I first encountered Anthony Bourdain back in the year 2000. We’ve been friends ever since. I’ve never actually met him, but like so many of his readers and viewers, I felt that he was a friend – a kindred spirit who would have been the best possible person with whom to sit down to a plate of unwashed warthog’s rectum.
Tony had that knack – yes, he is ‘Tony’ to me, his close, personal friend – of making people feel included, as though they were co-conspirators in a mockumentary of human life and issues, in which the next quotable quote was never more than a swallow and an exhalation of satisfaction away.
He invited us into his world, and took us under his chicken wing, like a curmudgeonly uncle who the family rarely talks about because he behaves badly and is likely to do something inappropriate, disgraceful and entertaining at a social gathering.
Please excuse the terminology, but Anthony Bourdain didn’t seem to give a rat’s arse. Not about the ways in which he was perceived by others – even with regard to his chequered past in which he had fessed up to a variety of addictions. Heroin was his hero for a while, and coke was, for a time, his ‘real thing’.
And that’s an almighty paradox because he cared so much about everything else. Too much perhaps, as it turned out.
Bourdain rose to prominence with the publication of Kitchen Confidential in 2000 – the year in which we first became friends. He’d penned an article for The New Yorker, entitled Don’t Eat Before Reading This – the piece that changed his life – and then expanded it to produce a fascinating, visceral and scurrilous exposé of the culinary world.
It made him, arguably, the world’s first ‘rock star celebrity chef’ (sorry Tony) and brought him a level of fame that didn’t always appear to sit well on his bony shoulders. The man was a lean, mean, eating machine, who could probably digest a house without putting on a pound of weight. Replete with tattoos, an earring, a lived-in, craggy-as-a-rock-face complexion and the requisite mussed up coiffeur, he cut into the underbelly of the haute cuisine restaurant scene with sashimi-knife precision, butterflying the entrails along the way.
Those not involved in the catering industry were shocked to their very kernels. Even those who already knew what was going on experienced tremors, as the magic tricks were revealed, personalities pared, and the smoked duck and mirrors held up to the shifting winds of public opinion.
He insisted on being known as a ‘cook’ and not a ‘chef’, and for those sitting on their high horses sporting their high hats, this was tantamount to heresy.
While Kitchen Confidential put him on the map, his subsequent television work made him his very own cartographer, as he plotted a course around the world, bringing an awareness of different cuisines and culinary lifestyles to a viewing public whose tastes and experiences were expanding, but from a low starting point.
Bourdain’s travels and culinary forays were all about adventure – strange places, strange foods, but often staples in unimagined diets in far-flung corners of the planet. Anyone fancy a plate of sheep’s testicles, foetal duck eggs, raw seal eyeballs or an entire cobra – beating heart, blood, bile and all?
He may not have, but Tony ate them anyway, just drawing enough breath to assert, intermezzo, that a Chicken McNugget was the most disgusting thing he had ever eaten.
In fairness, he changed his mind after sampling Iceland’s infamous ammoniated, fermented shark, and I’m sure that if a corporate communications person from McDonald’s had been available for comment, he or she would have expressed a degree of antacid relief.
A Cook’s Tour on the Food Network led to No Reservations and The Layover on the Travel Channel, before Parts Unknown for CNN set new standards in whatever compartmentalised genre people feel comfortable in putting his oeuvre. It was also an absolutely crackling (sic) title for a show.
This progression of broadcasters speaks volumes about the direction in which he headed, as the opportunity arose to augment his (and, vicariously, others’) appreciation of food and places…with social commentary on food, places and people. And society. And politics. And everything else.
He claims that he never had an agenda, and maybe he didn’t, but while trying to understand and empathise with other people’s experiences, he also admitted to being very “pissed off” on certain issues, particularly lately with, in his own words, “the world turning inwards.”
Obviously, this would have been at odds with his worldview, and everything he was striving to achieve in his inimitable brand of broadcast journalism. Perhaps it was the controlled, self-deprecating manner of his gentle, often unspoken invective that led to a nihilistic frustration. One that will always end, but never well.
Anthony Bourdain was superb at what he did. Eminently watchable; engaging to a fault; he almost encouraged you to love him and hate him at the same time. He may have done so himself.
Don’t get me wrong; he was never perfect. Sometimes an offal (sic) lot of verbiage spouted from his mouth, but it was entertaining nevertheless, and we forgave him instantly. Somehow, idiosyncratically, he managed to forage for truffles in the vast lacuna between the Big Mac and foie gras.
For me, one of the greatest moments in television history was when he sat down for bun cha in Hanoi, Vietnam, with the then outgoing US President, Barack Obama.
They chatted, ate noodles and sank a couple of beers, and Tony picked up the US$6 tab. We’ll never know exactly what they talked about and that’s a good thing. It’s often more fun to speculate or make stuff up, but it seems as though ‘family’ was on the agenda, and that in itself is bittersweet. Anthony Bourdain left an 11-year-old girl without a father.
A waitress carries dishes to customers next to the glass-encased table where former US President Barack Obama sat at for a meal with Anthony Bourdain at Bun Cha Huong Lien restaurant in Hanoi, Vietnam. Photo: AFP
Obama tweeted after learning of Bourdain’s demise, “He taught us about food – but more importantly, about its ability to bring us together. To make us a little less afraid of the unknown. We’ll miss him.”
Perhaps the prospect of sitting down and doing something similar with Donald J. Trump was one of the reasons behind his decision to end his own life.
I’m not going to apologise for the black humour. I feel that Tony would have had a quiet chuckle, before nosediving into yet another dish of those parts of an animal that most of us wouldn’t even touch, never mind about putting in our mouths.
The world is full of sadness, joy and irony. Anthony Bourdain did everything he could in his work to avoid agendas, he claimed, but in many ways (this is the ‘irony’ bit) he had the perfect vehicle to convey the irritation he felt, and use his fame and reputation to create a soapbox from which to express it.
It appears as though he chose not to think enough about abusing his position of privilege, possibly even doubting his own credentials as a mouthpiece for addressing social injustice. He was never, I suspect, as secure in himself as others would have believed, or expected.
“I am always the stupidest person in the room, wherever I go,” Tony once said in an interview. It’s unlikely to be true. Rooms, small and large, are always full of stupid people, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t genuinely believe it.
Like any good journalist – and there are few enough of them these days, according to the current US President – he was a truth seeker. But, as the current US President might also suggest (but in far more, monosyllabic, oft-repeated words), truth can be subjective.
“The truth,” Tony once said, “is how I feel about everything at the time,” and he was never afraid to say what he felt, at any time. Meat, he could mince. Words; not so much. But did he say enough, while he had the chance?
His network progression says a lot about his career – food, travel, news. Towards the end he began to eschew haute cuisine and fine dining in favour of plastic chairs and tablecloths by roadsides, somehow suggesting that food was more about where it came from, how it was made and by whom, rather than three lines of pretentious culinary poetry masquerading as a dish description followed by the production of something foamy with post-modern art doodles in the gravy.
It was back to basics, perhaps; the pursuit of simplicity and authenticity; a culinary quest matching a philosophical one; the search for clarity.
There are those who will aver, militantly no doubt, that his decision to end his own life was morally reprehensible, but who is anyone to judge? Anthony Bourdain lived his life, and ended it, by his own ‘kitchen rules’, and in many ways paid the price for seeing things too clearly, something that can result, I am told, in the depression from which he suffered.
It was a tragic final act in what had been a glittering career on the culinary stage; the last thrust of the lance in the joust, turned inwards, that reflected a self-determinism that is all too rare in many of the countries to which he travelled and the societies in which he fleetingly immersed himself and that experienced him in return.
He was a better friend to us than we knew, and he will be missed.
This article is an excerpt from UNRESERVED’s July 2019 issue from the article IN MEMORIAM.