Remembering Anthony Bourdain, the chef turned author who brought his audience into the kitchen with the heat turned up high
Bourdain overcame a years-long addiction to heroin and cocaine before remaking himself as an observant writer with a lively prose style and a taste for the absurd
Never order fish on Monday, Anthony Bourdain warned in his breakthrough book Kitchen Confidential, which exposed the greasy secrets behind the swinging doors of restaurant kitchens. A diner is a fool to waste money on brunch or ask for a steak well done, and vegetarians – well, don’t get him started.
Bourdain’s bestselling 2000 memoir, drawn from years of working in top restaurants in New York, created his persona as a dishy, dashing adventurer of the culinary universe. He knew his way around a stovetop, but he also had the unfiltered sensibility of an opinionated, leather-jacketed one-time drug addict revealing the sometimes unsavory truths beneath the chef’s white toque.
Despite his experience in restaurants, Bourdain was not exactly a celebrity chef. He was more of a Hunter S. Thompson of the food world than, say, a Jacques Pepin – more of a roguish gonzo journalist with sharpened knives than a master of the saucepan.
In his books and television programmes, including the Travel Channel’s Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations and, since 2013, Parts Unknown on CNN, Bourdain explored exotic food and cultural traditions as a globe-trotting adventurer of the appetites. He was fearless in his consumption, eating scorpions, a seal’s eyeball, sheep’s testicles and the still-beating heart of a cobra.
“I want to try everything once,” he wrote in Kitchen Confidential.
He was in eastern France, working on an episode of Parts Unknown, when he was found dead on Friday in his hotel room in the Alsatian town of Kaysersberg. CNN and the US embassy in France confirmed the death, which a French prosecutor described as an apparent suicide by hanging.
Bourdain, who grew up in New Jersey, was drawn to the wonders of food at age 10, when he first visited France with his family. With no American food to be found, he sampled French cuisine, including his first oyster, which he later recalled to USA Today, touched him “viscerally, instinctively, spiritually – even in some small … way, sexually … Food had power. It could inspire, astonish, shock, excite, delight and impress.”
After studying at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, Bourdain worked for more than 20 years in New York restaurants, eventually becoming executive chef of Brasserie Les Halles.
He also overcame a years-long addiction to heroin and cocaine before remaking himself as an observant writer with a lively prose style and a taste for the absurd. He got up at 5am to write before going to work and published two novels before Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly emerged as a surprise bestseller.
In the book, he said cooks were often perceived as “moral degenerates, dope fiends, refugees, a thuggish assortment of drunks, sneak thieves, sluts and psychopaths” – and proudly counted himself among their ranks.
“What I set out to do was write a book that my fellow cooks would find entertaining and true,” he wrote in the preface to the latest edition of Kitchen Confidential, which has sold more than 1 million copies. “I wanted it to sound like me talking at say … 10 o’clock on a Saturday night, after a busy dinner rush, me and a few cooks hanging around in the kitchen, knocking back a few beers and talking.”
The book contained no recipes but came to be revered by a generation of people in the food world and others fascinated by people who lived with the flame turned up high.
“Most of us who live and operate in the culinary underworld are in some fundamental way dysfunctional,” Bourdain wrote, describing a life of rampant drug and alcohol abuse and casual sex.
Yet somehow these misfits came together every night with a military precision to create tasty, memorable and sometimes inspired dishes.
“Kitchen Confidential gave its entranced readers the kind of insider information that made them feel as though they had been initiated into the coolest gang on earth,” British journalist Kathryn Hughes wrote in The Guardian.
Bourdain warned against ordering fish on Mondays because it was likely to have been sitting around for four days. He said chefs relegated the worst cuts of beef for people who wanted it well done. And Sunday brunch was typically overpriced leftovers, prepared by cooks who held their customers in contempt.
Even worse, from a cook’s point of view, were vegetarians and what Bourdain called “their Hezbollah-like splinter faction, the vegans”.
“Vegetarians are the enemy of everything good and decent in the human spirit, an affront to all I stand for, the pure enjoyment of food,” he wrote.
Kitchen Confidential brought Bourdain widespread recognition and new-found solvency: he opened his first savings account when he was 44. He published other books, including several works of fiction, and soon gave up the kitchen to become a full-time writer.
His second book, A Cook’s Tour: Global Adventures in Extreme Cuisines, appeared in 2001, quickly followed by a Food Network television series, also called A Cook’s Tour. The ruggedly handsome, 6-foot-4 Bourdain proved to be a natural on TV. He was glib, curious about people and cuisines and was willing to go anywhere and eat anything.
With an Inuit family in northern Canada, he shared the local delicacy of a seal’s eyeball. He ate crickets, scorpions and insects of many varieties, and in Vietnam found himself devouring the heart of a live cobra – “like eating a hyperactive oyster” – and drinking its blood.
Bourdain’s later series included The Layover and No Reservations, both on the Travel Channel, followed by Parts Unknown, which has won four Emmy Awards in the category of “outstanding informational series or special”.
One week would find Bourdain going upriver in Borneo, seemingly on a journey into his own psyche: “When I first went up this river, I was sick with love, the bad kind, the fist-around-your-heart kind. I ran far, but there was no escaping it.”
The next week, he might be in Camden, New Jersey, sampling cheesesteak subs: “Well, I think we’ve learned something here today. Jersey cheesesteaks – I’m not saying they’re better than Philadelphia – yeah, I am, actually.”
He often touched on human rights issues in Parts Unknown and visited journalists around the world, including Washington Post correspondent Jason Rezaian shortly before he was imprisoned by the Iranian government in 2014.
Two years ago, Bourdain met then-president Barack Obama in Hanoi, where they drank beer and dined on rice noodles and grilled pork. (“That puts that ‘secret Muslim’ thing to rest, by the way,” Bourdain said.)
On Twitter on Friday, Obama said of Bourdain: “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.”
Anthony Michael Bourdain was born June 25, 1956, in New York, and grew up in Leonia, New Jersey. His father was a record company executive, and his mother later became a copy editor at The New York Times.
Bourdain began working in restaurants while attending Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York. He dropped out after two years to attend the Culinary Institute of America, graduating in 1978.
His marriages to Nancy Putkoski and Ottavia Busia ended in divorce.
Survivors include an 11-year-old daughter from his second marriage, Ariane Bourdain; his mother, Gladys Bourdain of New York; and a brother. At the time of his death, Bourdain was in a relationship with actress Asia Argento, who has accused film mogul Harvey Weinstein of sexual assault.
Bourdain published 13 books and travelled up to 10 months of the year, exploring the world for his television show.
“I consider one of my few virtues – I don’t have a lot of them – but one of them would be a deep sense of curiosity,” Bourdain told Mother Jones magazine in 2010. “It’s inconceivable why anyone would want to not experience as many colours in the spectrum as possible with our limited time on Earth.”
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