous chef.”
Williams said the family quickly learned not to worry. Bourdain wasn’t there to judge. He enjoyed the meal.
“I was sitting right beside him at the picnic table,” she said. “Very down to earth guy. That’s the one thing I saw right away. “You think this guy who has been on TV this many years would be snobby, but he was so down to earth, so nice.”
She appreciated his attitude.
“He was very concerned about letting people know the real truth about West Virginia,” she said, “not making us look bad.”
Bourdain enjoyed another West Virginia meal at Lost Creek Farm in Harrison County.
Owners and chefs Mike Costello and Amy Dawson, chefs and owners, shared a meal of vinegar pie (known as “desperation pie”), pawpaw ice cream with candied wildflowers, buttermilk-poached trout with fresh-picked rhubarb, sweet-corn chowder, buttermilk-fried rabbit with fresh maple syrup, venison with a chicory-root rub and chanterelle mushrooms.
“We talked a little bit about food and we enjoyed the food that we ate here, but the conversation was a lot deeper than the food,” Costello said. “It was about place and people.”
Costello heard about Bourdain’s death this morning as he awoke to about 10 texts from friends, who were sharing their shock and sorrow.
That’s because Bourdain’s episode has continued to spark comments and connections, Costello said.
“Every single day since the episode has aired, we’ve received phone calls and letters and emails, just words of encouragement. They just want to call and say ‘That’s a great thing. I saw you guys were on Anthony Bourdain and what a nice little piece that was.’
“That’s a pretty uniquely West Virginia thing for people who’ve retired and moved away to just want to call somebody up.”
That kind of appreciation has resulted because Bourdain was willing to listen, Costello said.
“People of southern West Virginia feel for the first time someone from the outside media came in and told a story they were proud of. I think that tells a lot about the power of narrative and the power of open mindedness,” Costello said.
“When someone comes here with the goal of being open minded and learning about a place it shows how encouraged and empowered people can be when they’re able to tell their own story.”