Anthony Bourdain was a cook. But for all those who knew him and for all of us who were so fond of him, one mere word cannot sum up the exceptional achievements and gigantic charisma of the late great. To me and to many, Anthony Bourdain was a storyteller. He believed that a good meal could be the gateway to great conversation and potential for learning. He brought us these stories through the medium of food across the world; from Korea to Kenya and everywhere in between. In the months since his death, it is well past time to learn of his story.
Once death has taken a man or woman and their life turns to legend, it is easy for us to brand that individual with interpretations of our own. That’s why History’s Finest is named so: I’ve attempted to reach into the echelons of history to learn from men who we deem to be good or at least successful in their endeavours. But Anthony Bourdain is a different case. He is not so long passed that his actions are the stuff of myth (such as Julius Caesar) and he has no political affiliation or clear heroic tendencies (such as Winston Churchill or Miyamoto Musashi). There is a dichotomy in the life of Anthony Bourdain. His story is one of great beauty and severe tragedy. With his deep, calming voice and broad smile, the world played witness to one of popular food’s most enigmatic entertainers. But behind the curtains and the façade of modern media, Anthony Bourdain’s life and death were all too human.
Appropriate for a world-class chef, Anthony Bourdain was born in New York City in 1956. His father worked in music and his mother worked as an editor for the New York Times. From a young age, Bourdain would be fascinated by the popular culture his parents and the city he lived in helped to curate. However, it was during a trip to France as a boy that Bourdain would find his true passion: food.
Bourdain took no particularly unusual route towards his cooking excellence; he attended culinary schools and rose steadily through the ranks of local New York City kitchens. In his early career, these restaurants included the likes of the Supper Club, One Fifth Avenue, and Sullivan’s. In 1998 Bourdain became executive chef at the famed French Restaurant Brasserie Les Halles. As his media career began to flourish, Bourdain still maintained close ties with the restaurant, which would play an influential role in his style of cooking, reminiscent of his French ancestry.
If Anthony Bourdain had chosen to stay in the hustle and bustle of downtown Manhattan, he would have been a successful chef in his own right. However, Bourdain had a hidden rock star-esque potential about him that couldn’t be maintained in a single kitchen. This potential began to be realised when Bourdain submitted an article to the New Yorker titled ‘Don’t Eat Before Reading This.’ This essay described the harsh yet fascinating world of the cooks and restaurants of America. Through this, Bourdain became a poster boy of sorts for the traditional, rough and gruff cook who knew the ins and outs of their kitchen like they knew their own children.
This persona stuck and a myriad of book deals would follow in its wake. One of these included A Cook’s Tour which coincided with his Bourdain’s first television show of the same name. Soon, food, travel, and a journey in to the curiosity of the human condition became the day-to-day work for Anthony Bourdain. No more was this true when in 2013, the first Parts Unknown episode was released to critical acclaim via CNN. Bourdain visited places such as Libya, Tokyo, India, Jamaica, and Armenia, constantly on the search for unique food and captivating stories. The series was real, raw, and pure in such a way that only Anthony Bourdain could present.
I mentioned earlier Anthony Bourdain’s ‘rock star-esque’ persona. What makes this comparison true is the late chef’s lust for life, incredible presence, and ability to hold the attention of viewers, readers, and audiences alike. But there is also tragedy in this contrast. With wealth, fame, and youth, rock ‘n’ roll legends seem unstoppable. Drugs, alcohol, and women all flow freely without being questioned. And then the reality of time hits hard and any mental demons that were being held at bay come pouring through the gates. Although reaching his stride later in his life, this tragic archetype was true of Bourdain who found the temptations of the high life all too appealing.
During his earlier years, as he struggled against the rough heat of the NYC restaurant scene, Anthony Bourdain battled against heroin and cocaine addiction. Although the drugs stopped, the demons didn’t. A slew of failed relationships, the strain and stress of success, as well as constant travel was not an ideal recipe for Bourdain’s already failing mental state. On June 8th, 2018, Bourdain’s lifeless body was found hanging in his hotel in Kayserberg, France.
Tributes and mourning poured in following the news of the world’s favourite chef. But to put it succinctly, I think nobody said it better than former U.S. President Barack Obama:
‘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.’
Therefore the legacy of Anthony Bourdain is a special one. He united a world that seems to be progressing more and more towards ideological separation. He understood that good food could be enjoyed by anyone and the best conversations are had with a full belly. But his story is also one of tragedy and warning – a warning that shows that even our brightest stars can burn out.