UPDATE: Anthony Bourdain died, age 61, on June 8, 2018.
Not many people have had the kind of turbulent path to success experienced by Anthony Bourdain. The world-famous chef might have just sat down for a meal with US President Barack Obama in Vietnam last month, but Bourdain's beginnings weren't quite that prestigious. The former drug addict has openly discussed his battle with heroin during his early 20s, followed by 20 long years, slaving away desperately trying to make it as a chef in the often ultra-macho, brutal world of the kitchen, famously celebrated in his best-selling 2001 book Kitchen Confidential.
These days you'd be hard pressed to find a man more content with life. And he has good reason to be. In the past few years he's found himself elevated into a whole new realm of celebrity, with television hit after hit including No Reservations and The Layover, a best-selling graphic novel Get Jiro!, and a soon to be released documentary called The Last Magnificent, detailing the life of Jeremiah Tower, America's most influential celebrity chef.
Now approaching his 60th birthday, Bourdain gives off an air of humble serenity and introspection. Talking about the popularity of his Emmy-Award winning travelogue Parts Unknown, which has recently returned for a seventh series on CNN, he says: "I just try very hard to have fun, to challenge myself, to explore things that interest me, and if an audience chooses to come along on the ride then that makes me happy."
Perhaps Bourdain's power lies in the fact that he doesn't feel he needs fame. He presents the impression of a man who accidently stumbled into the world of celebrity and has somewhat reluctantly embraced it. He is one of the most genuine and insightful personalities on TV, at a time when it seems as if everyone is shouting and trying to force opinions on their audiences. "For most people on television, their greatest fear is that they won't be on television anymore," he tells us, "and that fear drives what they do and how they do it."
For Bourdain things are different. Fatherhood has given him a more relaxed outlook on life. "I have a heart. I'm a dad. And I know what hard work is [. . . ] those things resonate with me."
It's this compassionate perspective that makes him perfectly suited to his role on Parts Unknown. The show follows him to some of the most troubled parts of the world, including Ethiopia, Iran and Libya, and he is keenly aware of his responsibility to respect as well as entertain. "When you make a television show in a place, it changes that place," Bourdain says. "We're given the freedom to look around the room, not just stare at the place. But it's not a benign thing to push yourself into a home with cameras. So that's something we wrestle with and sometimes even address directly."
Parts Unknown has grown with its host, from being a show about food to being one about people and politics. "There is nothing more political than food," Bourdain claims. "Things started to happen around the meal. If I was sitting there in the mountains of Laos and my host is missing two limbs, it seemed worth asking what happened."
The charismatic chef also believes that travelling has changed him for the better. "I've learned that most people in the world are pretty nice and are doing the best they can. I was not always so optimistic about basic human nature."
It may seem strange that it is this latest chapter in his life, the years he's spent in TV, that have given Bourdain a better sense of his place in the world, but it's no surprise to him.
"The more you travel, the more humble you should be, in the sense that you see really awful things happen to good people all the time." One saddening example is the case of journalist Jason Rezaian who appeared in the Iran episode of Parts Unknown last year and was later falsely convicted of espionage; an act Bourdain has publicly denounced as "a sickening injustice".
"You see people remorselessly ground under the wheel again and again," he says, "and I think you understand that it could easily happen to you or anyone you love."
He has had several brushes with danger himself. In 2006, Bourdain and his team found themselves caught in the middle of a conflict in Beirut while filming for his show No Reservations. We asked if there had been any close calls in the making of this latest series. "In terms of brushes with death? Well," he says "there were a few hairy moments, but I rather not go into it." This reluctance to discuss the risks of his work is perhaps connected again to the fact that he now has a family. "I hug my daughter a little tighter when I go home because of what I've seen."
In one of the more personally revealing episodes of last season's Parts Unknown, Bourdain travels to Borneo, a country he had visited 10 years previously when his career was, as he puts it, "at a turning point". His wistful narration tells us, "that was a previous episode, of a previous series, in a previous life". At the end of the episode, Bourdain allows local men to give him a tattoo, in a process (hammered onto his chest with sharpened sticks) that he admits "hurt like hell". This tattoo joins the many others that already adorn his torso and are perhaps a reminder of those previous lives he has left behind. "There's a tattoo on my arm in ancient Greek that translates roughly to 'I am certain of nothing'," he says. "If I believe in any central truth, it's that. Healthy scepticism and doubt, the knowledge that I could be absolutely wrong, that's sort of a constant."
Perhaps this is the only constant in Bourdain's unpredictable life.
1956 Born in New York City
1978 Graduates from The Culinary Institute of America
1998 Appointed executive chef at Brasserie Les Halles
2000 Tastes fame for writing Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly, a New York Times best-selling non-fiction book
2002 Starts hosting food and world-travel show A Cook's Tour on Food Network
2005 Starts hosting Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations on Travel Channel, and Fox aired a sitcom Kitchen Confidential based on Bourdain's book Kitchen Confidential
2010 Awarded an Honorary CLIO Award, which is given to individuals who are changing the world by encouraging people to think differently
2013 Starts hosting Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown on CNN
2015 Starts planning the Bourdain Market, a giant food hall to be opened in 2017 at Pier 57 in New York City