It’s not often that the death of a celebrity affects me. However, the death of former chef Anthony Bourdain hit me like a steam train. It felt like somehow I had lost a friend. This was a man who encouraged me to travel and “eat the world.” He was also very funny while telling you about it.
Anthony Bourdain, the author of Kitchen Confidential, star of numerous food and travel TV shows, and one of the food world’s most outspoken voices, died June 8. The verdict was suicide.
He shot to fame in 2000 with a best-selling book called Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly, which offered a window into the little-discussed goings-on behind restaurant kitchen doors.
The best-selling book was published while Bourdain was a chef at New York City brasserie Les Halles. It inspired a new public fascination with kitchen life. It also revealed the strength of his indelible voice — proudly disruptive, with a roguish charm — that would sweep food media. The book became a New York Times bestseller, and Bourdain became a celebrity. He was named the “Elvis of bad boy chefs.” In the book he also wrote candidly about his abuse of drugs, including cocaine, heroin and LSD.
Boudain knew his way around a stovetop. He also had the unfiltered sensibility of an opinionated, leather-jacketed onetime drug addict revealing the sometimes unsavoury truths beneath the chef’s whites.
In Kitchen Confidential Bourdain warned against ordering fish on Mondays. This was because it was likely to have been sitting around for four days. He said chefs relegated the worst cuts of beef for people who wanted it well done. He also revealed that the cheap “Sunday brunch” was typically an overpriced meal of leftovers, prepared by cooks who held their customers in contempt.
Even worse, from a cook’s point of view, were vegetarians and what Mr. Bourdain called “their Hezbollah-like splinter faction, the vegans.”
“I’ve long believed that good food, good eating, is all about risk.”
After Kitchen Confidential, Bourdain would never work in a kitchen again. The book quickly led to TV deals with Travel Channel and later CNN, making Bourdain a household name. In his shows , he showed viewers how to experience far-flung parts of the world as the locals did. You felt connected to Bourdain through his fearless travels, his restless spirit and his magical way with words.
Bourdain’s first TV show, A Cook’s Tour, aired on the Food Network from 2002 to 2003. In 2005, the Travel Channel launched “No Reservations.” This was part travelogue, part food show. It showed perfectly Bourdain’s strengths of narration, conversation, and personal curiosity. Each episode relayed Bourdain’s experiences as he learnt about other cultures through food.
He would generally sit down with locals in the most remote far flung parts of the world. He made no secret that the one thing that he loved was the honour of being invited into someone’s home to share and talk about their food.
Bourdain wasn’t voyueristic, he was a guest. He was endlessly curious, but never judgemental. His caring nature brought out the stories that other similar food shows were missing.
“I know what I want, I want it all”
In his shows Bourdain explored exotic food and cultural traditions as a globe-trotting adventurer of the appetites. He ate crickets, scorpions and insects of many varieties. In one memorable episode about Vietnam he devoured the heart of a recently killed cobra. In his usual style he described it as “like eating a hyperactive oyster.”
He famously said “I know what I want. I want it all. I want to try everything once.”
Throughout the time that No Reservations aired from 2005 to 2012, Bourdain became a familiar name in the community of people who similarly relished their experiences with food. In 2011, the Travel Channel added a second show from Bourdain called “The Layover.” The format of the show was based on what a traveller can do, eat, visit and enjoy within 24 to 48 hours in a city. Each episode started with him landing in the city. The clock started the countdown until the time that he had to leave. As a seasoned traveller, he met up with locals and explored the city in and out, within a matter of hours, both the touristy way and the local way.
Bourdain left the Travel Channel in 2013. He then joined CNN and made “Parts Unknown.” He was filming an episode of this when he died. The show took Bourdain to little-travelled destinations. However, the programme’s content often went well beyond food. He also tackled politics and social issues in the places he visited.
One of the more famous episodes was in 2016, when President Barack Obama appeared on an episode set in Hanoi, Vietnam. After Bourdain’s death Obama posted on Twitter “‘Low plastic stool, cheap but delicious noodles, cold Hanoi beer.’ This is how I’ll remember Tony.”
His raw and honest commentary was always part of his shows. He would share his frustrations about the world’s inequalities. However, he was also as vocal about his sincere appreciation for its beauties.
One of my favourite quotes of his is “Your body is not a temple, it’s an amusement park. Enjoy the ride.”
He taught me about travel and food, but more importantly, about its ability to bring us together. To make us a little less afraid of the unknown. I’ll miss him.