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Martial arts

Anthony Bourdain fought his demons with jiu-jitsu: a tribute from a devastated Hong Kong friend

Hongkonger Matt Walsh, who produced the celebrity chef’s television shows for 14 years in Asia, remembers his colleague and discusses the legacy he leaves behind

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 13 June, 2018, 1:56pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 13 June, 2018, 4:53pm

Anthony Bourdain used to hang around cold New York stairwells first thing in the morning, waiting to score heroin. Then he replaced that with hanging around cold stairwells waiting to start a jiu-jitsu class.

Most of the tributes that have been pouring in for Bourdain, the beloved celebrity chef who took his life aged 61 last week, have pontificated that he succumbed to the demons in his head which came from a decade-long addiction to drugs.

Taking up Brazilian jiu-itsu six years ago may have helped him cope for as long as he did.

“He had said himself that he’s the guy that needs projects,” said Matt Walsh, a close friend of Bourdain’s who produced Asia-based episodes of his programmes Parts Unknown, No Reservations and The Layover for 14 years.

“Idle time was bad for him because idle time perhaps gave him the opportunity to do things he shouldn’t do, or think thoughts he shouldn’t think. Jiu-jitsu gave him focus and certainly tension release, anxiety release.”

Walsh did the advance work for Bourdain’s shows, arranging things for him to do, scouting locations for him to eat at, and finding people for him to eat with, before the crew would come in and shoot. But he also helped find gyms for Bourdain to train jiu-jitsu when the cameras weren’t rolling.

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“Tony loved jiu-jitsu, he was mad about it – once he started with it he went all in,” Walsh said. “He had an obsessive compulsive personality. He would train wherever he went, unless he really was in the middle of nowhere.”

Walsh, who has been teaching journalism at the University of Hong Kong since 2012, moved to the city 19 years ago when he worked for CNN, and reached out to Bourdain’s production team to suggest they film in the Far East.

They worked together on four programmes in mainland China, three in Hong Kong, as well as episodes in Macau, Cambodia and Laos.

“We had so many good times,” Walsh said. “We had a lot of laughs, Tony’s a very funny guy, he likes to talk. He was just great fun to be around.”

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The most recent Hong Kong episode they collaborated on was filmed in January and aired on June 3 – just days before Bourdain hanged himself with a dressing gown belt in his hotel room in Kaysersberg, France. He had been filming for Parts Unknown.

“He’s the last person in the world I would think would do this,” Walsh said. “I was shocked, gobsmacked, devastated. I still am. It hit me like a tonne of bricks.

“I always saw him as a pillar of strength. We all have our inner demons but I never saw him succumbing to his. I have cried more than once.

“I just can’t process it, it doesn’t make any sense. Bourdain was like a rock, I just don’t get it.”

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In CNN’s hour-long memorial Remembering Anthony Bourdain, a tearful Anderson Cooper said one of the saddest things about his colleague’s death was that “he gave me hope for what one’s life can become at 61”.

Nothing showed that sentiment more than Bourdain’s passion for jiu-jitsu – despite only taking up the martial art at 55, he won the first tournament he entered in New York in 2016.

“Tony was very good at jiu-jitsu, not with the asterisk of ‘for a guy his age’,” Walsh said. “He was extraordinarily powerful, strong-willed and physically strong.

“Tony reinvented himself as a writer and then as a TV host after the age of 40, so age is no barrier. Just get up, get out and try whatever you want, whatever looks interesting.”

In an interview promoting Parts Unknown: Hong Kong, Bourdain told Cooper the episode was his favourite.

“He was especially proud of that show, he had idolised [the episode’s cinematographer] Christopher Doyle for years, and so he was really jazzed to be working with him,” Walsh said.

“And his girlfriend, Asia Argento, was directing the episode. For Tony, it doesn’t get better. He loved Hong Kong, even without doing that show he’d have been happy to be in Hong Kong.

“There’s a huge hole where he once was. The work he did on inclusivity and connectivity with people around the world, that will be missing.”

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Fans have left flowers and notes at New York’s Brasserie Les Halles – the restaurant where Bourdain shot to fame as a chef in the 1990s – as they continue to mourn the loss of an icon.

“He’s left a very strong legacy behind. He encouraged people to explore other cultures, to make the world a smaller, closer place,” Walsh said.

“Get off the couch, even if it’s in your own town, and try a restaurant that represents a cuisine from somewhere else.

“Eat something you might think is a little weird. Talk to strangers. In Hong Kong people are very reticent to talk to strangers. I think it’s good to have conversations with people from elsewhere.

“I hope the influence he’s made will continue to make ripples, I just wish he could have kept doing it.

“Depression has touched my family very closely. It should be acknowledged and not swept under the rug or hidden deep inside. If you’ve had those feelings, talk to somebody about it.”