In his obituary, the New York Times described Anthony Bourdain as a ‘renegade chef who reported from the world’s tables’. Weeks after his death, fans the world over continue to pour in tributes to the celebrity cook. Outside the Manhattan-based French brassiere Les Halls, where Bourdain was once an executive chef, New Yorkers gather with flowers and write notes thanking him for inspiring them to love food. ‘He taught us about food – but more importantly, about its ability to bring us together’, tweeted Barack Obama who once shared a Vietnamese dinner of noodles and cold beer with Bourdain on his celebrated television series, Parts Unknown. Bourdain described the Hanoi Bun Cha with beauty, walking the former president through the dish, and smiled with honesty when he called the food brilliant.
Anthony Bourdain made home in the hearts of millions of people across borders and cultures. Posters of his face are common on city buses in America and his recipes have become tried and tested household staples. A celebrity chef, storyteller and traveller, Bourdain was an extraordinary food-media personality often described as ‘larger-than-life’ by those who knew him best. He thought of the world as both his oyster and his kitchen and had travelled over eighty countries to document food and life in unexplored parts of the globe. He televised his expeditions on the award-winning CNN show Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown which first aired in 2013. Speaking of the series, he once said, ‘we ask very simple questions. What makes you happy? What do you eat? What do you cook?’
Bourdain collected memories attached to food eating in local shops, chatting with musicians while sharing bizarre Uruguayan pizza and dining with Japanese families in their homes. Anthony’s career as a television host became charming because of the city noise, the sharp shrill of knives, the hiss and smoke from street-side kitchens and the loud and unabashed laughter of his guests as they shared their stories. His raw personality was a defining element of Parts Unknown and enabled culturally polar practices to come together and build a complimenting narrative.
The series was awarded a Peabody Award in 2013 for expanding our palates and horizons of thinking, describing Bourdain as ‘irreverent, honest, curious, never condescending, never obsequious’. The board remarked, ‘people open up to him and, in doing so, often reveal more about their hometowns or homelands than a traditional reporter could hope to document’. Parts Unknown was nominated for a list of other Academy Awards and went on to win an Emmy for Outstanding Informational Series or Special three years in a row from 2014 to 2016.
Anthony Bourdain was born in New York City in the summer of 1956 and spent most of his childhood in the suburbs of New Jersey. On a transatlantic voyage to visit his father’s home in France, Bourdain recorded his first conscious discovery of food. ‘It was the soup. It was cold’, he says. The thick soup was Vichyssoise, a dish Bourdain prepared over a thousand times later in his career. Anthony Bourdain studied for two years at the liberal-arts institute, Vassar College. During this period, he worked at seafood restaurants in the small fishing village of Provincetown, Massachusetts. ‘It was from these humble beginnings that I began my strange climb to chefdom. Taking that one job, as dishwasher at the Dreadnaught, essentially pushed me down the path I still walk to this day’, says Bourdain. While serving a wedding party in Provincetown, Bourdain realised he wanted to become a chef. He then enrolled in the Culinary Institute of America, graduating in 1978.
While at CIA, Bourdain continued to work weekends at restaurants. He worked as a line-cook and sous-chef in the Northeast before running popular New York kitchens at Super Club, One Fifth Avenue and Sullivan’s. Bourdain described his experience as dishwasher, prep drone, fry cook, grillardin, saucier, sous-chef and chef as a ‘long and checkered career’.
Between 1985 and 1988, Anthony Bourdain engaged in severe drug abuse. He also confessed to alcoholism and pilferage, speaking openly of his journey in his writing and interviews. He did not own a saving account until he was 44, and shared that he lived in financial debt. However, Bourdain distinguished himself by discussing his experiences publicly and truthfully. In his own way, he succeeded in becoming a powerful and recognisable voice from the culinary world. Eventually, Bourdain went on to become the executive chef at Les Halls.
An year later, in 1999, Bourdain’s memoir Don’t Eat Before Reading This was published in The New Yorker. The reputed chef’s candid disclosure about the realities of Manhattan restaurants took the culinary world by storm. The essay presented sincere observations about cooking four-day-old fish, serving brunch and ordering well-done meat. Nevertheless, Anthony explained he loved the weirdness of the kitchen life, ending the essay by saying ‘I have come home’. His unprecedented writing won him a book deal for Kitchen Confidential, an expansion of his insider-view on food and cooking secrets. The book closely followed Bourdain’s own journey with food and marked the beginning of his career as a writer. It soon became a New York Times bestseller and inspired a short sitcom in 2005 starring Bradley Cooper. In 2001, Bourdain published A Cook’s Tour and premiered his first television series with the same title. Alongside his many accolades, he was named the Food Writer of the Year by Bon Appétit.
In his long and diverse career, Bourdain authored twelve titles including a biography of Typhoid Mary and two graphic novels that follow the character Jiro, a sushi chef, amidst a global culinary war. His fiction is an exceptional feat in storytelling – the mysteries Bone in the Throat and Gone Bamboo are celebrated works. In addition, Bourdain’s pieces on food and cooking are read assiduously by millions who love and/or hate food. The most notable of these is the collection of essays, The Nasty Bits and the culinary travelogue, No Reservations: Around the World On An Empty Stomach. Bourdain also ran his own publication line at Ecco Press to encourage books that matched his unconventional tastes.
His most recent publication, Appetites: A Cookbook, chronicled a range of home-cooking recipes and brought together some of his personal favourites as a child. The book, inspired largely by his eleven year old daughter, included recipes for eggs and sandwiches among others.
While Bourdain was a prolific writer, having written for the New York Times, The New Yorker, The Times of London, Gourmet and The Observer, he was best known for his television presence. The Travel Channel production No Reservations followed Bourdain on his food adventures in countries around the world. The Beirut episode of the show, where Bourdain and his crew were caught amid the Israel-Lebanon conflict, was nominated for an Emmy in 2006. Bourdain also hosted The Layover between 2011-13 and produced The Getaway on Eqsquire Channel. Nevertheless, his most popular television series was the CNN travelogue Parts Unknown which won him both critical and popular acclaim. Anthony Bourdain travelled all around the globe to film his investigations, but when at home he enjoyed cooking simply. ‘I cook for my daughter every day. I prepare my daughter’s school lunch every day and I’ll cook dinner every night I’m home’, he told the Business Insider. He shared that he found great pleasure in standing in the backyard in his apron, grilling cheeseburgers and hotdogs for his family every summer.
Anthony had featured as a judge on esteemed cooking competitions including ABC’s The Taste and Bravo’s Top Chef. He was also the narrator and producer of several episodes of the award-winning show The Mind of a Chef. In 2016, he began plans for creating a Singapore street-stall style food hall called ‘Bourdain Market’ whose plans are no more. In honour of his memory, the state of New Jersey plans to create an Anthony Bourdain food trail connecting some of the chef’s favourite spots in the city.
Bourdain arrived in the culinary world, as per the Smithsonian Institute, as the ‘Elvis of bad boy chefs’. He loved rock music, wore his hair halfway down his back, spoke outwardly of the criminality within the trade and listed his cuts and calluses as proud marks of his cooking. His unique demeanour and naked humour made him a quintessential food figure – someone people understood and connected to. In 2008, Bourdain was included in the Who’s Who of Food and Beverage by the James Beard Foundation alongside culinary legends like Julia Child and Bobby Flay. On 8 June this year, he was found dead of a reported suicide in his hotel bathroom in France where he was filming an episode of Parts Unknown. In his first book, closing the kitchen, he writes, ‘How much longer am I going to do this?
I don’t know. I love it, you see.’
Network Capital Associate Nikita Biswal wrote this piece