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The Lost Diary of Anthony Bourdain

For years, the chef and TV star posted anonymously to a martial-arts forum on Reddit — but his voice was too singular to go undetected for long

Anthony Bourdain on Aug. 25, 2015, at Ralph Gracie Jiu Jitsu in San Francisco.

Helen M. Cho

On June 29, 2014, at 8:02 p.m. ET, a user named NooYawkCity made the first of what would come to be many posts to a popular martial-arts forum on reddit.com. It was titled “58 year old white belt”:

I’ve been training about a year, and only recently gotten solidly hooked. From once every few weeks, to once a week to nearly every day. Now it’s an obsession. I’m in shit shape, gas early, and of course, hurt like hell after training. Given the limits of any reasonable expectations, am I out of my fucking mind?

Over three years, NooYawkCity posted on the forum, tagged “bjj” for Brazilian jiujitsu, some 80 times. The writing was colorful, ruminative, simultaneously lacerating and humble. 

July 9, 2014, 10:29 p.m.

58 years old and getting so gassed during warm ups, that when we start to roll, I end up sticking my own head into an obvious guillotine — just to take a break. An utterly humiliating class yesterday, yet showed up for a private today with 250 lbs of muscle and bone so I could get pounded like a chicken fried steak. Why am I doing this? I don’t know. I’m like a dope fiend at this point. If I can’t train I start going into withdrawal. Wander around, twitching, restless and pissed off. At least with dope, you feel GOOD afterwards. After training, I feel like a rented and unloved mule. All the other (much, much younger) white belts all seem to be coming back from long breaks because of injury. Strangely enough, so far so good for me. I may feel like a fragile box of stale breadsticks but I’ve managed to avoid injury (if not discomfort). I have never enjoyed pain. I don’t care if it’s Gisele Bunchen coming at me in thigh boots wielding a riding crop, I’m not interested. Yet I insist on getting squashed on the mats every day and feel bereft if I can’t. This is not normal. When I talk about BJJ, Old friends look at me like I have an arm growing out of my forehead. But I Won’t stop. Can’t stop.

Eventually, the tone and rhythms, the distinctive attitude in NooYawkCity’s writing, started to become recognizable to savvy Redditors. These, they suspected, were the musings of Anthony Bourdain, the celebrated chef, author, and TV star, who died by suicide in 2018 at the age of 61. Bourdain’s wife, Ottavia Busia — who had introduced him to Brazilian jiujitsu — later confirmed as much, as has an additional source close to the No Reservations host. 

While the world had come to know Bourdain’s unfiltered writing style, his Reddit posts brought an exceptional sort of candor. NooYawkCity’s prose was not going through an editor, directed toward a book or TV audience. This was the truest Anthony Bourdain, writing simply for the sake of it, unburdened by his reputation. He’d previously chronicled his passion for food and travel, and now, he needed an outlet to write about his new love: Brazilian jiujitsu.

March 31, 2015, 6:37 p.m. 

Conventional wisdom is that I should allow myself recovery time. That training every day is not wise. I say fuck that. The clock is ticking. Im not getting any faster, more flexible or more durable. Gotta get in what training I can — learn as much as I can, get as good as I can before I leave this life like I began it: diapered and screaming.

April 22, 2015, 4:12 p.m.

After 45 minutes of sprawls and burpies, it’s time for live rolling. Someone puts on Rupert Holmes’ “Piña Colada Song” and right away the 270 lb former wrestler who just got dumped by his girlfriend, angrily passes my guard, slaps me into side control and sinks his weight into my jaw. He’s wearing a new but filthy Atama gi. It feels like a cheese grater against my cheek as he grinds away at me. I can hear my teeth making terrible sounds and am pretty sure my crowns are going to explode any second. Jabba The Wrestler has been eating at Subway. I can smell rancid, sour, pre-sliced onions on his breath, which, sadly does little to mask the horrifying miasma of swamp ass rising from his sweaty thighs. As my teeth give way, the music changes to Don Mclean’s “American Pie”. I pray for death but I’m already dead.

Bourdain always seemed extraordinary in his ability to connect with all sorts of people. He squatted for lunch with a sitting U.S. president at a Hanoi eatery, stopped to chat with a fruit seller in a Senegalese open-air market, laughed alongside a leather-clad biker on the side of a Beirut highway. This was the Anthony Bourdain way. Even his fans felt like they knew him — upstart chefs who kept copies of his blockbuster tell-all Kitchen Confidential by their bedside, or travel-starved foodies who religiously tuned into No Reservations and Parts Unknown.

Still, jiujitsu practitioners were privileged to a unique bond with Bourdain during the last several years of his life. While his love affair with the sport was well documented in the media, those who sweat alongside him on the mats really got to know the man in a personal way. Bourdain was not the type of celebrity who stuck to private lessons designed to keep faces unblemished and egos unbruised. Just as he got down and dirty with real people and foods, Bourdain sought the unfiltered BJJ experience — “gen-pop” classes — wherever he went. He wanted to be strangled by a thick-fingered bricklayer in Dublin, arm-locked by a mangy-haired hipster in San Francisco, hip-tossed by a tree-trunk-thick judoka in Okinawa. And that’s what he did, though it certainly wasn’t easy:

Aug. 14, 2014, 8:56 p.m.

Rolled with another white belt today. He knew nothing — which is okay, because I know nothing. But he was built like a freaking dump truck, and was about as graceful. Also, he’s a wrestler. What kind of wrestler, I can’t imagine. He managed to kick me in the nose, WWE elbow drop onto my stomach, and generally throw me around his cage — when he wasn’t just laying on my legs or trying to artlessly squash me with his massive girth. Oh, yeah, he did try and twist my foot off. That was …interesting. I don’t think he even attempted a single recognizable jiu jitsu technique that I’m aware of — and raising the subject in a helpful way is difficult as he communicates only in monosyllabic grunts and avoids eye contact.

What’s the polite thing to do here? I sure as shit don’t want to roll with this Killdozer again. Do I edge over to the other side of the mat when he approaches? Talk to the professor and beg him to put Godzilla back on Monster Island? Shoot him with a tranquilizer dart so we can track him back to see if there are others of his species? What’s the appropriate response to this? 

May 1, 2015, 10:49 a.m.

I travel a lot and visit a lot of different academies. And I frankly don’t care whose photo I’m asked to bow to: Helio, Carlos, Carlson, Maeda — or whether I’m expected to bow every time I either enter or leave the mats, bow to instructor, bow to my classmates… I do it. It’s their house. I’m lucky enough to benefit in some way from the hundreds, if not THOUSANDS of hours of painfully acquired experience represented by those traditions, however silly they may seem. I play by the house rules. Period. If I don’t like your rules? I don’t come to your house

December 23, 2014, 4:41 p.m. 

Planning a business trip to Budapest and hope to keep up with my training. Privates or GenPop or both. Anyone have any experiences/suggestions there? […] I read one account that’s frankly terrifying — describing massive, obelisk shaped rageaholic manimals punching walls in between neck snappings but hoping that’s apocryphal nonsense. Anyone?

Bourdain’s devotion to training paid off: In 2016, he competed at the New York Open Brazilian jiu jitsu competition and won gold in his division. Meanwhile, NooYawkCity occasionally ventured to some other forums on Reddit. A former addict himself, he slapped down an unscrupulous troll who suggested ex-addict celebrities should participate in a reality show where they are given drugs to relapse on: You are a terrible human being. You richly deserve to lose sphincter control and seep slowly, steadily and fragrantly into your My Little Pony undies for the rest of your life. 

He reaffirmed his love for Vietnam by posting about his favorite films set in the country: The Three Seasons…. also Scent of Green Papaya. Both give a real sense of modern Vietnam. 

He commented on Steven Seagal’s questionable combat prowess: Seagal is a “deadly mofo” if you get between him and the all you can eat pasta bar. The hair is definitely deadly though. A wad of that Dynell weave comes undone during a fight with Lightning Chunks of Death and you could choke. 

He jumped in on a debate on whether Joe Rogan could beat Wesley Snipes in a fight: I can tell you from personal experience you do NOT want Rogan’s arms anywhere near your neck. He cranks. Hard. And enjoys it while he does it. He’d destroy Snipes. Like hospitalize destroy.

And after a couple years of rolling anonymously, NooYawkCity began to allude to his true identity. In an addiction forum where a user mentioned one of the notorious all-night drinking sessions on Parts Unknown, he wrote: It should probably be pointed out that the “one night bender” in Chiang Mai was filmed painstakingly, with multiple set-ups, green screen and lighting schemes, over the course of a full week. Television does not happen in real time.

In 2016, Bourdain responded to a question about a photo he’d posted to Instagram of his newly mangled cauliflower ear: It was big, it was filled with fluid that kept refilling after draining by syringe… it was painful as fuck. He also addressed a rumor that Ottavia had jokingly bribed him with Vicodin to come with her to a BJJ class: That would be a reasonable assumption. Also the fact of the matter.

Anthony Bourdain training with black belt Kurt Osiander at Ralph Gracie Jiu Jitsu in San Francisco on Aug. 25, 2015.

Helen M. Cho

Bourdain’s final post on r/bjj was Jan. 5, 2017. His last reference to jiu jitsu in an Instagram post, a solemn picture of himself clad in his gi uniform, came two days later. But Busia confirmed that he continued training even after he stopped posting about it, with his last session coming on May 31, 2018, just eight days before he died. It was clear BJJ had a positive influence on Bourdain’s life. As with many practitioners, the sport replaced a host of addictions he’d acquired previously:

Dec. 12, 2014, 3:16 a.m.

For over 40 years, my life pretty much revolved around drugs. Booze and cigarettes almost the background music to my drugs of choice (heroin and cocaine). Drug free but a drinker until I started BJJ — at which point the inevitability of getting smashed every day made alcohol a much less attractive option and cigarettes out of the question. Frankly, BJJ as an addiction has in many ways replaced my previous ones. If I’m away from my home academy, I find myself looking for someplace anyplace to train like a dope fiend looking for a methadone clinic. My emotional state when deprived of training would, in different circumstances, be called “drug seeking behavior.

But it was also clear that Anthony Bourdain didn’t train for a healthier lifestyle. He didn’t train to replace bad habits. He didn’t train to live longer or rid himself of his demons. Bourdain practiced BJJ because it was another way for him to tap into a raw culture, just as he’d done with food and travel earlier in his life. When his celebrity was at its height and he couldn’t walk a street on this planet without getting recognized, jiujitsu gave Bourdain a new, anonymous world to traverse, one where he was just one of us.

Oct. 24, 2014, 12:41 a.m.

I love all of it. The soreness, the carrot fingers, mat burn, the ego-destroying ass kickings, just when you think you’re getting somewhere. I’m hooked. I know I will never be young again. I am well aware that I’m only getting slower, more fragile over time. That I will probably never live to see black belt or win any competitions. But I’m pretty sure I will suck a little bit less every month. That while I will never master this skill, will at least, hopefully, get better and better at it. And every once in a great while, I will sweep some young upper belt, or maybe even catch one in a triangle. And that makes me happy.

 

In This Article: Anthony Bourdain

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