To some, Anthony Bourdain—the iconically tall, tanned, unpretentious, and intrepid host of “No Reservations” and “Parts Unknown”—was probably just a TV star. Some also knew him as a one-time chef and as an author. But to others, he was so much more: a cultural phenomenon and ambassador; an ideal fantasy drinking (and eating, and traveling) buddy; a rangy pioneer of populism; a semi demigod who helped usher in a new era of chefs as superstars—and as real, raw human beings—and of food as a deeply ingrained part of politics and history and cultural identity (and not just sustenance, or worse, fetish).
He would have called bullshit on a lot of that, maybe, but there’s no denying the impact he had on us. For 16 years, he traveled the globe, not simply celebrating but actively taking part in the local culture of dozens of different countries, primarily through their culinary traditions. And we watched. And perhaps we thought we knew him, and certainly could not have imagined that he would be gone so soon.
Once, it might not have been so terribly surprising, not if you knew where he came from, what he’d been through. The drugs and hard drinking and reckless behavior—he said himself in interviews that he “should’ve died” in his 20s, but luckily for all who loved him (then and now), he persevered—and then some. He got cleaned up (never too squeakily so), and got published, and got on TV, and got deep into the fabric of our collective cultural consciousness; his death has torn a ragged hole in it.
Anthony Bourdain grew up in New Jersey, and as a child, didn’t often get outside of the state. The notable exceptions were some family trips to his father’s native country of France, where the boy Bourdain read “Tintin” (an illustrated series starring a young adventurer who traveled to places like Peru, Nepal, Egypt, and the Belgian Congo) and yearned to see the rest of the wide world for himself, without quite believing he ever would. In France, he also had his first formative experiences with food—an oyster fresh from the ocean, and a bowl of vichyssoise on the crossing. He later wrote of the cold soup, “It was the first food I enjoyed, and more important, remembered enjoying.” But his mother, who was an editor for The New York Times, told CBS in 2007 that “he always had this interest in good taste, good smells. From a very young age, he loved to try new things. He ate snails that first summer in France, too.”
His penchant for trying new things, and what would appear to be an inveterate attraction to danger, extended beyond the food world (and yet became wrapped up in it too). He once said he “started enthusiastically taking drugs at around age 13,” and his mother admitted she was “very seriously fearful that he’d wind up in jail or dead. But, saving grace, despite all the wretched behavior he was home for dinner every night.”
Bourdain was a little older when he took his first kitchen gig: washing dishes at 17. He told NPR in 2016, “I jokingly say that I learned every important lesson, all the most important lessons of my life, as a dishwasher.” There must have been some kernel of truth in that, though, or at least the seeds of something bigger—his boyhood dreams realized, although they were still far in the future and as unimaginable as ever to him then.
He took a two-year detour at Vassar before quitting college to go to The Culinary Institute of America, and then worked in a succession of kitchens as a line cook and sous chef. Around the same time, he developed an addiction to heroin, which he once deemed “the least interesting thing about” him. Still, it’s hard to discount a victory over a drug dependency that spanned nearly a decade. In 2016, two years before his death at the age of 61, he told Biography.com that he and fellow former addicts were “the lucky ones.” He was, perhaps, luckier than most, but he seemed to always have a sense of its impermanence, or fragility; it was during this same interview that he said, “I should’ve died in my 20s. I became successful in my 40s. I became a dad in my 50s. I feel like I’ve stolen a car–a really nice car–and I keep looking in the rearview mirror for flashing lights.”
From “Kitchen Confidential” to “Parts Unknown”
After Bourdain got off hard drugs (a cocaine addiction came after the heroin addiction, but he eventually kicked that too), he stayed in the kitchen—he often said that he cooked only because he couldn’t play bass guitar—and eventually, he landed a job as executive chef at Brasserie Les Halles in 1998. He deemed himself a fair cook at most, which those in the know considered an accurate assessment; he could turn out 300 plates of eggs Benedict during a single brunch service and not have any sent back, but he wasn’t the most creative chef.
No one could say he wasn’t an intriguing author, though—in 1999, The New Yorker published “Don’t Eat Before Reading This” by the then-unknown Bourdain. The essay exposed the grim, sometimes unpalatable truth about the hidden-from-the-public reality of restaurant kitchens, including the rough conditions and camaraderie of line cooks. The essay drew a lot of attention, and became the basis for Bourdain’s infamous book “Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly” the next year. That was the tome that triggered a million “bad boy” labels that stuck to Bourdain ever after, and jump-started his trajectory into the limelight.
Still, he wasn’t hasty; he wasn’t overconfident, despite being seemingly preternaturally imbued with swagger, and despite the huge success of his book (which, as Chowhound’s director Carleigh Connelly pointed out to CBS News, did a tremendous amount to make food media in general the mainstream fascination it is today). He deepened the narrative around dining and food and made it accessible to everyone, but at the time, he told The New Yorker, “I was careful to modulate my hopes, because I lived in a business where everybody was a writer or an actor,” but whose dreams always seemed to fizzle. Thus, he kept working in the kitchen, even as he felt its constraints more acutely. He was in his 40s; he’d spent three decades in restaurants. And there was still—always—so much more out there that beckoned him.
Besides the occasional trips to France when he was a kid, he still hadn’t traveled extensively yet. He’d been on Caribbean vacations with his first wife, and went to Tokyo in 1998 to help open a new location of Les Halles. He “felt like the whole world was opening up” to him. “I’d seen things. I’d smelled things. I desperately wanted more.” So he pitched his second book premise: he’d travel around the world, eating. It sounded like it might make a better television series, and so his first show, “A Cook’s Tour,” was conceived. It aired on the Food Network in 2002, but only lasted two seasons.
Still, Bourdain didn’t return to the kitchen this time. Instead, he moved on to the Travel Channel, where “Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations” aired for nine seasons, and made him a juggernaut. He traveled to France, and to New Jersey for the series (to show his home state some love), but he went to Malaysia and Vietnam and Beirut (an especially pivotal trip) and Namibia too—pretty much everywhere Tintin had ever gone, and beyond. People tuned in for different reasons: his machismo, his unimpeachable down-to-earthness, his renegade attitude and lanky, rakish sex appeal.
Some, no doubt, just wanted to watch him eat rotten shark and warthog anus; he called such experiences “the cost of doing business,” and said, “I’m not going to sneer at it. Whatever gets you across the river.” And while in later years, he wouldn’t eat something as a mere stunt, he would never refuse a host’s offer of food either, no matter what it was. “On the hierarchy of offenses, offending my host—often a very poor one, who is giving me the very best, and for whom face is very important in the community—for me to refuse would be embarrassing. So I will eat the dog.” (Rest assured, he never actually did chow down on Chows, though.)
Expanding Minds (& Palates)
For whatever reasons people watched his shows, including “Parts Unknown” on CNN, which recently returned for season 11, he brought more than amusing antics and fascinating food to the table. Just as he brought the back of the house to the forefront of public consciousness with his first essay and book, he brought issues of global importance to a huge audience via the TV screen, even if it was through a filter of food and drink.
He explored history and politics and cultural identity with people from every part of the world. “Food in and of itself is pretty fucking uninteresting after a certain point,” he told John Birdsall (for First We Feast). “Who’s cooking this is much more interesting to me than what’s cooking. Who’s cooking and why are they cooking it this way? Who are they reading? What’s on the radio? Is there a dog? Those are the things that make a meal interesting…”
In a general but visceral sense, he expanded many minds and palates; he spotlighted foreign places and people and what they ate and why, and in so doing, not only piqued viewers’ interest to at least try unfamiliar food, but helped them understand its significance, and the place it came from, while always making it entertaining and exciting too. His shows will be—are undoubtedly already—someone’s own “Tintin,” someone’s spark of growing desire to get out in the world and take part in it.
In more specific ways, Bourdain shed light on lots of worthy subjects. In Vietnam (on a particularly memorable episode in which he ate noodles and drank beer with President Obama), he brought attention to the devastating problem of injury, disfigurement, and even death from unexploded ordnance left over from the Vietnam War. He championed the often ignored Latino and Hispanic workers in nearly every professional kitchen in this country, and rightly celebrated their native cuisines as equally important, nuanced, and certainly as delicious as more traditionally lauded French and European cooking. He lobbied for safer working conditions for all restaurant staff.
And yet, he didn’t think of himself as an evangelist or a do-gooder or even a journalist. “I would be bullshitting you if I said I was on some mission. I’m not.”
From his field notes on Beirut, he says that he “just saw that there were realities beyond what was on my plate, and those realities almost inevitably informed what was—or was not—for dinner. To ignore them had come to seem monstrous.”
Yet he also told First We Feast just a couple years ago, “I’m aware of the sort of destructive aspects of what I do. I understand I’m altering the world by putting it on TV. I’m aware that I am fetishizing what is seen as a birthright to millions of people around the world.”
But the net effect was absolutely positive. Besides his television shows and most famous first book, Bourdain penned several other works, including “Anthony Boudain’s Les Halles Cookbook”; “Medium Raw: A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food and the People Who Cook”; and even novels like “Bone in the Throat” and “Gone Bamboo” (with co-author credits on several graphic novels, including “Get Jiro!” and “Hungry Ghosts”). In December 2017, he wrote a personal essay on Medium in support of the women who were coming forward with stories of sexual harassment in professional kitchens and restaurants: “To the extent which my work in Kitchen Confidential celebrated or prolonged a culture that allowed the kind of grotesque behaviors we’re hearing about all too frequently is something I think about daily, with real remorse.”
He was prolific. He was plugged in. He was intelligent. He was honest. He was a jiu-jitsu fanatic and film buff. He worked his ass off. He was someone many people looked up to, and with whom many felt intimately familiar. And yet he was, in crucial ways, still a stranger.
“The Journey Changes You”
In an episode of “No Reservations,” Bourdain once said:
There is no doubt that he left behind so much of real value. And that makes it even harder for many to understand his death. People naturally wonder how someone so successful, so beloved, so perpetually hungry, could choose to end his seemingly wonderful life. As he said in 2016, “To climb a dune in the Egyptian desert and look out over the desert as the moon’s rising, surrounded by friends that I work with, a belly full of some food that no one outside that time zone ever gets to experience, that’s a ‘pinch me’ moment for sure. It’s pretty damn awesome for a guy for whom brunch shift is a pretty recent memory.”
But depression is hungry too. A ravenous beast that doesn’t always show itself, that stalks unseen in the shadows of a private mind, and sometimes, pounces and overpowers. Although he was best known, or at least most celebrated, for his apparently insatiable zest for life and all the new experiences and people it offered, he had spoken publicly of darker moments too.
This Bourdain quote (among several others) from an episode of “Parts Unknown” that took place in Argentina is especially heartbreaking in retrospect: “George Orwell once said something that really upset me, he said, ‘Human beings are essentially tubes into which we shove food.’ And this is my job, I travel around the world with these people and they turn on the cameras and, for a certain period of time, my job is to shove food in my face.”
Clearly, it was much more than that, but depression likes to make you believe lots of pernicious lies, likes to make you feel isolated and disconnected, likes to make you forget you are worthwhile, and wanted, and loved. In the words of his best friend, French chef Eric Ripert, “He was an exceptional human being, so inspiring and generous. One of the great storytellers of our time who connected with so many. I wish him peace. My love and prayers are with his family, friends and loved ones.”
Though it may seem small comfort now, as one woman paying her respects to Bourdain at the now-shuttered Les Halles this morning told Chowhound, “He will live forever in all the places that he’s gone to.” And his memory will remain vivid in the hearts of family, friends, and millions of fans who vicariously traveled the world with him for all these wonderful and complicated years.
If you are feeling depressed or anxious or just need someone to talk to, please reach out for help. Call the confidential, 24-hour National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (para español, 1-888-628-9454), or text the Crisis Text Line (text HOME to 741741). For international resources, please see this page. And don’t forget to let your friends and family members know that you’re there for them.
Header image courtesy of Instagram.