All of Anthony Bourdain’s legacy comes down to this, the example that he lived through his television shows: People should strive to understand one another’s stories and cultures. And the best way to do that was over a meal.
“If you sit down with people and just say, ‘Hey, what makes you happy? What’s your life like? What do you like to eat?’ More often than not, they will tell you extraordinary things, many of which have nothing to do with food,” he told NPR in October.
Bourdain will be remembered for his outsize influence on the American palate. He inspired a curiosity about global flavors and the lives of the people who cook them. He turned chefs into roguish bad boys and rock stars. He was critical of food culture and celebrity, even after he became one, exercising a wit and a tongue as sharp as his knives. He was the restaurant industry’s enfant terrible, and then its conscience.
Bourdain was found dead Friday morning of an apparent suicide at age 61, by the chef Eric Ripert, in his hotel room in Strasbourg, France, where he was filming for his CNN show “Parts Unknown.” Chefs worldwide are mourning the loss of a friend and role model.
“He was searingly honest, something I respected more than anything, which was in deep contrast to the way in which he passed,” said Andrew Zimmern, the host of “Bizarre Foods” and a longtime friend. “I have such a hard time reconciling the beautiful and brutal honesty that I knew with him as a friend, with the private pain and agony that he was enduring.”
“Such a curious, intelligent man. No matter what I asked him, regardless of the subject, he knew something about it. He opened America’s mind to the food culture of the world,” chef Ludo Lefebvre said in a statement. The two chefs, who appeared together on the ABC show “The Taste,” had matching tattoos. “Looking at the spoon tattoo we share fills my heart with so much sadness today, but forever will be a reminder that he believed in me.”
Bourdain’s curiosity about the world and its flavors drove his shows. He first hosted “A Cook’s Tour” for the Food Network in 2002, before taking “Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations” to the Travel Channel in 2005, where it ran for nine seasons before he took his show to CNN in 2013 as “Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown.” Recalling his initial pitch for the series, he told the New Yorker in 2017 it was just “travel around the world,” eat a bunch of stuff, and “basically do whatever” he wanted.
He helped the revolutionize the travel food TV show, taking the format beyond offering tourism tips and escapism. Watching a brash man with a magnetic personality stuff his face in far-flung and domestic places while chopping it up with locals turned out to be great television. He’d look for hole-in-the-walls over 15-course meals, wax poetic about Waffle House and refer to banh mi he bought on the street as “a symphony of a sandwich.”
“Part of what made him so great was that he wanted you to understand more than the obvious,” said Pat Younge, former president and general manager of the Travel Channel who oversaw “No Reservations.” “If he went to Paris, he didn’t just walk along the Seine; he went to parts of the city that many visitors didn’t go to because he thought they were key to understanding it. The same was true in Hanoi or Shanghai or anywhere else. He thought you had to find all these areas and really get under their skin.”
And he worked in a way that was reverential of the people he featured on the show, letting them tell their own stories. He didn’t exoticize their food, or claim to “discover” it, much to the relief of the people featured on the show. And he would try anything including, memorably, a Namibian warthog anus. It was his sign of respect.
“It’s great when someone buys you dinner in a restaurant,” said Zimmern, summing up Bourdain’s philosophy, “but when someone kills their last chicken for you, that’s pretty darn special.” To Bourdain’s palate, “an airport Johnny Rockets” or a Chicken McNugget were worse than any animal guts.
He encouraged a curiosity about dishes that may have seemed unappealing to some of his viewers: blood, brains and offal. Though many of his fans never went that far in their pursuit of curious flavors, they learned an important lesson: Foods that seem weird in one culture are a delicacy in another’s, and the food made by people of color, some with very few resources, is just as important and beautiful and complex as any French chef’s precious prix fixe dinner.
His shows shaped how people traveled and showed that tracking down authentic food was an essential part of visiting a new place. But after he acquired a following, travelers would swarm the restaurants he featured, to his dismay. Sometimes, he declined to share their locations on the show.
“There are times that I have looked at the camera and said, ‘Look, I’m just not going to tell you where this place is.’ I don’t want to change it. It should stay like this forever,” he said to NPR.
His forays also provided many viewers at home, the kinds who didn’t even possess passports, an opportunity to feel closer to countries they’d never even thought of visiting. Bourdain went to places that made headlines for unrest or hostility, such as Iran and Beirut during the Israel-Lebanon conflict.
“People everywhere are proud of their food and their culture,” Bourdain wrote in a 2014 Washington Post op-ed. “And even where they have little reason to be kind to an American (Vietnam, Cuba, Gaza, the West Bank), I’ve been welcomed with enormous generosity again and again: the kindnesses of strangers.”
“He just had a very singular vision about the world, and it resonated with people because it was refreshing,” said chef Edward Lee, who starred in the Bourdain-produced show “Mind of a Chef.” “It was brutally honest. It was not all roses and wineglasses. It was cruel. It was bitter. It was the world that we live in.”
Bourdain made a cooking career into something darkly glamorous, the profession of misfits and antiheroes with filthy mouths and full sleeves of tattoos. His 2000 bestseller “Kitchen Confidential,” which launched his career in media after he worked in various New York kitchens, including the restaurant Les Halles, gave readers a glimpse into the profession, where blood was a mark of honor. It also laid out his demons: drug and alcohol abuse, which he was reportedly able to get under control. But he later renounced the “bad boy” label, because he felt responsible for the culture of masculinity and sexual harassment that it bred.
“To the extent which my work in ‘Kitchen Confidential’ celebrated or prolonged a culture that allowed the kind of grotesque behaviors we’re hearing about all too frequently is something I think about daily, with real remorse,” Bourdain wrote in an essay on Medium, after sexual harassment allegations surfaced against a chef he once called a friend, Mario Batali. Bourdain was one of the few male chefs to speak up about the #MeToo movement, which was personal for him — his girlfriend, the actress Asia Argento, was one of the women who accused Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein of sexual assault.
But Bourdain was also outspoken about other political issues. Thanks to his travels, and the time he spent in immigrant-staffed restaurant kitchens, he became a fierce defender of immigrant rights, especially during the 2016 election.
He called immigrants “the backbone of the industry.” In “Kitchen Confidential,” he wrote: “No one understands and appreciates the American Dream of hard work leading to material rewards better than a non-American.”
Asked about President Trump’s travel ban by The Washington Post in January 2017, Bourdain emailed: “In my view we have arrived at the most shameful period of American politics in my lifetime. This is no longer about the hospitality industry. It’s about the very nature of America and what kind of country we want to be. The Statue of Liberty, in whose shadow I’ve lived most of my life, seems like a bitterly ironic joke. We don’t deserve it and should probably return it to France so it won’t remind us of what we once were and what we have become.”
He had harsh words for the president: “The man eats his steak well done! I don’t think he’s a good person,” Bourdain told Eater, after the election. He was harder on restaurateur Alessandro Borgognone, who opened Sushi Nakazawa in Washington’s Trump hotel. “I will never eat in his restaurant. I have utter contempt for him, utter and complete contempt.” When TMZ asked him in September 2017 what he’d serve if he catered the meeting between Trump and North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, he replied, “Hemlock.”
“Nobody could call bulls— on somebody with as much class and with as good a vocabulary as Anthony Bourdain,” Zimmern said.
But the president did not return that hostility when asked about Bourdain’s death Friday morning.
“I think it’s very sad,” Trump said, as reported by Newsweek‘s Jason Le Miere. “… I enjoyed his show, he was quite a character, I will say.”
Bourdain had greater respect for President Barack Obama, with whom he dined in Vietnam, and who tweeted his condolences.
“I did not wander outside my area of expertise, let’s put it that way,” Bourdain told The Post. “I spoke to him as a fellow father, as somebody who loves Asia, as a guy who likes food and cold beer, and that’s it.” Kind of like how he’d talk to everyone else.
Elahe Izadi, Becky Krystal, Andrea Sachs and Steven Zeitchik contributed to this report.
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