Anthony Bourdain, who has taken his own life aged 61, will be remembered by most as one of the world’s first and most influential celebrity chefs. It’s an inadequate description.
Bourdain claimed he was a “competent line cook” rather than a chef during the two decades from 1978 in which he ran the kitchens of increasingly large New York restaurants. He published two creditable, tight, crime novels set in kitchens – Bone in the Throat (1995) and Gone Bamboo (1997) – and also began contributing magazine articles. It was one of these, a piece for the New Yorker, Don’t Eat Before Reading This (1999), that formed the basis of his breakthrough book, the bestseller Kitchen Confidential (2000).
Kitchen Confidential hit us like Elvis. Both the UK and the US were on the edge of an explosive growth spurt in interest in food and, suddenly, here was a book that put everything in a new context. The book itself is a strange mashup. It is more a collection of essays than a solid narrative. It is said to have been rushed into print on the strength of the New Yorker piece, and some of it, in hindsight, feels like filler, but parts are inspired. For me it was a single passage that resonated most: the description of being the first guy on the line in the morning. Alone in the kitchen, a hangover and a double espresso from the still-warm La Marzocco machine, knocking up a scallion and chorizo omelette as you set up your station. It was beautiful. And when he was on form, Christ, could Bourdain weave words. Not pretentious, not the purple passages of food writers before him, the high prose of the refined connoisseur but the terse, full-auto linguistic firepower of a New Yorker – imagery like crime-scene photos, the flayed raw humour of a morgue attendant, the sort of one-liners a hitman drops as he pulls the trigger, and similes that would make Raymond Chandler eat his own pencils. For all the rock’n’roll, the easy, sleazy charm, the guy wrote like a poet and, as he got older, he just got better.
Perhaps the key turning point in Bourdain’s career followed the success of the book. He began working with the television producer Lydia Tenaglia, in a collaboration that couldn’t have been better timed. The Food Network TV channel was becoming more popular by the day and looking for new talent, broadcast-quality video was now achievable with a new generation of lightweight cameras, and Bourdain was working on a second book that combined food and travel.
A Cook’s Tour, broadcast in 2002, the year the book was published, was shot quickly with a tiny crew, entirely on location. Bourdain could immerse himself in a culture through its food, and the camera was there, hand-held, grainy and immediate to record the experience. There had never been anything like this. To an audience still expecting “stand-and-stir” cookery programmes, it looked like a combination of rockumentary and combat footage. And they loved it. More importantly, it put Bourdain in charge. He had managed to parlay the success of Kitchen Confidential into total control of his own TV output.
The first shows had alarming camera angles, dodgy cuts and lacunae in continuity where it looked as if the team had either run out of money or had to sleep off some monumental bender. Bourdain, whose dress sense was ever questionable, stalked the screen, in boilermaker sunglasses and a cap-sleeved T-shirt, like a gaunt, smashed Joe Strummer, swearing like a longshoreman, occasionally actually drunk. But he had made it there, to Bangkok, to Ho Chi Minh City, and he was going to consume it, without restraint, on our behalf. It seemed chaotic, shot from the hip, but already, he had adopted the commentary as a signature. Use of a voiceover narrator in traditional programme-making usually masks failure. It is a device to hold together insufficient, poorly planned or shot raw material. Here it gave Bourdain, the writer, space to get back to the edit suite and craft something brilliant. He stayed with this format, with little change, as the production values of his programmes improved, his audience grew and other broadcasters began paying more to host him.
What Bourdain did with the control he had gained was to develop and pioneer an entirely new form of early reality TV that freed him to immerse himself, scriptless, in the experiences he chose and communicate later with brilliant clarity. Bourdain is often compared to Hunter S Thompson for his narcotic intake and profanity, but there is a greater similarity with Thompson’s book Hell’s Angels, his more considered work of immersive New Journalism. As with Thompson, Bourdain’s willingness to throw himself into a situation and then write it up afterwards, balancing his writer’s experience against the bloodless objectivity of the professional journalist, leaves us with some of the most authentic and engaging stories.
Bourdain was born in New York and grew up in New Jersey, and his early years could have been easy. His mother, Gladys, was an editor at the New York Times, his father, Pierre, an executive at Columbia Records. By his own account they exposed him to great music, film and literature, and holidayed in France where his interest in food was sparked, but he rebelled, got into trouble at school and began experimenting with drugs while still in his early teens. He got a place at Vassar, an elite formerly all-female college that had only recently begun to accept male students, but dropped out after two years, having experienced kitchen work in local restaurants. He transferred to the prestigious CIA – the Culinary Institute of America – graduating in 1978, before beginning work in New York city’s kitchens
There was more to Bourdain than just being a “bad-boy chef”. As he later said: “I’m not a chef. I’m not bad. And I’m not a boy.” In fact, even by the time Kitchen Confidential was imbuing us all with piratical swagger, he’d already put most of his “bad” behaviour behind him. He was clean, married and working with, what was by all accounts, Stakhanovite zeal on a media career. He was a man who had been through the mill and come out the other side. It was what made his appeal universal. He had indulged his appetites, and learned to live with them without guilt; he could try anything without prejudice and find pleasure in the most refined or most challenging. And this is, at heart, how all food people would like to see themselves.
Bourdain was twice divorced. He is survived by Argento; by a daughter, Ariane, from his second marriage, to Ottavia Busia; and by his mother.
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