June 11, 2018
Hail and Farewell: Anthony Bourdain (1956-2018)
by Alex Primiani
Renowned writer, chef, and TV personality Anthony Bourdain has died at sixty-one. According to a report from The New York Times, Bourdain, who had been working on an episode of his hit show for CNN, Parts Unknown in Keyserberg, France, was found dead in his hotel room by a hotel staffer after missing a Thursday night dinner and Friday morning breakfast, with his friend and collaborator Eric Ripert. Bourdain had hanged himself.
As many fans know, Bourdain’s culinary aspirations began the moment he tried oysters directly from the sea as a child during a family trip to France. Born in New Jersey the son of a music executive and a New York Times copyeditor, Bourdain attended Vassar College for two years before transferring to the nearby Culinary Institute of America, from which he graduated in 1978. From there he went on to work at various notable Manhattan restaurants, landing as executive chef at the Brasserie Les Halles in 1998.
Those two decades of climbing the ranks of the culinary world seem to have nourished Bourdain’s brash and tempestuous personality. In 1999, he published a pivotal New Yorker story, offering revelations and advice from the other side of the kitchen door. He would soon expand it into his tell-all memoir Kitchen Confidential, published by Bloomsbury in 2000. In the book, Bourdain uncovers the seedy underbelly of the service industry: the lively, vivid world of dishwashers, line cooks, chefs, and servers flourishing just below the notice of New York’s well-heeled restaurant patrons. Bourdain also explored his own early addictions to drugs and alcohol, and the ways a career in kitchens had facilitated those habits. A wild success, the book shoved Bourdain into the spotlight, and arguably changed the role of the chef in the cultural zeitgeist forever.
In a remembrance at Vulture, Boris Kachka partly credits Bourdain with the success of Ecco Press — which was just a “fledgling HarperCollins imprint” at the time Daniel Halpern acquired the paperback rights to Kitchen Confidential. Halpern and Bourdain quickly became friends and frequent collaborators. In 2011, Halpern helped Bourdain launch Anthony Bourdain Books, a new imprint at Ecco that would release three to five titles a year. Kachka reports that the imprint will now stop acquiring books. At the New Yorker, food correspondent Helen Rosner remembers that, “of his many projects, his late-career role as a media rainmaker was one he assumed with an almost boyish delight.”
Almost overnight after the publication of Kitchen Confidential, Bourdain found himself an a-list global celebrity. His TV show No Reservations aired on the Travel Channel for nine seasons, fusing his loves of culture, travel, and food. Audiences happily—hungrily—joined the ride.
At Esquire, Jeff Gordinier’s obituary speaks of the thrilling, enviable “career” (Though, is that the word? It became his whole life.) Bourdain carved out himself. It was what dreams were made of:
The way Bourdain lived appeared to represent the purest fulfillment of “carpe diem.” He was a former drug addict and stovetop misfit who wound up chomping down bun cha with Barack Obama in Hanoi. He went everywhere. He ate everything. Consider this list of some of the recent episodes of Parts Unknown: Budapest, Madagascar, Manila, Tbilisi, Senegal, Buenos Aires, Hanoi, Nashville, Houston, London, Rome. That’s just the tip of the iceberg, and by the way, he went to the iceberg, too.
In 2013, Bourdain signed a deal with CNN to host and produce Parts Unknown, another travel show, in which his keen observation, journalistic integrity, and hunger for storytelling shone brightly.
The Nation’s Jon Nichols remembers:
Bourdain was most truly fascinated by, and engaged with, diverse cultures and the human experience reflected in them. That involvement was professional, and personal, and political. He said he was not a storyteller, not a journalist. But Bourdain was often a clearer commentator on geopolitics than the politicians and the pundits who intrigue to narrow understandings of our shared humanity.
Bourdain used his platform to fight for immigrant rights, consistently reminding you that, yes, that fancy restaurant you love going to would immediately shut down if all the undocumented workers in this country were suddenly deported. As he wrote on his Tumblr in 2014:
Despite our ridiculously hypocritical attitudes towards immigration, we demand that Mexicans cook a large percentage of the food we eat, grow the ingredients we need to make that food, clean our houses, mow our lawns, wash our dishes, look after our children. As any chef will tell you, our entire service economy—the restaurant business as we know it—in most American cities, would collapse overnight without Mexican workers.
Bourdain also became increasingly vocal about rampant sexual harassment and abuse in the food industry. His relationship with Asia Argento—the Italian actress who was among Harvey Weinstein’s many accusers—brought on a late-in-life commitment to feminism. At Deadspin, editor-in-chief Megan Greenwell writes:
He acknowledged that his self-reflection was prompted by his girlfriend, Asia Argento, coming forward about Harvey Weinstein raping her. But even that didn’t come off as “As the partner of a woman” smarm. He just saw what was wrong, thought about his own role in it, and did his best to make amends. “Right now, nothing else matters but women’s stories,” he wrote in a gut-punch of a Medium essay in December. That such a seemingly obvious line from a male celebrity feels so extraordinary is dismaying; that Bourdain was willing to scream it just as loudly as he once told sous chefs to suck his dick gives me hope.
Quick in snark but never in judgement, Bourdain was honest and kind to those who deserved it, and angry and biting to those who deserved that. His was a public persona in such full possession of a range of emotions that his unabashedly exploring them could feel downright heroic.
In publishing, we often talk about the power of books. At its heart is the power of storytelling: it is the stories writers bring us, true and fictional, that crack open our worldview, rushing air into our lungs and offering a clearer future. Anthony Bourdain did that for me when I was a kid, when I first picked up Kitchen Confidential and A Cook’s Tour; he continually did it every evening when I’d sit down to watch him cruising on a boat, meandering through a market, sitting drinking a beer. The way he told stories was fresh and real and honest. He was charismatic and exemplary; his actions made you love him as a human.
Bourdain’s death came only three days after the suicide of legendary fashion designer Kate Spade. Last week was a heavy one for many.
Alex Primiani is the associate director of publicity at Melville House.