The world was shocked by the terrible news of Anthony Bourdain’s death today, because he seemed invincible. As his man Iggy Pop would say, he had a lust for life. Bourdain wasn’t just another celebrity chef – he was an adventurer, a punk rocker who used to scam his way into CBGB shows by cooking meals for the bands. On his revolutionary travel shows No Reservations and Parts Unknown, he brought that same streetwise flair to his quest to cross the globe in search of weird food and drink and shady companions. He was the Johnny Thunders of food, a hard-ass New York hedonist chatterbox who did not mind his table manners. As he proudly told Mens Journal‘s Sean Woods in 2014, “I have a tattoo on my arm that says, in ancient Greek, ‘I am certain of nothing.’ I think that’s a good operating principle.”
Bourdain was the first rock-star chef, at a time when cooking shows finally started to give voyeurs a look inside the combat zone of the modern restaurant. He ate things that you or I would jump out of a window to avoid – roasted sheep testicles in Morocco, warthog anus in Nambia, seal eyeball in the Great White North, a live cobra heart in Vietnam. It was a kick to watch him devour these delicacies without flinching, even if he admitted later they were disgusting. You could envy his fearless spirit, even if you wouldn’t trade your dinner for his. That’s what made him such an excellent TV companion. He had a cobra heart himself.
“Look, I understand that inside me there is a greedy, gluttonous lazy hippie,” he said to Mens Journal. “I understand that free time is probably my enemy. That if I’m given too much free time to contemplate the mysteries of the universe, I’m afraid of that inner hippie emerging. There’s a guy inside me who wants to lay in bed, and smoke weed all day, and watch cartoons, and old movies. I could easily do that. My whole life is a series of stratagems to avoid, and outwit, that guy.” That’s why he kept himself moving forward with food and travel and work. “It goes back to heroin,” he said. “If heroin, or delicious delicious food, is the Number One thing on the to-do list every day, there probably won’t be a Number Two thing on your Things To-Do list, you know?”
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His 2000 memoir Kitchen Confidential made him a star, yet he was even more of a hit on TV, crackling with energy and charisma. Even those of us who couldn’t handle a whisk could savor how Bourdain roamed the world, going to places the rest of us could barely pronounce, seeking out new culinary kicks with unsentimental gusto. Like the New York Dolls did for music in the sluggish Seventies, he revved up the tempo of food TV, adding street swagger and caustic humor. He was tough on his friends and merciless to his enemies (with plenty of both). He was easily the meanest Top Chef guest judge ever, yet also the funniest – even Padma could look a little shocked at how surly he was.
Bourdain paid his dues as a line cook in the New York restaurant racket, at a time when it was full of crooks and hard drugs; he was a junkie for years. He became an unlikely star when Kitchen Confidential became a surprise hit. As he told Mens Journal, “I was 44. I was uninsured, I was broke, and I was dunking fries into a fast-food fryer.” Kitchen Confidential was a hit with the foodies – but even more so with voyeurs on the outside, in the way he portrayed the people who live for food as hustlers who are driven, obesssive, damaged, drug-gobbling, nasty pieces of work. “I was a long-time drug addict, and one of the things drug addiction did, especially when you have to score cocaine or heroin every day on the streets of New York – you learn a lot of skills that are useful when dealing with Hollywood or the business world …You don’t fall victim to amateur bullshit when you’ve put up with professional bullshit.“
Bradley Cooper played him in the extremely short-lived TV version of Kitchen Confidential, with the fictionalized Bourdain strutting in his CBGB t-shirt through the restaurant trenches as people yell things like, “Sauce and toss it, I’ve got tables to turn!” Cooper got the Bourdain swagger right, whether terrorizing his bosses, his investors or his staff. (The first thing he tells them is “I am not your friend!”)
He met his girlfriend, actress Asia Argento, while she stepped in to direct an episode of Parts Unknown in 2016. He supported her brave work in exposing Harvey Weinstein last year and talked up her creative input on the show. As he told Indiewire just last week, “Look, any time I can get work out of Asia – even random suggestions, like when she calls me mid-show to make me aware of a Nigerian psychedelic rock scene of the mid-to-late Seventies – that’s a huge help to the show.” In response to her recent Cannes speech, he said, “I was so proud of her. It was absolutely fearless to walk right into the lion’s den and say what she said, the way she said it. It was an incredibly powerful moment, I thought. I am honored to know someone who has the strength and fearlessness to do something like that.” As for similar abuses in restaurant culture, Bourdain made it clear he stood with the victims. Asked by the New York Times about the disgraced chef Mario Batali’s comeback, he said simply, “Retire and count yourself lucky. I say that without malice, or without much malice. I am not forgiving.”
His passion for music was a crucial part to his appeal; until Bourdain showed up, TV chefs worked hard to come off as well-bred and respectable types. As he told Rolling Stone in 2014, “For the first two-thirds of my life, I built my identity almost entirely by what albums I was listening to – and what drugs I was taking. If everybody else loved the Allman Brothers, I hated them.” He was into Roxy Music (“two years of college and this was all I remember”) and the New York Dolls: “Johnny Thunders guitar made life worth living again and gave permission to everything good that followed, like New York punk. Joyously nihilistic.” He approached music with the same opinionated truculence. He idolized the Ramones, dedicating his book The Nasty Bits to the late Joey, Johnny and Dee. He was strict about what music he allowed in his kitchen: “If you play Elton John, Billy Joel, or the Grateful Dead, you will be fired!” He took pride in his feuds with celeb chefs like Paula Deen and Rachael Ray or food journalist Alan Richman; as he reasoned, “If you’re going to have an enemy, it should be someone who you respect.”
Anthony Bourdain would have made such a delightfully cantankerous old man. That’s partly why the news of his death by suicide comes as such a shock and a tragedy. He was just 61. He died in France, filming the latest season of Parts Unknown. In a cruel twist, his body was found by his friend Eric Ripert, a French chef who epitomized for viewers the kind of gentleness and tact that Bourdain disdained. His swagger made him seem like an asshole, but that was part of his wonderfully prickly appeal. As his heroes in the New York Dolls used to sing, he walked like a king, that’s because he was a human being and he wanted too many things. He made it easy for the rest of us to live vicariously through his adventures, because he seemed to have a boundless appetite for life. That’s why it’s so hard to fathom that he’s dead – and that’s why the world is mourning for him today.