The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Anthony Bourdain became a TV star in part because people stopped caring about poker

Anthony Bourdain attends a premiere of his documentary “Wasted: The Story of Food Waste” in New York on Oct. 5. (Brent N. Clarke/Invision/AP)

Anthony Bourdain delighted millions of people with a career that took him around the world, introducing viewers to all kinds of culture and food.

That career almost never happened.

In the television business, it’s often better to be lucky than good, the adage goes. But sometimes it’s best to be something else: in the company of the desperate.

Bourdain, who tragically took his own life in Strasbourg on Friday, was a case study in this axiom.

A 40-something chef and author was far from a slam-dunk television host when Bourdain met with a mid-level TV executive named Bill Margol, then the head of production at the Travel Channel, in 2004.

Bourdain, at the time, had a little-seen show on the Food Network called “A Cook’s Tour” and was otherwise untested in the world of television. At most cable networks, he would not have passed muster. There would have been one meeting and a polite showing of the door, parties separating with cool goodbyes and maybe a halfhearted promise to work together in the future.

But the Travel Channel at the time was a forgotten corner of Discovery Inc. The media giant had challenges at far bigger networks, such as Discovery Channel and TLC. Few executives were paying attention to what was happening at a niche brand way down the dial.

Even more important, the Travel Channel was allocating many of its programming hours to the World Poker Tour; the card game at the time accounted for as much as one-quarter of its revenue. The telecasts were off-brand and, worse, viewers’ interest in watching poker was beginning to fade. Travel Channel would take anything new.

“I think it was a perfect storm,” Margol, now a senior executive at PBS, said by phone Friday. “You had a dynamic personality looking for something new, but you also had a channel flying under the corporate radar that really needed a new direction.”

“I’m not sure,” he added, “we would have done anything if that wasn’t the case.”

Bourdain himself wasn’t even sure what kind of show he wanted — his initial pitch was for a series about street food.

But Margol and his team worked with the journalist and a production company called Zero Point Zero to hone the idea. Soon, they’d come up with a concept for a show, called “Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations.” It would have Bourdain traveling to new global locations and encountering different types of people to talk about food and more.

The president and general manager of the Travel Channel, Rick Rodriguez, had departed, leaving no top executive in charge. Margol and several other colleagues were the de facto heads. They decided to greenlight the pilot, set in Paris. Bourdain and Zero Point Zero flew off to make the show.

Soon after, a new president-general manager arrived at Travel, a British executive named Pat Younge. A more seasoned American might have taken one look at the pilot and said, “We need to get rid of this.” But Younge was not schooled in the ways of U.S. television. And he wanted to make what he inherited work.

“There were a lot of doubts [among Discovery executives] because we were giving up a significant amount of income,” Younge, who now runs a production company in Britain, said by phone Friday. “But I was a new general manager determined to make my mark.” He ordered five more episodes.

In July 2005, the first episode of “Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations” aired.

It bombed.

The show was watched by fewer than a million people. Viewers didn’t know who Bourdain was, and when they did, they didn’t get the boldness of what he was trying to do — the first few minutes of the episode were a black-and-white homage to the French New Wave. (It also included the line “Why French people don’t suck.”)

“No, it was certainly not a hit out of the gate,” Margol said, giving a dry laugh.

Another episode, set In Iceland, followed. It fell just as flat.

Younge thought about canceling “No Reservations.” But then he wondered if it might make sense to go the opposite way: bigger. More shows, more places, more boldness. People needed to experience Bourdain in as many contexts as possible.

“I knew this was someone they would respond to,” Younge said. “They just had to see him.” Besides, Younge really needed something to fill the poker void.

A third episode was set in, of all places, New Jersey. Then Vietnam. Malaysia. Sicily. Las Vegas. Soon audiences were paying attention.

“Viewers would say ‘I don’t care where he’s going. I just want to go with him,’ ” Margol said. “They weren’t responding to the subject — they were responding to the person who was taking them by the hand and showing it to them.” The ratings started to climb. Another season was ordered, then another.

There were, to be sure, some headaches along the way.

Bourdain never wanted to engage in product placement. On the one occasion he was arm-twisted into it, for BMW, he made a note in the script that executives made him do it. Other times, he did battle with marketing departments over elements of the show. “I don’t know which circle of hell the creators of this  abomination inhabit,” he wrote in an email obtained by The Washington Post. “But I feel my enthusiasm for this project bleeding out of me by the pint.”

He signed the email “Best, Tony,” as he nearly always did.

“From a network point of view, he was a challenging talent to manage,” Younge said. “Because he didn’t want to be managed. Anything that threatened his credibility or authenticity would have to go. In an age of conformity, he was a genuine maverick.” His emails frequently came from his personal email address, an oblique alphanumeric reference to “Apocalypse Now,” one of his favorite movies.

“He was that lightning in a bottle every programmer wants,” noted Kathleen Finch, a longtime Discovery executive who was present during his early run with the network. “He had a clear point of view, and he wanted to tell his story his way. And you had to respect that because he knew his audience better than anyone, even than the people at the network, who he would tell that to.”

Added Margol: “You always wanted to keep the emails.”

While the program was recording in Beirut in 2006, war broke out between Israel and Lebanon. Most hosts would have packed up and headed home. Bourdain stayed and even took advantage of some other television opportunities.

“I turn on the TV, and he’s on CNN complaining about the cigarettes. He was bored, so he went on CNN to talk about cigarettes,” Younge said.

By the time 2009 rolled around, “No Reservations” had won multiple Emmys and racked up nearly 150 episodes, connecting with viewers of all kinds. Bourdain and the network parted ways as new leadership came in. But his mark on the culture was  significant.

So was his celebrity, and he would eventually move on to CNN’s “Parts Unknown,” the show that gave him his biggest audience, hired by an executive, Amy Entelis, who had seen the impact he made with “No Reservations.”

On Friday, right after he heard the news about his death, Margol hoped for some solace. So he popped in some old episodes, including the now-famous pilot.

As he watched the episode, he was struck by a coincidence. Bourdain had died at a hotel in France. And the pilot, where the seeds of Bourdain’s stardom were first planted, was shot in France, also at a hotel. His celebrity had come full circle.

Correction: A previous version of this post incorrectly stated that Bourdain died in Paris. He passed in Strasbourg.