An ode to Anthony Bourdain, a rockstar dressed as an ambassador for good, honest food and one of the greatest storytellers of all time.
I still remember the day I heard the news of Anthony Bourdain’s passing. I was in The Philippines, a country Bourdain loved to visit for the delicious food and fascinating culture. I’d just been in Bali, the setting for one of the very last episodes of Parts Unknown, the flagship TV show of the world-famous chef and travel presenter. The show was filming in Bali as I visited. It’s likely Tony and I brushed past each other on our travels. I’d never met him, but his work had a bigger impact on my life than I realised.
In fact, his passing feels harder to accept now than it was at the time. This is in no doubt due to the gaping hole he left in the world of entertainment and culture.
He was cool without having any typical traits of coolness. He was devastatingly funny in the most off-hand way. He conversed with refugees, political journalists, and the president of the United States with equal ease.
The man loved food, spend more time travelling than not, and was passionate about his musical tastes. What’s more to like? Anthony Bourdain was a rockstar dressed as an ambassador for good, honest food.
He was direct: “What, you don’t like music? Okay, that’s a showstopper”.
I read his first book, Kitchen Confidential in 2000, weeks after it came out and instantly fell in love with it. And I realised that there was now a book about food that I could discuss with my friends in the pub.
While his later books never quite reached the pinnacle of success that Kitchen Confidential enjoyed, Bourdain remained an excellent storyteller – a title he used for himself.
What was it about this man of contradictions that attracted people to him? It wasn’t the fame. There are plenty of repulsive famous people.
A self-proclaimed narcissist, Bourdain preferred to shoot scenes as raw as possible. No second takes, no fake earnestness. He preferred off-the-cuff interactions and didn’t mind appearing hungover on camera for episodes of his prime time shows.
A shy man according to his friend and chef José Andrés, Anthony Bourdain had an air of confidence, a swagger, and directness that betrayed this shyness.
A chef who claimed he couldn’t cook anymore.
A man who ate his way around the world and avoided exercise like the plague but had the figure of a marathon runner in training.
A man who, in contrast to most other travel personalities, radiated an air of grump and indifference to many things.
A man who appeared to have little patience but could share a meal and talk with the poorest people of the world. Bourdain laughed loudest at the jokes of the humble street vendors and smiled the widest at the dinner table songs of grandmothers.
A man who was relatively rich, but enjoyed eating noodles while sitting on plastic chairs on the sidewalk in Hanoi as much as scoffing lobster in a haute-cuisine French eatery in Lyon.
And finally, a man who seemed to have it all but tragically gave it all up.
He was an enigma. A grumpy, rich, white male that nobody should like, in theory. But under the hard exterior, Tony was a deeply sensitive man. Anthony Bourdain wanted to be liked. He was also a giver. His long-time friend and chef Eric Ripert describes him as “an exceptional human being, so inspiring and generous”.
Why did he end his own life? We’ll never truly know. But let’s not remember the man as someone who reached the top, only to end it all suddenly. We can only speculate that the pain of living was greater than the will to live. Anthony talked about his wildly popular food and travel TV shows as his legacy. He leaves behind something that many people will enjoy for years to come.
Two years after his passing, the world still talks about Anthony Bourdain’s achievements but I think they mostly talk about the man himself. He was a brilliant storyteller but gave a platform to others to tell their stories.
It’s hard to think of a reluctant celebrity cook that will be missed as much.
I miss you.
Anthony Bourdain (1956-2018)
Photo credit: Peabody Awards
Read more about Anthony Bourdain's work on the official website of Parts Unknown.