Anthony Bourdain (1956–2018)
Anthony Bourdain’s genius was not in the kitchen. His genius was in knowing which side he was on.
Anthony Bourdain’s genius was not in the kitchen. His genius was in never mincing words and knowing which side he was on. Asked what he would serve at a summit between Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump, Bourdain said, “Hemlock.” He told David Duke, “I’d be happy to rearrange your knee or other extremities.” After visiting Cambodia, Bourdain wrote of Henry Kissinger — “that treacherous, prevaricating, murderous scumbag” — “you’ll never stop wanting to beat [him] to death with your bare hands.”
Journalists are not supposed to talk like this, at least ones hoping to retain a coveted network show like Parts Unknown. That CNN series nabbed Bourdain four of his five Emmys, and the sixty-one-year-old chef and author was in France filming an episode for the twelfth season when he hung himself June 7.
The obituaries and reminiscences about Bourdain miss who he was. He was more than a celebrity chef, a Hunter S. Thompson of the kitchen, a roguish culinary adventurer, or part Epicurean, part everyman. Bourdain was simply a journalist. And journalists can’t recognize him because they can’t recognize what real journalism is anymore. Bourdain was a chronicler of societies, of cultures, of people, of stories, of emotions. Food was his reporter’s notepad and pen.
Bourdain the Journalist
When Bourdain claimed, “I am not a journalist,” he was right. He was not compelled to drown everyday observations in qualifications and important sources. But his approach represented the best of journalism. “There is actually nothing more political than food. Who’s eating, who’s not eating,” he said. He would sit down with people and ask, “‘What makes you happy? What’s your life like? What do you like to eat?’” And, he noted, “More often than not they will tell you extraordinary things many of which have nothing to do with food.”
Some outlets, like Vox, did grasp that Bourdain was a journalist. “He was an ally to marginalized communities and called out powerful leaders for their hypocrisy,” they wrote. But they failed to connect his reporting to his view of food. Bourdain was a stellar materialist. He knew food was meaningless outside the society it existed within. Fast food was neither totally evil nor totally harmless; it was all about the context.
Presented with a “tasting experience” of hash browns, pecan waffles, fried eggs, pork chops, and steak during a bourbon-fueled visit to a Waffle House, Bourdain declared, “This is better than the French Laundry, man.” He ripped the food police like Alice Waters for not realizing that people lined up at Popeye’s not because “it’s particularly healthy chicken, or organic chicken, or conscientiously raised chicken — or even good chicken. They do it because it’s three fucking pieces for a dollar ninety-nine.” He fantasized about smashing up the Chili’s on the Mexican border. “Do we have a shortage of Mexicans in these parts? Is there a shortage of good food?”
Bourdain had a capacity for reinvention and a tongue sharper than knives. He moved from chef and heroin addict to recovery, best-selling author, and television raconteur. At first, Bourdain gave in to the man-versus-food genre — consuming “raw seal in Quebec, eyeballs and all . . . fermented shark in Iceland . . . a still-beating cobra heart in Saigon.” He charmed with curiosity and crankiness, affability and pugilism.
The macho swagger that launched his career would slip out in references to “boner-inspiring” dishes, bong hits, heroin, and jokes that “Umami means, in Japanese . . . I will suck your dick for a bite of that burger.” He did buddy pics with three-star Michelin chef Eric Ripert, who found Bourdain’s body, and indulged in gastronomic excesses from Charleston to Tokyo, but he shunned the sentimentalism of classic travel shows like On the Road with Charles Kuralt and its cast of craftsmen and do-gooders.
Bourdain said of his crowning legacy, Parts Unknown, “Some shows are agenda-driven.” That agenda was at once banal and radical: “Show regular people doing everyday things.” The locations tipped viewers off to his politics. Bourdain visited Gaza, Iran, Cuba, Congo, Vietnam, Namibia, Libya, and Colombia. US locations featured West Virginia, Montana, and Cleveland. It was a roll call of neocon enemies and neoliberal abandonment. Bourdain used food to oppose the Washington consensus.
In Jerusalem, Bourdain remarked that the half-a-million Israeli settlers who’ve moved to the West Bank since 1967 are “all in contravention of international law [though] it seems to make little difference.” In Bethlehem, Bourdain said of Israel’s wall, “It doesn’t feel like anything other than what it is. A prison.” In Gaza, Laila El-Haddad, author of The Gaza Kitchen, explains how Israel shoots at and detains fishermen, before showing the diversity of Gaza through two meals.
First Bourdain joins a family gathering over a chicken, rice, and fried vegetable casserole. Then, apart from El-Haddad, a men’s-only feast of roasted young watermelon, tomatoes, chili, olive oil, and unleavened bread scooped from a collective pot. It’s a sumptuous way to demolish the image of Gazans as a monolithic faceless enemy.
In accepting an award for the Jerusalem episode, Bourdain let loose. “There is a measure I guess of how twisted and shallow our depiction of a people is that these images come as a shock to so many. The world has visited many terrible things on the Palestinian people, none more shameful than robbing them of their basic humanity. People are not statistics. That is all we attempted to show.”
Humanity is the current that runs through Bourdain’s best work. He showed solidarity and genuine affection for people, and disgust with brutal governments; tourist-led development, as in Cuba; colonialism, as in the Congo; and predatory capitalism, as in Puerto Rico.
His politics did not magically spring forth, and it would be a mistake to essentialize Bourdain. He was neither a renowned cook nor a natural writer. “I was a journeyman chef of middling abilities,” he admitted. As a writer he labored over his craft. His first stabs, in the mid-nineties, were two crime capers dismissed as “flabby” and “a sorry, soggy mess of a stew.”
One reviewer commended him for “great descriptions of food” and that seems to have stuck. In Kitchen Confidential, his breakout account of drugs, sex, and insanity in the New York City restaurant industry published in 2000, Bourdain makes running out of tomatoes during service or having to add flour to a sourdough starter seem dramatic, violent, and lurid. Kitchen Confidential belongs to the genre of bro realism that includes Liar’s Poker and Platoon. Meant to be cautionary tales about the dark side of male pursuits like cooking, Wall Street, and war, these works instead glamorized the underbelly to thrill-seekers.
Having cooked in the mid-nineties in New York City restaurants, I found little resemblance between the physically demanding but banal jobs on the line and Bourdain’s action-packed account. But it is admirable that he did with a pen what he did while a cook at the top of Rockefeller Center, where he would concoct “sauce-disguised leftovers” for “hard-of-hearing captains of industry [to] gum down without complaint.”
A thousand tatted bad boy chefs picked up his banner, but not his sensibilities. His politics bubble up in Kitchen Confidential when he tells aspiring chefs to learn Spanish, to learn “the distinct cultures, histories and geographies of Mexico, El Salvador, Ecuador and the Dominican Republic,” to eat their food, and to show respect. Years later, he confronted Americans with their hypocrisy for depending on Mexican workers and loving Mexican food, Mexican beverages, “Mexican music, Mexican beaches, Mexican architecture, interior design, Mexican films,” but not Mexico itself.
Bourdain received an early political education in protesting the Vietnam War as a child. His writing influences included journalists who wrote about food and kitchen culture. In The Nasty Bits, Bourdain said George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London was a revelation — “I know these people!” — recognizing its prep cooks, dishwashers, and squalid restaurants.
Bourdain also cited Emile Zola’s The Belly of Paris, a vivid tale of a convict and socialist turned inspector worker in Les Halles, the grand food market that inhabited the city center for more than eight hundred years until modernization swept it away last century. Coincidentally, Bourdain’s rickety culinary career peaked at Brasserie Les Halles, a Manhattan steakhouse I passed by but never entered a thousand times on the way to a newspaper I worked at for years.
Bourdain’s political transformation happened on the road to Beirut. He landed there in 2006, days before Israel bombarded the city. The episode is a verite documentary of a society upended in an instant. Lebanese journalist Kim Ghattas says that as a result, “Bourdain developed a new approach that used conversations about food to tell the story and politics of the countries he visited in ways that hard news couldn’t.”
Some might grumble that Bourdain was not saying anything revelatory. That is true. But he wasn’t holding a Facebook conversation with a few hundred angry know-it-all leftists. Bourdain reached millions. “Americans probably learned more about the world watching his shows than any news programs,” says Ghattas. What other mainstream figure would describe Butte, Montana as “a place as scarred, poisoned and denuded by rapacious capitalist excesses as a place could be,” or visit Seth Meyers to explain how, before Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico was “hideously in debt to predatory hedge funds and foreign banks” that were pillaging the island’s schools and pensions funds?
Breaking the Terrible Wheel
The one fault Bourdain had to account for was validating “meathead bro culture.” In the wake of #MeToo, he said the machismo “has not been good, particularly for women.” Bourdain couldn’t erase the sexism slathered throughout Kitchen Confidential, which celebrated a culture in which cooks “try to find new and amusing ways to talk about dick.” But he spoke out against sexism in the restaurant industry, publicly cutting ties with Mario Batali and Ken Friedman, high-profile restauranteurs felled by detailed accounts of sexual misconduct. He attributed his outspokenness to his girlfriend, the actress and filmmaker Asia Argento, who was sexually assaulted by Harvey Weinstein.
But it’s in his television work where one sees how important women are to his understanding of the world. In many countries, Bourdain is feted with elaborate feasts in people’s homes. Iran, he says, “is a land of secret recipes, passed down within families like treasured possessions,” as women prepare brick-red chicken stews, platters of fried fish, and rice dishes. He’s not downing $500 twenty-four-course tasting menus by swollen-head chefs. He’s recognizing women are responsible for the bulk of social and cultural reproduction that’s been usurped by the male-centric culinary empire model in the West.
The Iran episode is particularly affecting because Bourdain and his crew spend much of the episode lingering over faces, smiles, families, laughter, children, picnics, and prayers. He was asking Americans if they are willing to bomb, shoot, and starve these people with an astonishingly rich and hospitable culture.
In a coda to the 2006 Beirut war episode he mused on his approach. “I had begun to believe that the dinner table was the great leveler. Where people from opposite sides of the world could always sit down and talk and eat and drink, and if not solve all the world’s problems, at least find for a time common ground. Now, I’m not so sure.” For what was meant to be a light-hearted series, Bourdain sank into darkness. “Maybe the world’s not like that at all. Maybe in the real world, the one without cameras and happy food and travel shows, everybody, the good and the bad together, are all crushed under the same terrible wheel. I hope, I really hope, I’m wrong about that.”
That wheel must have been on Bourdain’s mind of late. In many places he visited — Cuba, Puerto Rico, Gaza, Iran, Libya, Lebanon — the situation has become ever more perilous under the current US regime. But it is unknowable if the bleakness contributed to Bourdain’s suicide. He never felt that “life is good,” he admitted in the Argentina episode. Something as minor as a bad hamburger in an airport could send him into “a spiral of depression that could last for days.”
Bourdain leaves behind a legacy of humanism: an ability to take something as quotidian as sustenance and transform it into a means of joy, understanding, connection, and solidarity across differences. It’s a lesson that needs to be put into action if there is any hope of breaking the terrible wheel.