Today we raise a glass to Anthony Bourdain, in this case brimming with a strong Negroni (his favorite cocktail). Bourdain reached us all in different ways—through the words in his novels, the travels he invited us along, and the food he shared with the world. His dedication to expanding his (and his fans') horizons by adventuring out of his comfort zone, always recognizing the power of a meal to bring diverse people together, was a much-needed tonic in an era of shrinking away and closing of ranks.
As a self-described “passenger of life” he was the Iggy Pop of the culinary world; overcoming addiction in his youth, achieving superstardom through his grit, talent, and acerbic wit. He cut through the vapid veneer of reality television, always eager to make Kim K’s behind the literal butt of any joke. He won us over with his unrepentant honesty, gaining our trust with his brazen devotion to expressing his opinion, unafraid of who it may upset. We never saw the five star treatment overshadow his life-long passion for a midnight hot dog at Papaya King or a cheap side of diner mac-and-cheese. A touchstone presence on television, survived in the books on our shelves, his voice will be deeply missed.
Our thoughts go out to his family and loved ones, including his 11-year old daughter, Ariane. In memorium we are digitally re-releasing his feature from Flaunt’s 71st Issue form 2005:
I half expect him to crush my hand, but he doesn’t. It’s almost the perfect handshake: firm, steady, purposeful. Then he gives me back my arm, as if setting a pan down for sauté. Calloused and carved, Anthony Bourdain’s hands are like scorched asbestos—skin gloves that comfortably clutch Promethean heights of centigrade. It’s assuring to learn there is gently in these claws.
“Chefs on the job and off the job are very different personalities,” he says. “We tend to be really insecure, gentle, sensualist. You know, all the things we are the opposite of during the shit we tend to become afterward. I miss that.
“The TV-and-book part of my personality…that’s the needy, neurotic side. you know exactly how well you’re doing in the kitchen. You go home absolutely certain that you’re the greatest ever, or you suck, but you know where you are. It’s quantifiable. One hundred and fifty dinners, one plate came back. The asshole was dead wrong. The steak was perfect.”
Earned celebrity seems rare these days, particularly in the vapid, (icy)moronic realm of reality TV, where you willingly take four simultaneous dates to your latest cystoscopy, or allow E! Entertainment to broadcast the surgical reduction of your newborn’s areola radius. But Bourdain’s celebrity has been hard-won. And he’s reinstating raw reality into television, bringing the blanched genre back to its documentary tartare beginnings.
The Kurtz of the kitchen turned Marlow on a mission, Bourdain’s main focus are his books and No Reservations, his show on the Travel Channel, in which he tours the globe in search of culture and cuisine. Bourdain isn’t afraid to ditch TV niceties, to face the camera and say, “This fucking blows.” From swallowing the beating heart freshly cut from a cobra, to an assortment of penises and random handfuls of innards and animal organs, Bourdain will eat most anything, but only as a cultural experience, not for Fear Factor shock value.
“Given my wide experience eating mammals of many forms, there is no reason to believe that if human isn’t good, you couldn’t make it good. I’m in no rush to do it and hopefully I won’t ever find myself in the circumstance where I have to, but I’d be a good guy to have in a lifeboat if it came down to that. In the case of big guy, we’re talking confit. If it’s me, who’s not carrying his weight, I think my last words would be: ‘I recommend marinating in a slow braise.’”
But Bourdain’s trek to this transient respite in his career was not without pills, thrills, and bloodshed. “Having the shit kicked out of you in a kitchen year after year is extremely good training for making television. How can you take it seriously? I lucky. I’m having a really good time, and I’ve been given permission to fulfill a life’s dream of travel and seeing the world.”
From dishwasher to diligent student of the Culinary Institute of America, from drugged-out loser to diplomat of haute cuisine (and back and forth again), Bourdain has paid his dues and turned enough offal into opulence to garner the respect and attention that he’s received, and appreciate it as well.
“Having screwed up in most of the ways that a human being can screw up in some point or another in my life, I’m fairly determined not to do that. I have a pretty good sense of ‘Hey, I’m lucky.’ I know what real work is.”
After publishing his tory “Don’t Eat Before Reading This” in The New Yorker, Bourdain was commissioned to write his fist work of nonfiction (having already published two crime novels, Bone in the Throat and Gone Bamboo). While drowning in executive-chef duties at Manhattan’s Brasserie Les Halles, he managed to write the memoir and exposé Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly, which instantly rose to bestsellerdom. And from there came offers for his own television shows, first on the Food Network and now on the Travel Channel.
“I’m a happy passenger in life right now,” he says. “Given a job, I’ll do the best job I can. Given an opportunity, I’ll make the most of it. I guess I have a few principles—none come to mind. But i’m a happy bastard enjoying this ride.”
Written by Elliott David
Photographed by Björn Wallander