We say goodbye to the culinary world’s prolific journeyman. Anthony Bourdain’s gonzo, take-no-prisoners approach to food writing earned him the respect and admiration of fans around the world. Equally at ease with presidents and regular Joes, it is easy to see why he was loved—his candour and courage always came first and this you could glean from his oeuvre of television programs, interviews, books and articles. It is an impressive body of work that very quickly evolved from just a regular tv show about food and travel, becoming more Hunter S. Thompson-esque socio-political observations of the country he was visiting and, more importantly, its people.
What endeared Bourdain to everyone, young and old, was this unique ability to listen and empathise with those he encountered despite his reputation for not suffering fools gladly. He was good at demystifying, never fetishising the more remote parts of the world he traveled or reducing them to pure exoticism, understanding that its inhabitants were trying to eke out an existence as best they could.
He may not have agreed with your politics—as apparent in the episode featuring Ted Nugent—but if you liked food, he would break bread with you. “I find that just about everything that comes of his mouth violently offensive but we both like barbeque!” he said in an interview with PBS. “That is some common ground for a discussion. Surely that’s not a bad thing.”
Up until he was 45 years old, however, it did not look as if his career, culinary or otherwise, was going anywhere. He had at turns been a Vassar College dropout, a dishwasher, a short-order cook and a coked-out shot-up drug addict, succumbing to the demi-monde madness of the rag-tag pirate ship-like kitchens he immortalised in his fiction (two crime capers—Bone In The Throat and Gone Bamboo) and the New Yorker article Don’t Eat Before Reading This that shocked the culinary scene. “How did I get from, you know, dunking breaded clams in hot oil to where I am today?” he mused in the same interview. “F*ck if I know.”
But we do know. By the time the publication of Kitchen Confidential hit the bookstores in 2000, he had cleaned up, was married and had a stable even respectable stint at Les Halles brasserie in New York. Kitchen Confidential, essentially an extension of the New Yorker article, shot Bourdain’s star through the stratosphere. In it, Bourdain kicked down the silver kitchen doors of fine dining and exposed its grittier, less palatable side much to the chagrin of restaurateurs and shock of the well-heeled sophisticates that patronised these establishments.
The book helped Bourdain find his voice, one that he exercised with a rapid fire New York punk rock 1-2-3-4 delivery—deceptively simple, exceedingly frank, served up rare. That voice would serve him well in television and turned him into an intrepid, if late-blooming, traveller.
Age had mellowed him somewhat and his television episodes reflected this. In his more recent takes of Parts Unknown, a kinder, gentler though no less acerbically witty Bourdain would still traverse the streets but was happiest sitting by the roadside slurping Bun Oc in Hanoi or hanging out, beer in hand, in a dive bar in downtown Manhattan. His episodes had evolved from raw and off-the-cuff to almost cinematic.
A CIA graduate (that’s Culinary Institute of America, not Central Intelligence Agency!), Bourdain’s extensive training may have carried him from bottom to top of the food chain but he loathed the term celebrity chef, modestly saying, “I’m a decent cook. I’m a decent chef. None of my friends would have hired me in any point of my career. Period.”
Anthony Bourdain died aged 61. The cause of death was suicide. He was found in a hotel room Alsace, France, during shooting for an episode of his long-running Parts Unknown series with CNN. On news of his death, former US President Barack Obama, who made a cameo appearance in the now famous Hanoi episode with Bourdain, tweeted: “’Low plastic stool, cheap but delicious noodles, cold Hanoi beer.’ This is how I’ll remember Tony. He taught us about food — but more importantly, about its ability to bring us together. To make us a little less afraid of the unknown. We’ll miss him.” Goodnight, Rock Star.
OUR FAVOURITE EPISODES
While there are too numerous to mention (there was a toss-up between Brooklyn, The Bronx and New York, regardless of program), we’ve laid bare five essentials. What are your favourites?
PARTS UNKNOWN: DETROIT
In which the chef lamented the annihilation of America’s once-prosperous Motor City, reduced to almost rubble and a war torn-like atmosphere at the time of filming. Bourdain chose to speak about hope and resurgence in the art and cultural scene, noting that Detroit was attracting a young, hip crowd of artists and, yes, chefs. Thanks in part to this episode, Detroit looks set to have a new lease of life.