In an updated edition of his memoir Kitchen Confidential, Anthony Bourdain reflected on his intentions for writing the blunt and raucous restaurant industry memoir that turned him into a household name. His goal, he explained, was “to write in Kitchenese, the secret language of cooks, instantly recognizable to anyone who has ever dunked french fries for a summer job or suffered the despotic rule of a tyrannical chef or boobish owner.”
He was a terrific chef but not a generational talent like many of his celebrity chef peers – “I have always liked to think of myself as the Chuck Wepner of cooking,” he wrote in that first book, comparing himself to the journeyman boxer who once knocked Muhammad Ali to the canvas. What would make him a star on both the page and screen – and what makes news of his suicide hit so hard – was that quality he described in that Kitchen Confidential update. Bourdain had a gift for immersing himself in the culture and language of a place, then conveying it in a way that was instantly recognizable both to those who grew up in that culture and the rest of us experiencing it for the first time.
That’s why his path wasn’t to have his own cooking show (though he was always an entertainingly lively and articulate presence when he turned up as a guest judge on Top Chef), but a series of food-based travel shows: A Cook’s Tour on Food Network, then No Reservations and The Layover for nearly a decade on Travel Channel, then CNN’s Parts Unknown from 2013 until his death.
The names and some smaller details changed from show to show, but the gist was the same: Anthony Bourdain, curious guy, on a mission to learn as much as he could from a given place and pass that knowledge on to the rest of us. Kitchen Confidential – which inspired a short-lived, uneven but amusing Fox sitcom starring Bradley Cooper as a defanged version of Bourdain who went by “Jack” – had given him a reputation as a culinary bad boy. The travel shows didn’t lack for booze and bleeped profanity, but the Bourdain we got to know through them was the polar opposite of the Ugly American, perpetually delighted to meet new people, try new foods and learn new traditions.
He had a knack for fitting in. In a Twitter thread this morning, mystery novelist Laura Lippman, who is married to The Wire’s David Simon, recalled how her husband watched an episode of No Reservations and became obsessed with befriending Bourdain, whom they’d met years earlier. Simon got his number from a mutual friend but was afraid to simply cold-call the man – so Lippman convinced him to lie and ask for help researching his new HBO show Treme, where one of the main characters was a New Orleans chef. Bourdain proved so good at translating that world, Simon invited him to help write the series. He received a shared story credit on several episodes; as Lippman put it, “David described him to me as a natural, not something he said easily or often.”
When you travel as much as Bourdain did, you will have the luck – sometimes good, sometimes bad, sometimes (especially if you’re thinking about making a memorable episode) both – to stumble into history along the way. The most famous No Reservations episode found Bourdain and his crew in Beirut as war broke out again between Lebanon and Israel. The hour starts out with the host doing what he did best, making this big scary world seem smaller and more familiar, deftly comparing a bustling local cafe to a New York diner. Soon, though, bullets and rockets are flying, and Bourdain is instead extolling the virtues of the local fixer (whom he dubs “Mr. Wolf,” after Harvey Keitel in Pulp Fiction) who gets him and the crew out after a week, and of the U.S. Marines who comforted him and all the Americans escaping the chaos. At various points over the years, he wound up in the Philippines during a typhoon (his lament was that it confined the trip to featuring only one of the country’s many islands), and in London shortly after the Brexit vote, where he shared many beers with many stunned locals.
In 2016, he went to Hanoi to for an episode featuring President Obama, whose dexterity in eating bun cha Bourdain praises in the clip above. For a CNN.com article about the trip, he wrote a passage that summed up the ethos of his TV work, and his adult life:
“I’m proud of the fact that I’ve had as dining companions over the years everybody from Hezbollah supporters, communist functionaries, anti-Putin activists, cowboys, stoners, Christian militia leaders, feminists, Palestinians and Israeli settlers to Ted Nugent. You like food and are reasonably nice at the table? You show me hospitality when I travel? I will sit down with you and break bread.”
Almost everywhere he went, Bourdain was able to find good folks with whom to break bread, because he was such a good guest, or host, or whatever was needed to communicate the joy he found in food and drink and companionship. It was a joy so palpable that the circumstances of his death feel particularly senseless and wrong, even though depression and other illnesses have a pernicious way of making even the warmest, most convivial and most beloved of people – as Anthony Bourdain certainly was – feel utterly, horribly alone.