If you don’t know by now, Anthony Bourdain, legendary chef, author, and travel documentarian, died on Friday June 8th of this year. For me, it hit home the hardest than any other celebrity death of the past few years for several reasons. First off, he was working on what was arguably his best work to date: Parts Unknown. What set this apart from his previous shows was the focus on a particular subject, region, or ethnicity ioupled with an in-depth political and historical framework. Unlike his previous shows where visiting the new or classic hot spots were the main focus.
I’ve travelled to Cuba many times in the past ten years and felt that I had seen the best it had to offer. That is until I watched the episode on Havana early last year. In it, Anthony started the show at the Fabrica De Art Cubano. A former cooking oil factory turned Art Gallery/Club/Cafe with 3 floors, five bars, projection room, one live sound stage, one smaller DJ stage, and restaurant in the basement. If you know anything about Cuba, it was not open to anything new and modern. The Washington Post describes it as Cuba’s attempt at “industrial-scale hipness.” Had I not seen this episode I might have turned my back on Cuba for good and sought out other terrain in the Central American and Caribbean regions.
Last April, I took my friend Pam to Cuba, staying close to Havana in order to set out for this venue. We rented an Air BnB for the night and made it our mission one Saturday night to visit this spot. I can’t really explain this place unless you see it for yourself. I had never before seen so many young and energetic youth in Cuba before. With modern art (often banned or heavily censored), music and fashion on display. I couldn’t believe, with such minimal resources, that Havana could accomplish something like this. I will be revisiting this topic in the months to come but for now I want to state how important shows like Anthony’s were. In short he not only convinced me to travel more but also to take chances and to expect the unexpected.
I am really sad that I can no longer expect new episodes delivered on my video server. It’s like reading an engaging book, only to realize that the last third has been ripped out. Its one thing to mourn an artist whose best work is behind them, when inevitable, old age and/or disease consumes them. It’s another to lose someone who had so much more to offer and who you continually reference for advice and insight.
The articles below are some of my favourite stories that I have collected or read after his passing. I hope that you take the time to read them and are inspired yourself.
Remembering Anthony Bourdain
The chef and writer, who died at 61, changed the way we think about restaurant kitchens and the people who work within them
What made Anthony Bourdain distinct as a writer was what made him a great television personality: He unprettified reality and found a deeper truth in the lives of people who made food. He did not so much glorify the hot line as much as talk about the grit it took to work and live there, the strangely insulated and relatively safe world it became for people who had often grown up in unsafe worlds, the barracks mentality that fostered its own language and code of behavior.
Readers loved Bourdain because he made the world of the kitchen seem an outlaw’s refuge, a place where men—it was usually men—who had felt like outcasts could be themselves, show casual contempt for customers out front, make quick money, and spend quick money on drugs and listening to the actual rock stars he made chefs seem like. No one before him had made the sweat and burns of working the line seem cool, though that world had been described—by George Orwell, whose Down and Out in Paris and London Bourdain referred to at the beginning of Kitchen Confidential, a book that established Bourdain as a literary, and then television, star.
The tensions in Bourdain’s life and persona were all apparent in that book: the need to live at the margins, to shake free the bounds of convention, to live exactly as he pleased, to taste danger and freedom and blood and offal. But there was nothing undisciplined about his life in the kitchen or as a writer. Or particularly unconventional. His mother was a longtime copy editor at The New York Times. When I was working as a restaurant critic at New York magazine, its then-executive editor, Michael Hirschorn, thought he had the first-serial rights to Kitchen Confidential sewn up, and then The New Yorker snatched them away.
And even if his persona was all tattoo and all bad boy, Bourdain was deeply moral, and deeply compassionate. His character sketches of his fellow cooks showed a humility and curiosity about the lives of others that made his television series stand far, far above anyone else’s. He had been through fire, literal and spiritual. That left him alive to not just the pain of the cooks who had practiced their trade until they were good enough to attract his attention. It also left him alive to joy: the joy of a burrito or spring roll or soup dumpling or churrascaria or squid skewer. Of living in a new landscape, spectacularly beautiful or spectacularly simple.
To be as productive and seductive as Bourdain took iron discipline, personal and physical, as a very good recent New Yorker profile demonstrated. The piece hinted at the anger that kept Bourdain constantly practicing martial arts, and the uneven passions that kept his domestic life forever impermanent, devoted as he was to his young daughter. No one can ever know, or guess, why someone takes his own life. But as a very recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study reported this week showed, suicide is rising sharply and alarmingly. Obituaries now include, as they should, information on detecting and preventing it.
What we have lost, aside from a unique talent and presence, is a voice that stood for dominance over pain, for finding sensual ecstasy in food you made or found, for respecting the humanity of every person who grew and made that food. I’ll miss that voice like no one else’s, however many people tried to write like him. It was a voice that stood for seeing what was wrong and right and calling it when you saw it. Bourdain was the first food-world figure to tweet Brett Anderson’s story about the sexual license of the New Orleans chef John Besh, and the most relentless and insistent voice telling other chefs to clear outonce their bad behavior was exposed. Those chefs casually continued a kind of injustice that made Bourdain, always quick to anger, more and more outraged.
Anthony Bourdain changed the way we think about restaurant kitchens and about the people within them—the women he had recently championed, and the passionate drudges he always loved. His greatest legacy will be better working conditions for the people whose lives—complicated, grimy, painful, raucous, joyful—he celebrated.
Anthony Bourdain’s Moveable Feast
Guided by a lusty appetite for indigenous culture and cuisine, the swaggering chef has become a travelling statesman.
When the President of the United States travels outside the country, he brings his own car with him. Moments after Air Force One landed at the Hanoi airport last May, President Barack Obama ducked into an eighteen-foot, armor-plated limousine—a bomb shelter masquerading as a Cadillac—that was equipped with a secure link to the Pentagon and with emergency supplies of blood, and was known as the Beast. Hanoi’s broad avenues are crowded with honking cars, storefront venders, street peddlers, and some five million scooters and motorbikes, which rush in and out of the intersections like floodwaters. It was Obama’s first trip to Vietnam, but he encountered this pageant mostly through a five-inch pane of bulletproof glass. He might as well have watched it on TV.
Obama was scheduled to meet with President Trần Đại Quang, and with the new head of Vietnam’s national assembly. On his second night in Hanoi, however, he kept an unusual appointment: dinner with Anthony Bourdain, the peripatetic chef turned writer who hosts the Emmy-winning travel show “Parts Unknown,” on CNN. Over the past fifteen years, Bourdain has hosted increasingly sophisticated iterations of the same program. Initially, it was called “A Cook’s Tour,” and aired on the Food Network. After shifting to the Travel Channel, it was renamed “Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations,” and it ran for nine seasons before moving to CNN, in 2013. All told, Bourdain has travelled to nearly a hundred countries and has filmed two hundred and forty-eight episodes, each a distinct exploration of the food and culture of a place. The secret ingredient of the show is the when-in-Rome avidity with which Bourdain partakes of indigenous custom and cuisine, whether he is pounding vodka before plunging into a frozen river outside St. Petersburg or spearing a fatted swine as the guest of honor at a jungle longhouse in Borneo. Like a great white shark, Bourdain tends to be photographed with his jaws wide open, on the verge of sinking his teeth into some tremulous delicacy. In Bourdain’s recollection, his original pitch for the series was, roughly, “I travel around the world, eat a lot of shit, and basically do whatever the fuck I want.” The formula has proved improbably successful.
People often ask Bourdain’s producers if they can tag along on an escapade. On a recent visit to Madagascar, he was accompanied by the film director Darren Aronofsky. (A fan of the show, Aronofsky proposed to Bourdain that they go somewhere together. “I kind of jokingly said Madagascar, just because it’s the farthest possible place,” he told me. “And Tony said, ‘How’s November?’ ”) A ride-along with Bourdain promises the sidekick an experience that, in this era of homogenized tourism, is all too rare: communion with a foreign culture so unmitigated that it feels practically intravenous. Parachuted into any far-flung corner of the planet, Bourdain ferrets out the restaurant, known only to discerning locals, where the grilled sardines or the pisco sours are divine. Often, he insinuates himself into a private home where the meal is even better. He is a lively dining companion: a lusty eater and a quicksilver conversationalist. “He’s got that incredibly beautiful style when he talks that ranges from erudite to brilliantly slangy,” his friend Nigella Lawson observed. Bourdain is a font of unvarnished opinion, but he also listens intently, and the word he uses perhaps more than any other is “interesting,” which he pronounces with four syllables and only one “t”: in-ner-ess-ting.
Before becoming famous, Bourdain spent more than two decades as a professional cook. In 2000, while working as the executive chef at Les Halles, a boisterous brasserie on Park Avenue South, he published a ribald memoir, “Kitchen Confidential.” It became a best-seller, heralding a new national fascination with the grubby secrets and “Upstairs Downstairs” drama of the hospitality industry. Bourdain, having established himself as a brash truth-teller, got into public spats with more famous figures; he once laid into Alice Waters for her pious hatred of junk food, saying that she reminded him of the Khmer Rouge. People who do not watch Bourdain’s show still tend to think of him as a savagely honest loudmouthed New York chef. But over the years he has transformed himself into a well-heeled nomad who wanders the planet meeting fascinating people and eating delicious food. He freely admits that his career is, for many people, a fantasy profession. A few years ago, in the voice-over to a sun-dappled episode in Sardinia, he asked, “What do you do after your dreams come true?” Bourdain would be easy to hate, in other words, if he weren’t so easy to like. “For a long time, Tony thought he was going to have nothing,” his publisher, Dan Halpern, told me. “He can’t believe his luck. He always seems happy that he actually isAnthony Bourdain.”
The White House had suggested the meeting in Vietnam. Of all the countries Bourdain has explored, it is perhaps his favorite; he has been there half a dozen times. He fell for Hanoi long before he actually travelled there, when he read Graham Greene’s 1955 novel, “The Quiet American,” and the city has retained a thick atmosphere of colonial decay—dingy villas, lugubrious banyan trees, monsoon clouds, and afternoon cocktails—that Bourdain savors without apology. Several years ago, he seriously considered moving there.
At the appointed hour, Obama exited the Beast and walked into the restaurant behind a pair of Secret Service agents, who cleared a path for him, like linemen blocking for a running back. In a rear dining room on the second floor, Bourdain was waiting at a stainless-steel table, surrounded by other diners, who had been coached to ignore the cameras and Obama, and to focus on their bún chả. Like many restaurants in Vietnam, the facility was casual in the extreme: diners and servers alike swept discarded refuse onto the floor, and the tiles had acquired a grimy sheen that squeaked beneath your feet. Obama was wearing a white button-down, open at the collar, and he greeted Bourdain, took a seat on a plastic stool, and happily accepted a bottle of Vietnamese beer.
“How often do you get to sneak out for a beer?” Bourdain asked.
“I don’t get to sneak out, period,” Obama replied. He occasionally took the First Lady to a restaurant, he said, but “part of enjoying a restaurant is sitting with other patrons and enjoying the atmosphere, and too often we end up getting shunted into one of those private rooms.”
As a young waitress in a gray polo shirt set down bowls of broth, a plate of greens, and a platter of shuddering noodles, Bourdain fished chopsticks from a plastic container on the table. Obama, surveying the constituent parts of the meal, evinced trepidation. He said, “All right, you’re gonna have to—”
“I’ll walk you through it,” Bourdain assured him, advising him to grab a clump of noodles with chopsticks and dunk them into the broth.
“I’m just gonna do what you do,” Obama said.
“Dip and stir,” Bourdain counselled. “And get ready for the awesomeness.”
Eying a large sausage that was floating in the broth, Obama asked, “Is it generally appropriate to just pop one of these whole suckers in your mouth, or do you think you should be a little more—”
“Slurping is totally acceptable in this part of the world,” Bourdain declared.
Obama took a bite and let out a low murmur. “That’s good stuff” he said, and the two of them—lanky, conspicuously cool guys in late middle age—slurped away as three cameras, which Bourdain had once likened to “drunken hummingbirds,” hovered around them. Noting the unaffected rusticity of the scene, Obama was reminded of a memorable meal that he had eaten as a child, in the mountains outside Jakarta. “You’d have these roadside restaurants overlooking the tea fields,” he recalled. “There’d be a river running through the restaurant itself, and there’d be these fish, these carp, that would be running through. You’d pick the fish. They’d grab it for you and fry it up, and the skin would be real crispy. They just served it with a bed of rice.” Obama was singing Bourdain’s song: earthy, fresh, free of pretense. “It was the simplest meal possible, and nothing tasted so good.”
But the world is getting smaller, Obama said. “The surprises, the serendipity of travel, where you see something and it’s off the beaten track, there aren’t that many places like that left.” He added, wistfully, “I don’t know if that place will still be there when my daughters are ready to travel. But I hope it is.” The next day, Bourdain posted a photograph of the meeting online. “Total cost of Bun cha dinner with the President: $6.00,” he tweeted. “I picked up the check.”
“Three years I haven’t had a cigarette, and I just started again,” Bourdain said when I met him shortly afterward, at the bar of the Metropole Hotel, where he was staying. He cocked an eyebrow: “Obama made me do it.” Bourdain, who is sixty, is imposingly tall—six feet four—and impossibly lean, with a monumental head, a caramel tan, and carefully groomed gray hair. He once described his body as “gristly, tendony,” as if it were an inferior cut of beef, and a recent devotion to Brazilian jujitsu has left his limbs and his torso laced with ropy muscles. With his Sex Pistols T-shirt and his sensualist credo, there is something of the aging rocker about him. But if you spend any time with Bourdain you realize that he is controlled to the point of neurosis: clean, organized, disciplined, courteous, systematic. He is Apollo in drag as Dionysus.
“He has his mise en place,” his friend the chef Éric Ripert told me, noting that Bourdain’s punctiliousness is a reflection not only of his personality and his culinary training but also of necessity: if he weren’t so structured, he could never stay on top of his proliferating commitments. In addition to producing and starring in “Parts Unknown,” he selects the locations, writes the voice-overs, and works closely with the cinematographers and the music supervisors.
When he is not on camera, he is writing: essays, cookbooks, graphic novels about a homicidal sushi chef, screenplays. (David Simon recruited him to write the restaurant scenes in “Treme.”) Or he is hosting other TV shows, such as “The Taste,” a reality competition that ran for two years on ABC. Last fall, during a hiatus from filming, he launched a fifteen-city standup tour. Ripert suggested to me that Bourdain may be driven, in part, by a fear of what he might get up to if he ever stopped working. “I’m a guy who needs a lot of projects,” Bourdain acknowledged. “I would probably have been happy as an air-traffic controller.”
As he sipped a beer and picked at a platter of delicate spring rolls, he was still fidgeting with exhilaration from the encounter with Obama. “I believe what’s important to him is this notion that otherness is not bad, that Americans should aspire to walk in other people’s shoes,” he reflected. This idea resonates strongly with Bourdain, and, although he insists his show is a selfish epicurean enterprise, Obama’s ethic could be the governing thesis of “Parts Unknown.” In the opening moments of an episode set in Myanmar, Bourdain observes, “Chances are you haven’t been to this place. Chances are this is a place you’ve never seen.”
From the moment Bourdain conceives of an episode, he obsesses over the soundtrack, and for the sequence with Obama he wanted to include the James Brown song “The Boss.” When the producers cannot afford to license a song, they often commission music that evokes the original. For a “Big Lebowski” homage in a Tehran episode, they arranged the recording of a facsimile, in Farsi, of Dylan’s “The Man in Me.” But Bourdain wanted the original James Brown track, no matter how much it cost. “I don’t know who’s paying for it,” he said. “But somebody’s fucking paying for it.”
He sang the chorus to himself—“I paid the cost to be the boss”—and remarked that one price of leadership, for Obama, had been a severe constraint on the very wanderlust that Bourdain personifies. “Even drinking a beer for him is a big thing,” he marvelled. “He’s got to clear it.” Before he said goodbye to Obama, Bourdain told me, he had underlined this contrast. “I said, ‘Right after this, Mr. President, I’m getting on a scooter and I’m going to disappear into the flow of thousands of people.’ He got this look on his face and said, ‘That must be nice.’ ”
Tom Vitale, the episode’s director, who is in his mid-thirties and has an air of harried intensity, stopped by to check with Bourdain about a shoot that was planned for later that evening. It generally takes Bourdain about a week of frantic work on location to film each episode. He has a small crew—two producers and a few cameramen—who recruit local fixers and grips. His team often shoots between sixty and eighty hours of footage in order to make an hour-long episode. Vitale, like others on the crew, has worked with Bourdain for years. When I asked him what his interactions with the White House had been like, he said, with bewilderment, “I’m shocked we all passed the background check.”
Bourdain was eager to shoot at a bia-hơi joint, a popular Hanoi establishment specializing in chilled draft beer. “We’re hoping for beer?” he asked.
“We’re hoping for beer,” Vitale confirmed. They had already scouted a place. “But, if the energy there is only fifty per cent, maybe not.”
Bourdain agreed. “We don’t want to manufacture a scene,” he said. He makes a fetish of authenticity, and disdains many conventions of food and travel programming. “We don’t do retakes,” he said. “We don’t do ‘hello’ scenes or ‘goodbye, thank you very much’ scenes. I’d rather miss the shot than have a bogus shot.”
When he meets someone at a roadside café, he wears a lavalier microphone, which picks up the sort of ambient noise—blaring car horns, shrieking cicadas—that sound designers normally filter out. “We want you to know what a place sounds like, not just what it looks like,” Jared Andrukanis, one of Bourdain’s producers, told me. “The guys who mix the show hate it. They hate it, but I think they love it.”
Bourdain is exceptionally close to his crew members, in part because they are steady companions in a life that is otherwise transient. “I change location every two weeks,” he told me. “I’m not a cook, nor am I a journalist. The kind of care and feeding required of friends, I’m frankly incapable of. I’m not there. I’m not going to remember your birthday. I’m not going to be there for the important moments in your life. We are not going to reliably hang out, no matter how I feel about you. For fifteen years, more or less, I’ve been travelling two hundred days a year. I make very good friends a week at a time.”
Until he was forty-four, Bourdain saw very little of the world. He grew up in Leonia, New Jersey, not far from the George Washington Bridge. His father, Pierre, an executive at Columbia Records, was reserved, andgiven to reading silently on the couch for long stretches, but he had adventurous taste in food and movies. Tony recalls travelling into New York City with his father during the seventies to try sushi, which at the time seemed impossibly exotic.
The only experience of real travel that Bourdain had as a child was two trips to France. When he was ten, his parents took him and his younger brother, Chris, on a summer vacation to France, where relatives of his father had a home in a chilly seaside village. Tony had what he has since described as a Proustian encounter with a huge oyster, eating it freshly plucked from the sea. (“Tony likes to play up the oyster episode,” Chris, who is now a banker, told me. “I have no idea if that’s fact or fiction.”) The brothers played in old Nazi blockhouses on the beach, and spent hours reading “Tintin” books—savoring tales of the roving boy reporter and poring over Hergé’s minutely rendered illustrations of Shanghai, Cairo, the Andes. The stories, Bourdain recalls, “took me places I was quite sure I would never go.”
His mother, Gladys, a copy editor at the Times, was formidable and judgmental, and often clashed with her son. In high school, Bourdain fell in love with an older girl, Nancy Putkoski, who ran with a druggie crowd, and he started dabbling in illicit substances himself. At one point, Gladys told her son, “I love you dearly, but, you know, I don’t like you very much at present.” In 1973, Bourdain finished high school a year early and followed Putkoski to Vassar. But he dropped out after two years and enrolled at the Culinary Institute of America, in Hyde Park, New York.
It was not his first experience in the kitchen: the summer after finishing high school, he had been a dishwasher at the Flagship, a flounder-and-fried-clams restaurant in Provincetown. In “Kitchen Confidential,” he recounts a defining moment, during a wedding party at the Flagship, when he witnessed the bride sneak outside for an impromptu assignation with the chef. The punch line: “I knew then, dear reader, for the first time: I wanted to be a chef.”
The story captures Bourdain’s conception of the cook’s vocation as both seductively carnal and swaggeringly transgressive. One of his favorite movies is “The Warriors,” the cult 1979 film about street gangs in New York, and it was the outlaw machismo of the kitchen that attracted him. For a time, he walked around with a set of nunchucks in a holster strapped to his leg, like a six-shooter; he often posed for photographs wearing chef’s whites and clutching the kind of long, curved knife you might use to disembowel a Gorgon. (The cover of “Kitchen Confidential” showed Bourdain with two ornamental swords tucked into his apron strings.) Long before he was the kind of international celebrity who gets chased by fans through the airport in Singapore, Bourdain knew how to arrange his grasshopper limbs into a good pose, and from the beginning he had a talent for badassery.
After graduating from the Culinary Institute, in 1978, he moved with Putkoski into a rent-stabilized apartment on Riverside Drive. They married in 1985. She had various jobs, and Bourdain found work at the Rainbow Room, in Rockefeller Center. When I asked about the marriage, which ended in 2005, he likened it to the Gus Van Sant film “Drugstore Cowboy,” in which Matt Dillon and Kelly Lynch play drug addicts who rob pharmacies in order to support their habit. “That kind of love and codependency and sense of adventure—we were criminals together,” he said. “A lot of our life was built around that, and happily so.”
When Bourdain tells stories about the “seriously knuckleheaded shit” he did while using narcotics—being pulled over by the cops with two hundred hits of blotter acid in the car, being stalked by the Drug Enforcement Administration while trying to retrieve a “letter from Panama” at the post office—he vaguely alludes to “another person” who was by his side. He is careful not to mention Putkoski by name. Aside from the drugs, they lived a relatively quiet domestic life. In the evenings, they ordered takeout and watched “The Simpsons.” Every few years, after they saved up some money, Tony and Nancy went on vacation to the Caribbean. Otherwise, they did not travel.
But Bourdain did travel around New York, as a journeyman chef. At the Rainbow Room, he worked the buffet table, and he was a sous-chef at W.P.A., in SoHo. He worked at Chuck Howard’s, in the theatre district; at Nikki and Kelly, on the Upper West Side; at Gianni’s, a tourist trap at the South Street Seaport; at the Supper Club, a nightspot in midtown where the emphasis was not the food. Eventually, he acquired a crew of associates who migrated with him from one restaurant to the next. His friend Joel Rose, a writer who has known Bourdain since the eighties, told me, “He was a fixer. Anytime a restaurant was in trouble, he came in and saved the day. He wasn’t a great chef, but he was organized. He would stop the bleeding.”
In 1998, he answered an ad in the Times and got the executive-chef job at Les Halles. It was an ideal fit for Bourdain: an unpretentious brasserie with its own butcher, who worked next to the bar, behind a counter stacked with steak, veal, and sausages. “Kitchen Confidential,” which was excerpted in this magazine, was inspired by “Down and Out in Paris and London,” in which George Orwell describes chefs as “the most workmanlike class, and the least servile.” Karen Rinaldi, the editor who acquired the book, for Bloomsbury, told me that she underestimated the impact it would have. “It was a flyer,” she said—the profane musings of a guy who broiled steaks for a living. “But a lot of the books that end up shifting the culture are flyers.”
“Kitchen Confidential” was filled with admonitions: Bourdain assailed Sunday brunch (“a dumping ground for the odd bits left over from Friday and Saturday”) and advised against ordering fish on Mondays, because it is typically “four to five days old.” The book was marketed as a dispatch from the scullery, the type of tell-all that might be more interesting to the naïve restaurant-goer than to the battle-seasoned cook. (“I won’t eat in a restaurant with filthy bathrooms,” Bourdain warned. “They let you see the bathrooms.
If the restaurant can’t be bothered to replace the puck in the urinal or keep the toilets and floors clean, then just imagine what their refrigeration and work spaces look like.”) But, for Bourdain, the most important audience was his peers. The final line of the acknowledgments page was “Cooks rule,” and he hoped, desperately, that other professionals would see the book in the spirit he had intended, and pass gravy-stained copies around the kitchen.
Bourdain did not quit his job at Les Halles when the book became a success. “I was careful to modulate my hopes, because I lived in a business where everybody was a writer or an actor,” he recalls. For decades, he’d seen colleagues come into work crowing about their latest callback, only to see their grand designs amount to nothing. “So at no point was it ‘So long, suckers.’ ”
His confederates at Les Halles were amused, if mystified, by his blossoming career as a writer, and the owners were accommodating about the book tour. When Bourdain started travelling to promote the book, something curious happened. He’d amble into a restaurant alone and order a drink at the bar. Out of nowhere, a plate of amuse-bouches would appear, compliments of the house. It marked an affirmation for Bourdain: chefs were reading the book, and they liked it. But it also signified a profound inversion. He had spent the first half of his life preparing food to feed others. He would spend the second half getting fed.
Kang Ho Dong Baekjeong is a bright, cacophonous restaurant on Thirty-second Street, a hipster riff on a Korean steak house. One frigid evening last February, I arrived, on time, to discover Bourdain waiting for me, already halfway through a beer. He is more than punctual: he arrives precisely fifteen minutes early to every appointment. “It comes from his kitchen days,” Tom Vitale, the director, told me. “If he doesn’t show, we know something’s wrong.” Bourdain used the word “pathological” to describe his fixation with being on time. “I judge other people on it,” he admitted. “Today, you’re just late, but eventually you will betray me.”
I had dined at Baekjeong once before, but I was about to discover that eating at a restaurant with Bourdain is a markedly different experience. Throughout the meal, the head chef—Deuki Hong, an amiable, floppy-haired twenty-seven-year-old—personally presented each dish. One conspicuous hazard of being Anthony Bourdain is that everywhere he goes, from a Michelin-starred temple to a peasant hut on the tundra, he is mercilessly inundated with food. Because he is loath to spurn courtesy of any kind, he often ends up eating much more than he might like to. Bourdain calls this getting “food fucked.”
Now that he trains nearly every day in jujitsu, he tries to eat and drink more selectively. “Off camera, I don’t go around getting drunk at night,” he said; during the meals we shared when he wasn’t shooting, Bourdain didn’t so much gorge himself as graze. A big bowl of pasta is hard to enjoy if you know it will render you sluggish the next morning, when a crazy-eyed mixed martial artist is trying to ease you into a choke hold. Since he started doing jujitsu, three years ago, Bourdain has lost thirty-five pounds. (He now weighs a hundred and seventy-five pounds.) But he adores the food at Baekjeong, and was ready to indulge himself.
After Hong arranged silky thin slivers of marinated beef tongue on a circular grill that was embedded in the table between us, Bourdain waited until they had just browned, then reached for one with chopsticks and encouraged me to do the same. We savored the rich, woodsy taste of the meat. Then Bourdain poured two shots of soju, the Korean rice liquor, and said, “That is good, huh?”
It is somewhat ironic that Bourdain has emerged as an ambassador for the culinary profession, given that, by his own admission, he was never an inspired chef. Alan Richman, the restaurant critic at GQ, who is a champion of white-tablecloth haute cuisine, told me that Les Halles “was not a particularly good restaurant when he was cooking there, and it got worse when he stopped.” This seemed a little unfair: I frequented Les Halles before it closed, in 2016, and until the end it was rowdy and reliable, with a good frisée salad and a sturdy cassoulet.
But it was never a standout restaurant. Bourdain used to genuflect like a fanboy before innovative chefs such as Éric Ripert, of Le Bernardin. On page 5 of “Kitchen Confidential,” he joked that Ripert, whom he had never met, “won’t be calling me for ideas on today’s fish special.” After the book came out, Bourdain was in the kitchen at Les Halles one day, when he got a phone call. It was Ripert, inviting him to lunch. Today, they are best friends, and Ripert often plays the straight man to Bourdain on “Parts Unknown.” A recent episode in Chengdu, China, consisted largely of shots of a flushed and sweaty Ripert being subjected to one lethally spicy dish after another while Bourdain discoursed on the “mouth-numbing” properties of Sichuan pepper and took jocular satisfaction in his friend’s discomfort.
Ripert said of Bourdain, “I have cooked side by side with him. He has the speed. He has the precision. He has the skill. He has the flavor. The food tastes good.” He hesitated. “Creativity-wise . . . I don’t know.” Over the years, Bourdain has regularly been approached about opening his own restaurant, and these offers might have yielded him a fortune. But he has always declined, mindful, perhaps, that his renown as a bard of the kitchen might be difficult to equal in the kitchen itself.
Even so, everywhere Bourdain goes young cooks greet him as “Chef.” When I asked him if that felt strange, he bristled slightly. “Look, I put in my time, so I’m not uncomfortable with it,” he said. “What makes me uncomfortable is when an actual working chef who cooks better than I’ve ever cooked in my life calls me Chef.” As if on cue, Deuki Hong—who, before opening Baekjeong, worked under Jean-Georges Vongerichten and David Chang—appeared with a platter of steamed sweet potatoes, and addressed Bourdain as Chef.
Halfway through the meal, we were joined by Stephen Werther, a bespectacled entrepreneur who is Bourdain’s partner in a new venture: a Manhattan market modelled on Singapore’s hawker centers, or open-air food courts. It is scheduled to open, sometime in the next few years, at Pier 57, a cavernous former shipping terminal on the West Side. If Bourdain’s show offers a vicarious taste of an intrepid culinary expedition, the market will provide an ersatz consumer experience of his show. The best street-food venders will be recruited from around the world and awarded visas—assuming that the United States is still issuing them—allowing New Yorkers to sample their octopus tostadas and their yakitori chicken hearts.
Bourdain Market, as it will be known, is a preposterously ambitious venture; it will be three times the size of the original Eataly—Mario Batali’s super-emporium of Italian food in the Flatiron district. Werther was accompanied by Robin Standefer and Stephen Alesch, a married couple who run Roman and Williams, a design firm that creates seductive contemporary spaces, such as the Ace Hotel in New York. They had agreed to work on the market. Their background is in Hollywood set design, an ideal match for Bourdain’s sensibility.
“Imagine a post-apocalyptic Grand Central Terminal, if it had been invaded by China,” Bourdain said.
“But underwater,” Standefer joked.
Bourdain elaborated that the market should bring to mind “Blade Runner”—high-end retail as grungy, polyglot dystopia. When Bourdain was growing up, his father used to rent a 16-mm. projector and show movies by Stanley Kubrick and Mel Brooks. “I’ve never met anyone who has this catalogue of films in his head,” one of his longtime cameramen, Zach Zamboni, told me. A Rome episode of “No Reservations” made black-and-white allusion to Fellini. The Buenos Aires episode on “Parts Unknown” was a nod to “Happy Together,” by Wong Kar-wai.
Most viewers are unlikely to catch such references, but for Bourdain that is not the point. “When other cinematographers like it, that feels good,” he said. “It’s just like cooking—when the other cooks say, ‘Nice plate.’ It’s kind of not about the customers.” The producer Lydia Tenaglia, who, along with her husband, Chris Collins, recruited Bourdain to television for “A Cook’s Tour,” and now runs Zero Point Zero, told me that part of the reason Bourdain’s experience is so often refracted through films is that, until middle age, he had seen so little of the world. “Books and films, that was what he knew—what he had read in Graham Greene, what he had seen in ‘Apocalypse Now.’ ”
Singapore’s orderly hawker markets combine the delights of roadside gastronomy with an approach to public-health regulation that could pass muster in post-Bloomberg New York. “They cracked the code without losing this amazing culture,” Bourdain said. Some of his partners in the market will be established restaurateurs, like April Bloomfield, the Michelin-starred chef of the Spotted Pig and the Breslin. But Bourdain also wants the market to have an old-fashioned butcher shop, with “guys in bloody aprons breaking down sections of meat,” and Asian street food that will attract not just the Eater-reading cognoscenti but also displaced Asians in New York who yearn for a genuine taste of home. “If the younger Korean hipsters and their grandparents like us, we’re gonna be O.K.,” he said.
I wondered aloud if grilled heart could turn a profit in New York. Wouldn’t the adventurous offerings be loss leaders, while more conventional attractions, like an oyster bar, paid the rent?
“I’m an optimist,” Bourdain replied. Tastes evolve, he insisted. Exposure to foreign cultures makes inhibitions fall away. “I grew up watching ‘Barney Miller,’ and it was Asian jokes all day long. They made fun of Asian food. It smelled like garbage. That’s not funny anymore.” With his chopsticks, he gestured toward a bowl of kimchi between us. “Americans want kimchi. They want it on their hamburgers. It’s like when Americans started eating sushi—a huge tectonic shift.” The new frontier for American tastes is fermentation, Bourdain continued. “That funk. That corruption of the flesh. That’s exactly the flavor zone that we’re all moving toward.”
“This is the secret of the food world,” Stephen Werther said. “Rot is delicious. No one will ever say that to your face. Aged steaks. ‘Age’ is code for ‘rot.’ ”
“Cured,” Bourdain said, warming to the riff.
“Alcohol is the by-product of yeast,” Stephen Alesch chimed in. “It’s the piss of yeast.”
“Basically, what we’re saying is that filth is good,” Bourdain concluded.
Deuki Hong reappeared with a plate of marbled rib eye. “Korean restaurants don’t usually dry-age,” he said. “But we’re trying dry-aged. This is, like, thirty-eight days.”
“You see? The rot!” Werther exclaimed. “What happens after thirty-eight days?”
“Good things,” Bourdain said.
“For Valentine’s Day once, we made a stew by cooking this big beef heart,” Alesch said.
“That’s very romantic,” Werther observed.
“It was,” Alesch said. “We ate it for, like, four days.”
We left the restaurant, with Hong in tow, and had a round of soju bombs at an unmarked bar on the third floor of a nearby office building. Our little party then proceeded to a Korean night club on Forty-first Street. A vast warren of karaoke rooms surrounded a central dance floor, where flickering lasers illuminated a crowd that was young, prosperous-looking, and entirely Asian. In a V.I.P. room overlooking the dance floor, Bourdain quizzed one of the owners, Bobby Kwak, a young Korean-American man in a black T-shirt, about the clientele. “If they go to a downtown club like Marquee, they stick out like a sore thumb,” Kwak explained, shouting over thudding techno. He pointed at Bourdain. “You’re the minority here.”
Bourdain said that this was exactly the kind of crowd he wanted to attract to the market. He had no interest in catering to “the gringos.” Instead, he wanted to teach the gringos that they could love a place that was legitimate enough to be popular with a crowd like this.
“It’s going to be hard,” Kwak said. “You’ll get the Asian-Americans . . . ”
Bourdain insisted that he also wanted the young Koreans who had grown up in Seoul, not Fort Lee. It was nearly 2 a.m. “So, after they get out of here, where do they go?” Bourdain asked.
Kwak laughed, and shouted, “They go right to where you just ate.”
In the summer of 2006, Bourdain flew to Lebanon to make a “No Reservations” episode about Beirut. He planned to focus on the city’s cosmopolitan night life, nibbling kibbe, drinking arrack, and taking in the vibe at beachside night clubs. In the episode, he explains in a voice-over, “Everyone’s been through here—the Greeks, the Romans, the Phoenicians. So I knew this was going to be a great place to eat.” But, while Bourdain was strolling down the street one day, a convoy of vehicles rolled by, flying the yellow flags of Hezbollah. They were celebrating an ambush in which Hezbollah forces had crossed into Israel, killing three Israeli soldiers and capturing two others. The next day, Israel launched missiles at Beirut, killing dozens of civilians. Bourdain and his crew ended up at the Royal Hotel, on a hilltop not far from the U.S. Embassy, playing cards while they waited to be evacuated. In a surreal accident of geography, they could watch the war unfold from the relative safety of the hotel pool.
All travel requires a degree of improvisation, and Bourdain and his cameramen are well versed in reconceiving a show on the fly. Once, when he was snorkeling off the coast of Sicily, in search of seafood, he was startled to see a half-frozen octopus splash into the water beside him. His host, a deeply tanned, eager-to-please Sicilian, was dropping fish onto the seabed for him to “discover” on camera. Naturally, this violated Bourdain’s dogma of verité. He was outraged, but decided to incorporate the moment into the episode, to hilarious effect. (“I’m no marine biologist, but I know a dead octopus when I see one.”)
In Beirut, there was no way to edit around the war. But Bourdain and his producers felt that they had a story to tell, and they put together a show about being stranded by the conflict. In the episode, viewers see Bourdain’s cameramen worrying about getting home, and the local fixers and producers worrying about the safety of loved ones. At one point in the narration, Bourdain says, “This is not the show we went to Lebanon to get.” Until he travelled to Beirut, wherever he had ventured, no matter how bleak, he had always ended the episode with a voice-over that was, if not upbeat, at least hopeful.
At the conclusion of the Beirut episode, he said, “Look at us in these scenes. . . . We’re sitting around in bathing suits, getting tanned, watching a war. If there’s a single metaphor in this entire experience, you know, that’s probably it.” Darren Aronofsky describes Bourdain’s show as a form of “personal journalism,” in the tradition of Ross McElwee’s 1985 documentary, “Sherman’s March,” in which a story is pointedly filtered through the individual experience of the filmmaker. In Beirut, at a beach where a line of people stood clutching their belongings, Bourdain and his crew were ushered by U.S. Marines onto a crowded American warship.
At the time, Bourdain was in a new relationship. Éric Ripert had recently set him up with a young Italian woman named Ottavia Busia, who was a hostess at one of Ripert’s restaurants. She and Bourdain both worked incessantly, but Ripert figured that they might find time to enjoy a one-night stand. On their second date, Busia and Bourdain got matching tattoos of a chef’s knife. Eight months later, Bourdain returned, shaken, from Beirut, and they talked about having children. “Let’s spin the wheel,” Busia told him, adding, dubiously, “Your sperm is old, anyway.” Their daughter, Ariane, was born in April, 2007, and they were married eleven days later.
Busia is also a jujitsu fanatic, and, when I contacted her, she suggested that we meet at the school where she and Bourdain train, not far from Penn Station. “I’m here every day,” she said. Busia is thirty-eight, with big brown eyes, a warm, toothy grin, and the dense, bunched-up shoulders of a gym rat. She sat cross-legged on a mat, wearing a black T-shirt that said, “In Jujitsu We Trust,” and leggings that were decorated with cat faces. Busia first tried martial arts after giving birth, hoping to lose some weight, but she soon became consumed by jujitsu, and induced Bourdain to take a private lesson. (She bribed him, she maintains, with a Vicodin.) “I knew he was going to like the problem-solving aspect of it,” she told me. “It’s a very intellectual sport.”
Years ago, while filming an episode in Rajasthan, Bourdain met a fortune-teller who told him that one day he would become a father. “That guy’s full of fucking shit,” Bourdain told one of the producers afterward. “I would be a horrible father.” But Ariane is, by her parents’ accounts, a well-adjusted kid. For a time, Busia brought her along on some of Bourdain’s journeys, but when Ariane started elementary school that became impractical. Once, Busia was startled awake in the middle of the night with the horrifying realization that a strange man was in her bed.
Then she rolled over and remembered that it was just Tony; she had forgotten that he was home. (Last year, Bourdain spent only about twenty weeks in New York.) Now that Busia is in peak physical condition, she is hoping to climb Mt. Everest. Last summer, Bourdain told me that she was sleeping in a hypoxia chamber—a device that mimics the oxygen depletion of high altitudes. “It basically re-creates thirty-two thousand feet,” he said, then shrugged. “Anyway, nobody’s sitting at home waiting for me to define them.”
When I asked about fatherhood, Bourdain grew reflective. “I’m shocked by how happy my daughter is,” he said. “I don’t think I’m deluding myself. I know I’m a loving father.” He paused. “Do I wish sometimes that, in an alternative universe, I could be the patriarch, always there? Tons of kids? Grandkids running around? Yes. And it looks good to me. But I’m pretty sure I’m incapable of it.”
Perhaps the most beautiful thing that Bourdain has written is a 2010 essay called “My Aim Is True,” which is a profile of Justo Thomas, a fastidious middle-aged man from the Dominican Republic, who descends early each morning to the basement beneath Le Bernardin, where he prepares a series of sharp knives, and then, with the precision of a heart surgeon, disassembles seven hundred pounds of fresh fish. The fish come to the restaurant, Thomas says, “the way they catch,” which, Bourdain explains, means whole, straight from the ocean—“shiny, clear-eyed, pink-gilled, still stiff with rigor, and smelling of nothing but seawater.”
It is Thomas’s job to break each carcass down into delicate cuts that will be served upstairs, and the essay is a warm tribute to him and to the details of his largely invisible craft. (“The walls, curiously, have been carefully covered with fresh plastic cling wrap—like a serial killer would prepare his basement—to catch flying fish scales and for faster, easier cleanup.”) By the time Thomas completes his shift, it is noon, and Bourdain invites him to have lunch in the dining room. In six years of working at Le Bernardin, Thomas has never eaten there as a guest. Bourdain gestures toward the patrons around them, and notes that some of them will spend on a bottle of wine what Thomas might make in a couple of months. “I think in life they give too much to some people and nothing to everybody else,” Thomas tells him. But, he adds, “without work, we are nothing.”
In Bourdain’s estimation, writing is a less gruelling art than cooking. “I think I’ve always looked at everybody I met through the prism of the kitchen,” he told me at one point. “ ‘O.K., you wrote a good book, but can you handle a brunch shift?’ ” Writing is ephemeral, he said. More ephemeral than brunch? I asked. “Three hundred brunches, nothing came back,” he said, his voice hardening with the steely conviction of a combat veteran. “Three hundred eggs Benedict. Not one returned. It’s mechanical precision. Endurance. Character. That’s real.”
When Bourdain tells his own story, he often makes it sound as if literary success were something that he stumbled into; in fact, he spent years trying to write his way out of the kitchen. In 1985, he began sending unsolicited manuscripts to Joel Rose, who was then editing a downtown literary journal, Between C & D. “To put it to you quite simply, my lust for print knows no bounds,” Bourdain wrote, in the cover letter for a submission of cartoons and short stories, noting, “Though I do not reside on the Lower East, I have in the recent past enjoyed an intimate though debilitating familiarity with its points of interest.” Rose eventually published a story by Bourdain, about a young chef who tries to score heroin but is turned away, because he has no fresh track marks. (“There’s tracks there! They just old is all cause I been on the program!”)
Bourdain bought his first bag of heroin on Rivington Street in 1980, and plunged into addiction with his usual gusto. “When I started getting symptoms of withdrawal, I was proud of myself,” he told me. Addiction, like the kitchen, was a marginal subculture with its own rules and aesthetics. For Bourdain, an admirer of William S. Burroughs, heroin held a special allure. In 1980, he says, he copped every day. But eventually he grew disenchanted with the addict’s life, because he hated being at the mercy of others. “Getting ripped off, running from the cops,” he recalled. “I’m a vain person. I didn’t like what I saw in the mirror.”
Bourdain ended up on methadone, but he resented the indignities of the regimen: being unable to leave town without permission, waiting in line to pee in a cup. He quit cold turkey, around 1987, but spent several more years addicted to cocaine. “I just bottomed out on crack,” he recalled. Occasionally, between fixes, he would find himself digging paint chips out of the carpet in his apartment and smoking them, on the off chance that they were pebbles of crack. Things grew so bad that Bourdain recalls once sitting on a blanket on Broadway at Christmastime, with his beloved record collection laid out for sale.
Given Bourdain’s braggadocio, there were times when I wondered if the bad years were quite as grim as he makes them sound. “There are romantics, and then there are the hard-core addicts,” Karen Rinaldi said. “I think Tony was more of a romantic.” Nancy Putkoski told me in an e-mail that Tony is “pretty dramatic.” She wrote, “It does look pretty bleak in the rearview mirror. But, when you’re living it, it’s just your life. You struggle through.” Once, Bourdain was riding in a taxi with three friends, having just scored heroin on the Lower East Side. He announced that he had recently read an article about the statistical likelihood of getting off drugs. “Only one in four has a chance at making it,” he said. An awkward silence ensued. Years later, in “Kitchen Confidential,” Bourdain pointed out that he made it and his friends had not. “I was the guy.”
In 1985, Bourdain signed up for a writing workshop led by the editor Gordon Lish. “He took it very seriously,” Putkoski told me. In letters to Joel Rose, Bourdain referred to the workshop as a transformative experience, and talked about “life after Lish.” (When I reached Lish by phone, he recalled Bourdain as “an altogether charming fellow, very tall,” but he had no recollection of Bourdain’s writing.)
After getting clean, around 1990, Bourdain met an editor at Random House, who gave him a small advance to write a crime novel set in the restaurant world. Writing had always come easily to Bourdain; at Vassar, he wrote term papers for classmates in exchange for drugs. He didn’t agonize over the novel, he said: “I didn’t have time.” Every day, he rose before dawn and banged out a new passage at his computer, chain-smoking, then worked a twelve-hour restaurant shift.
The novel, “Bone in the Throat,” was published in 1995. (“Two-hundred-and-eighty-pound Salvatore Pitera, in a powder-blue jogging suit and tinted aviator glasses, stepped out of Franks Original Pizza onto Spring Street. He had a slice of pizza in one hand, too hot to eat.”) Bourdain paid for his own book tour, and recalls sitting behind a table at a Barnes & Noble in Northridge, California, with a stack of his books, as people walked by, avoiding eye contact. That novel and a follow-up, “Gone Bamboo,” quickly went out of print. (They have since been reissued.)
In 1998, Les Halles opened a Tokyo branch, and one of the owners, Philippe Lajaunie, asked Bourdain to spend a week there, mentoring the staff. Bourdain fretted over how he’d survive the thirteen-hour flight without a cigarette, but once he landed in Tokyo he was exhilarated. “This place is like ‘Blade Runner,’ ” he wrote to Joel Rose, in an e-mail. “I’m speaking French, hearing Japanese, and thinking English all while still horribly jet-lagged, crazed on iced sushi, jacked up on fugu, and just fucking dazzled by it all.” He described the thrill of walking into the most uninviting, foreign-seeming, crowded restaurant he could find, pointing at a diner who appeared to have ordered something good, and saying, “Gimme that!”
Rose had recently had a child with Rinaldi, the book editor. He showed her the e-mails, and Rinaldi was impressed by Bourdain’s bawdy vernacular. “Do you think he has a book in him?” she asked.
“You have no idea,” Rose said.
Writing may have long been part of Bourdain’s plan, but TV, according to Putkoski, “was never really in the picture until it was offered.” Shortly after “Kitchen Confidential” was published, Lydia Tenaglia and Chris Collins started talking with Bourdain about making a show. He told them that he was planning a follow-up book in which he travelled around the world, eating. If they wanted to pay to follow him with cameras, why not?
Putkoski was less enthused. “She identified television early on as an existential threat to the marriage,” Bourdain said. “I felt like the whole world was opening up to me. I’d seen things. I’d smelled things. I desperately wanted more. And she saw the whole thing as a cancer.” If you watch episodes of “A Cook’s Tour,” you can sometimes spot Putkoski hovering at the edge of the frame. She had no desire to be on camera. She told me recently that her ideal degree of fame would be that of a Supreme Court Justice: “Almost nobody knows what you look like, but you always get the reservation you want.”
For a time, Bourdain tried to save the marriage. He remodelled their apartment with the extra money he was making. But it didn’t work. “I was ambitious, she was not,” he said. “I have a rampaging curiosity about things, and she was content, I think, to be with me. To go to the Caribbean once a year. There were things that I wanted, and I was willing to really hurt somebody to have them.” Bourdain describes his separation from Putkoski as “the great betrayal” of his life.
In an e-mail, Putkoski wrote to me, “I’m big on shared experiences, which I’d thought had bulletproofed our partnership. . . . We’d been through an awful lot of stuff together, a lot of it not so great, a lot of it wonderful fun.” She concluded, “I just didn’t anticipate how tricky success would be.”
Outside the beer hall in Hanoi, under a tree festooned with Christmas lights, a stout elderly woman in billowy striped pants presided, with a cleaver, over a little stand that served roasted dog. Bourdain was relaxing nearby with Dinh Hoang Linh, a sweet-tempered Vietnamese bureaucrat who has been a close friend of his since 2000, when Linh was Bourdain’s government minder on his first trip to Hanoi. Over the years, the recipe for Bourdain’s show has subtly changed. When he first went to Asia, he joked that he was going to eat “monkey brains and poisonous blowfish gizzards.”
At a restaurant in Vietnam called Flavors of the Forest, he was treated to a delicacy in which the proprietor grabs a writhing cobra, unzips its belly with a pair of scissors, yanks out its still beating heart, and drops it into a small ceramic bowl. “Cheers,” Bourdain said, before knocking it back like an oyster. If, in subsequent seasons, Bourdain has eaten some other appalling things—bear bile in Vietnam, bull’s-penis soup in Malaysia, the unwashed rectum of a warthog in Namibia—he is careful to distance himself from any suggestion that he trucks in gag-reflex entertainment. When he was getting started, a degree of sensationalism was “exactly the cost of doing business,” he told me, adding, “I’m not going to sneer at it. Whatever gets you across the river.” (He noted, diplomatically, that the Travel Channel currently has a show, “Bizarre Foods,” devoted to that kind of thing.)
He has never eaten dog. When I pointed out the dog-hawker in our midst, he said, “I’m not doing it just because it’s there anymore.” Now, when he’s presented with such offerings, his first question is whether it is a regular feature of the culture. “Had I found myself as the unwitting guest of honor in a farmhouse on the Mekong Delta where a family, unbeknownst to me, has prepared their very best, and I’m the guest of honor, and all of the neighbors are watching . . . I’m going to eat the fucking dog,” he said. “On the hierarchy of offenses, offending my host—often a very poor one, who is giving me the very best, and for whom face is very important in the community—for me to refuse would be embarrassing. So I will eat the dog.”
Bourdain has softened in other ways. Although he still baits the food press with a steady stream of headline-ready provocations—“Anthony Bourdain: Airplane Food and Room Service Are Crimes”; “Anthony Bourdain Wishes Death Upon the Pumpkin-Spice Craze”; “Anthony Bourdain on Dining with Trump: Absolutely F*cking Not”—he often makes peace with people to whom he has taken a blowtorch in the past. In “Kitchen Confidential,” he relentlessly pilloried the TV chef Emeril Lagasse, noting several times his resemblance to an Ewok.
Then they met, Bourdain ate Lagasse’s food, and eventually he took it all back and apologized. Lajaunie, the former Les Halles owner, said of Bourdain, “He’s extremely kind, but it’s the genuine kindness that comes from deep cynicism.” Lajaunie went on, “He has accepted that everyone has broken springs here and there. That’s what most of us lack—the acceptance that others are as broken as we are.” After Bourdain read “How to Live,” Sarah Bakewell’s 2010 book about Michel de Montaigne, he got a tattoo on his forearm of Montaigne’s motto, in ancient Greek: “I suspend judgment.”
Even Alan Richman, the GQ critic, whose snobbery Bourdain once savaged in an essay entitled “Alan Richman Is a Douchebag,” has become a sort of friend. When Bourdain was writing for “Treme,” he concocted a scene in which a character named Alan Richman visits a restaurant in New Orleans and has a Sazerac thrown in his face. He invited Richman to play himself, and Richman did.
In an era of fast-casual dining, Richman pointed out, the “roughneck” cuisine that Bourdain celebrates has enormous appeal. Bourdain has helped create the circumstances in which one of the most widely praised restaurants in New York City is the Spotted Pig, April Bloomfield’s West Village gastropub, which is known for its unfussy cheeseburgers. To the degree that one can extrapolate from the personal quarrel between Richman and Bourdain a larger philosophical debate about the proper future of American tastes, Richman readily concedes defeat. “I don’t know anybody who is more a man of the twenty-first century,” Richman told me. “The way he acts. The way he speaks. His insanity. His vulgarity.”
As “Parts Unknown” has evolved, it has become less preoccupied with food and more concerned with the sociology and geopolitics of the places Bourdain visits. Lydia Tenaglia calls the show an “anthropological enterprise.” Increasingly, Chris Collins told me, the mandate is: “Don’t tell me what you ate. Tell me who you ate with.” Bourdain, in turn, has pushed for less footage of him eating and more “B roll” of daily life in the countries he visits. It has become a mantra for him, Collins said: “More ‘B,’ less me.”
Since visiting Beirut, Bourdain has gone on to Libya, Gaza, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, seeking to capture how people go about their daily lives amid violent conflict. To viewers who complain that the show has become too focussed on politics, Bourdain responds that food is politics: most cuisines reflect an amalgamation of influences and tell a story of migration and conquest, each flavor representing a sedimentary layer of history. He also points out that most shows about food are premised on a level of abundance that is unfamiliar in many parts of the world.
The program’s shift in tone coincided, fortuitously, with the move to CNN. In 2012, the network was struggling with a dilemma that is common to cable news. “Big events happen in the world and viewers flock to you in droves, and as soon as the event is over they disappear,” Amy Entelis, an executive vice-president at CNN, told me. The network wanted to create “appointment viewing”: original shows that audiences would seek out week after week. “Tony’s name came up right away,” Entelis said.
It has been a happy arrangement: the network gives Bourdain ample resources and near-total creative freedom. “I’ve never gotten the stupid phone call,” he said. The show has been a ratings success, and it has won five Emmys and a Peabody Award. Eerily, one of the highest-rated episodes of “Parts Unknown” aired soon after the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing. It was an episode about Los Angeles, which Bourdain had shot exclusively in Koreatown, and it’s great, but nobody believes that this accounts for the ratings. Millions of people had followed the manhunt, and the devastating aftermath of the attack, on CNN. By Sunday, they needed a break.
Bourdain is comfortable being seen as a purveyor of escapism; he is less comfortable with the responsibility that attends the show’s more serious material. In an episode set in Laos, he ate freshwater fish and bamboo shoots with a man who had lost an arm and a leg when a U.S. explosive, left over from the war, detonated. In Hanoi, one of Obama’s staffers told him that, until the episode aired, some people in the White House had been unaware of the extent of the unexploded-ordnance problem in Laos. “Very casually, he said, ‘So I guess you do some good after all,’ ” Bourdain recalled. “I’m a little embarrassed. I feel like Bono. I don’t want to be that guy. The show is always about me. I would be bullshitting you if I said I was on some mission. I’m not.”
Nevertheless, Bourdain knows that most viewers who caught his Congo episode had read little about the conflicts there. I was reminded of how Jon Stewart, whenever someone observed that many young people got their news from “The Daily Show,” protested, unpersuasively, that he was just a comedian cracking jokes. Bourdain’s publisher, Dan Halpern, said, “Whether he likes it or not, he’s become a statesman.”
Bourdain insists that this is not the case. “I’m not going to the White House Correspondents’ dinner,” he said. “I don’t need to be laughing it up with Henry Kissinger.” He then launched into a tirade about how it sickens him, having travelled in Southeast Asia, to see Kissinger embraced by the power-lunch crowd. “Any journalist who has ever been polite to Henry Kissinger, you know, fuck that person,” he said, his indignation rising. “I’m a big believer in moral gray areas, but, when it comes to that guy, in my view he should not be able to eat at a restaurant in New York.”
I pointed out that Bourdain had made similarly categorical denunciations of many people, only to bury the hatchet and join them for dinner.
“Emeril didn’t bomb Cambodia!” he said.
One morning in August, I got an e-mail from Bourdain letting me know that he and Busia were separating. “It’s not much of a change of life style, as we have lived separate lives for many years,” he wrote. “More of a change of address.” Bourdain felt some relief, he told me: he and Busia no longer needed to “pretend.” In our conversations up to that point, he had celebrated the fact that Busia pursued jujitsu and her other interests in the same headlong manner in which he pursued his. But in the e-mail he wrote, “She’s an interesting woman. I admire her choices. But I married Sophia Loren. She turned into Jean-Claude Van Damme.” (I learned subsequently that this was a standing joke between Bourdain and Busia, and not intended harshly.) Bourdain added that he was about to promote a new “family cookbook,” called “Appetites,” which would “lead to some awkward interviews.”
Chris Bourdain told me that, when Anthony first became famous, his attitude was: “I have no idea how long this is going to go on, so I want to max it out while I can.” Whenever a new opportunity presented itself, he said yes. By the time Bourdain met Busia, he had achieved a level of recognition and wealth that might have enabled him to slow down. But he didn’t stop moving. “Parts Unknown” films two seasons a year.
Even first-class travel can be punishing after a while, and Bourdain acknowledges that although he may still behave like a young man, he isn’t one. “I think you’re officially old at sixty, right?” he told me, soon after his birthday. “The car starts falling apart.” However, TV stars forge bonds with their audience through habitual exposure, and it can feel risky to take a break. “It’s a bit like ‘Poltergeist,’ ” Nigella Lawson, who was Bourdain’s co-host on “The Taste,” told me. “You get sucked into the TV and you can never get out.”
At this point, Éric Ripert observed, Bourdain’s show has “done the entire planet already!” Now, Bourdain says, the pleasure of making “Parts Unknown” lies in revisiting places to see how they’ve changed—Cuba five years ago is a different country from Cuba today—or in returning to a place with a fresh perspective. For a recent episode on Houston, Bourdain decided that he wanted “no white people,” and provided instead a look at the city “as a Vietnamese and Central American and African and Indian place.” Chris Collins suggested to me that the perpetual discontinuity of Bourdain’s life may have assumed a continuity of its own, as if jet lag were his natural condition. “I’ve often thought, How would he ever go on without the show?” Lydia Tenaglia said. “It is such an inextricable part of him—who is Tony, apart from this?”
For years, Bourdain has had a recurring dream in which he finds himself in a Victorian-era hotel, wandering through well-appointed hallways, unable to find the front desk. A year ago, when I asked him how long he would stick with the show, he said, “Until it’s not fun.” In September, I posed the same question at a sushi restaurant in Manhattan, and this time he was more contemplative. “I have the best job in the world,” he said. “If I’m unhappy, it’s a failure of imagination.” He was delighted with the Vietnam episode, which was about to air. CNN had wanted to lead with the Obama meeting, but Bourdain, ever one to play it casual, waited until nearly forty minutes into the episode to introduce the President. He got the James Brown song he wanted. (“I may have fibbed and told the network that I promised the President personally that we would get that for his walk-on music.”)
After the Vietnam trip, Bourdain had competed in a jujitsu tournament, in Manhattan, and had been defeated by a strongman who wrenched his head with such ferocity that he thought his fillings might pop. As an added indignity, Bourdain came away from the tournament with a skin infection that left him looking, he says, “like Quasimodo.” (Ripert is puzzled by jujitsu: “It’s supposed to be good for the body, but he seems to be in pain all the time.”)
In a fit of self-exile, Bourdain flew to France and made his way, alone, to the oyster village that he had visited as a child. He had rented a big villa, with the intention of doing some writing. Bourdain cherishes the trope of the misanthropic émigré. “To me, ‘The Quiet American’ was a happy book, because Fowler ends up in Vietnam, smoking opium with a beautiful Vietnamese girl who may not have loved him,” he told me.
But in France he found that he couldn’t write. His body was itchy and swollen from the rash, and he had a throbbing pain in his head. Because he looked hideous, he left the villa only after dark, like a vampire. Finally, Bourdain sought out a French doctor, who gave him a battery of painkillers and anti-inflammatories. After impulsively swallowing a week’s supply, Bourdain realized that he had not eaten in thirty-six hours. He drove to a café in a nearby town, Arcachon, and ordered spaghetti and a bottle of Chianti. He was halfway through the wine when he realized that he was sweating through his clothes. Then he blacked out.
When he woke up, Bourdain was lying with his feet in the café and his head in the street. A waiter was rifling through his pockets, in search of a driver’s license, as if to identify a corpse. Bourdain’s father had died suddenly, at fifty-seven, from a stroke, and Bourdain often thinks about dying; more than once, he told me that, if he got “a bad chest X-ray,” he would happily renew his acquaintance with heroin. Taking meds and booze on an empty stomach was just a foolish mistake, but it left him shaken. He stood up, reassured the startled onlookers, drove back to the villa, and immediately wrote a long e-mail to Nancy Putkoski.
When I asked him what he wrote, Bourdain paused and said, “The sort of thing you write if you, you know, thought you were going to die. ‘I’m fucking sorry. I’m sure I’ve acted like I wasn’t.’ We’ve had very little contact—you know, civil, but very, very little. ‘I’m sorry. I know that doesn’t help. It won’t fix it, there’s no making amends. But it’s not like I don’t remember. It’s not like I don’t know what I’ve done.’ ”
Anthropologists like to say that to observe a culture is usually, in some small way, to change it. A similar dictum holds true for Bourdain’s show. Whenever Bourdain discovers a hole-in-the-wall culinary gem, he places it on the tourist map, thereby leaching it of the authenticity that drew him to it in the first place. “It’s a gloriously doomed enterprise,” he acknowledged. “I’m in the business of finding great places, and then we fuck them up.”
For the restaurant that welcomes Bourdain and his crew, there are conspicuous upsides to this phenomenon. Our food at the sushi place was middling; Bourdain avoided the fish and ordered chicken katsu, most of which he left uneaten. As we were leaving, Bourdain amiably obliged the owner’s request for a selfie, and I witnessed a comically subtle tango, as she maneuvered his body so that the photo would capture the restaurant’s sign (creating an implicit endorsement) and Bourdain gently swivelled her the other way, so that the backdrop would be Third Avenue instead.
In Hanoi, a few days after Bourdain’s dinner with Obama, I mentioned that I was going to swing by the Bún-chả restaurant. As if recalling a bygone establishment, Bourdain murmured dreamily, “I wonder what it’s like now.”
I chuckled at this, but when I visited the next day the restaurant had indeed changed. A sign outside said, in Vietnamese, “we have no more bún chả!,” and gawkers loitered around the entrance. In the kitchen, the woman who runs the restaurant, Nguyên Thi Liên, was smiling, perspiring, and clearly overwhelmed. Her family had owned the place for decades. She told me that Hanoi kids had been stopping by at night, long past closing, to have their picture taken.
One evening in Vietnam, Bourdain finished a shoot outside a noodle shop, and loped over to the other side of the street, where I was sitting. “Want to go for a ride?” he asked. The crew had rented him a blue Vespa, and Bourdain told me that the only way to see Hanoi was on the back of a scooter: “To be anonymous, another helmeted figure in the middle of a million little dramas and comedies happening on a million bikes moving through this amazing city—every second is pure joy.” I climbed on behind him. “I’ve only got one helmet,” he said, handing it to me. I had scarcely strapped it on when he hit the gas and we were swept up in a surging river of vehicles. “I love this!” he shouted over his shoulder, picking up speed. “The smells! The traffic!” We shot through a perfumed cloud of smoke from a cookfire.
Bourdain swerved to avoid an oncoming truck, and almost hit a woman on a scooter with a bale of green vegetables balanced precariously on the back. As we veered into a gutter, without breaking speed, it occurred to me that this would, at any rate, be a memorable way to die. Bourdain slowed down to ask a pedestrian for directions, and the man indicated that, to reach the Metropole Hotel, we should hang a left around Hoàn Kiếm Lake. But when we reached the lake—a tree-lined oasis with a tiny island in the center—Bourdain said, “Let’s go this way,” and turned right. Clutching my seat as we zoomed into another congested avenue, I realized that Bourdain had deliberately taken a wrong turn. He was courting uncertainty, trying to get lost.
The next morning, I met Bourdain in the lobby of the Metropole, and we drove to the outskirts of the city. He can hit the ground anywhere in the world, from Kathmandu to Kiev, and find a gym where people train in Brazilian jujitsu. “Everywhere you go, the etiquette is the same,” he said. “We bump fists, then we try to kill each other for five minutes.”
On the second floor of a local athletic complex, we found a mirrored, padded room that served as a jujitsu gym. Bourdain changed into a white terry-cloth gi, strapped on his blue belt, and greeted several much younger Vietnamese guys. He sparred with each man in a five-minute round. Bourdain had explained to me the complex protocols of jujitsu—describing how a blue belt can ask a white belt to spar, and a black belt can ask a blue belt, but a white belt can’t ask a blue belt. He had always loved the kitchen because it was a tribe, and in jujitsu he had found another sweaty, gruelling activity with its own hierarchy and lingo, a vocabulary of signs and symbols that would be impossible for an outsider to understand.
I watched Bourdain, with his limbs tangled around the body of a Vietnamese blue belt who was roughly half his age, his toes splayed, his eyes bulging, his fingers grasping for purchase on the guy’s lapel. In the heat of the clench, they whispered playful banter to each other; there was something intimate about it, like pillow talk. Then, abruptly, Bourdain flipped the guy’s body over, pinning one of his arms and bending his elbow at an unnatural angle. The guy gently tapped Bourdain’s shoulder, and Bourdain released the grip. They uncoupled and lolled on the floor for a second, like a pair of dead men. Then Bourdain looked up at the time clock. There was still nearly a minute left in the five-minute round. He rolled onto his knees, bumped fists with his opponent, and started again.
As I’m typing these words there are a hundred others doing the same, penning remembrances and think-pieces of Anthony Bourdain, who was found dead in a French hotel room Friday. I’m having trouble coalescing my thoughts into a tidy piece with a beginning-middle-end. Mostly it’s just fucking sad, given how lovingly he wrote and spoke about his daughter when I interviewed him in 2016. I have a 2-year-old son now. This morning, for the first time, he nuzzled up next to me on the couch and said, unprompted, “Love you daddy.” I can’t even comprehend.
I’ve had three interactions with Tony (this is not me being chummy, that’s just how everyone refers him). The first was in the basement of the Chicago Theater, after he had just performed his one-man speaking show for a sold-out crowd. It was pleasant, cordial, and not particularly noteworthy. The third time (I’ll circle back to interaction no. 2) was my 2016 interview about his cookbook, Appetites. He was in a particularly spry mood, I remember.
My longest interaction with him was in 2011. I had this thought of starting a podcast about the craft of writing and interviewing writers I admired. While everyone loved Kitchen Confidential for its salacious tales, I was drawn to that book for the prose. Consider the era of food writing: The medium where most appeared in 2000 was newspapers, which was very much recipe-driven, staid, and employed flowery decadent-velvety-mouthfeel clichés. Tony’s writing had kinetic energy, it had rhythm, it made me laugh out loud. It lacked artifice and bullshit. This was the opening paragraph to his 1999 The New Yorker story, “Don’t Eat Before Reading This,” which earned him his book deal for Kitchen Confidential:
Good food, good eating, is all about blood and organs, cruelty and decay. It’s about sodium-loaded pork fat, stinky triple-cream cheeses, the tender thymus glands and distended livers of young animals. It’s about danger—risking the dark, bacterial forces of beef, chicken, cheese, and shellfish. Your first two hundred and seven Wellfleet oysters may transport you to a state of rapture, but your two hundred and eighth may send you to bed with the sweats, chills, and vomits.
I was like a young Cameron Crowe reading Lester Bangs for the first time, feeling the same jolt of electricity shot down the spine.
I obtained Tony’s personal e-mail from a colleague, sent him a note, and told “Mr. Bourdain” how much his writing meant to me. I asked if he would talk to me about his writing process, and if I could record this conversation. Within minutes, Tony replied yes. We spoke for an hour and he became the podcast’s kickoff guest. I remember him talking about not laboring over sentences and reading George Orwell for inspiration. Some of the lessons he offered about the writing craft I still use today. (If I had to recommend one of his book, it’s The Nasty Bits, a sharp collection of essays from his travels.)
Two more thoughts about Tony’s legacy, which I’ll keep brief because others will say far more eloquently: No person in the history of television has created a better show about food, travel, and culture. Full stop, retire the trophy. Those with aspirations about traveling the world and eating on camera—why even bother after Anthony Bourdain? Tony’s love of film imbued his shows: The Rome episode of No Reservations was an homage to Federico Fellini, shot entirely in black-and-white with the driving scenes shot on a green screen. He didn’t make a television food show, he made the television food show.
Lastly: What of his legacy? What lessons do we takeaway from his 61 years on earth? A number of people on social media have written today about how Anthony Bourdain inspired them to travel, to expand their horizons, to step out of their comfort zones, maybe try a new dish they would’ve never considered. Since we’re all more comfortable inside our silos, to convince thousands of total strangers to introduce some discomfort into their lives—and then reaping those rewards of new discoveries and experiences—now that’s a life worth lived.
As for myself, I’m saving the chicken I planned on roasting tonight for tomorrow. In Tony Bourdain’s honor, I’m dining out at our favorite pho restaurant, owned by an immigrant Vietnamese family, the one with their kids quietly doing homework at a back table.
Anthony Bourdain: The Post-Election Interview
“We are a violent nation, from the beginning.”
Anthony Bourdain had just returned home for the holidays, stepping off a plane that had delivered him from the balmy heat of Muscat and walking directly into one of those wintry New York snaps where the frigid wind fires through Manhattan’s crosstown canyons like rubber bullets. I showed up at the restaurant looking like a walking duvet, scarved and hatted and gloved. Bourdain was in a bomber jacket, hunter green, ready for a mild autumn. He still had Oman on his mind. “It was pretty amazing,” he said. “The desert is a pretty once-in-a-lifetime experience.”
It was December 19, the day the electoral college voted to install Donald J. Trump as the 45th President of the United States. Bourdain and I had this dinner on the books for a month, ever since I reached out for a quote, a diligent food journalist asking one of our world’s biggest stars if he had any thoughts he wanted to share on the record about Trump’s victory. A month before the election, Bourdain and I had a long conversation on the Eater Upsell podcast. Then, among other things, he’d defended his show, Parts Unknown, from audience accusations that it had become too much about politics. “If the army controls the entire flour supply and the bakeries, that’s already a political thing,” he said. Food is politics, is the point. More to the point, media is politics, and that includes food media. “I’m not gonna tell you who to vote for, but I do notice things and I do have opinions,” he said on the Upsell. “And if the guy I ate with in Russia who says, ‘No, I’m not worried about Putin killing me’ is shot to death on the front lawn of the Kremlin a few months later, I might mention that.”
I’m not telling the whole truth. Yes, I reached out to Bourdain because I’m a journalist and journalists reach out to people for comment, but I also got in touch for my own reasons. Spend any time in contemplation of the astronomical map of food-world celebrities, and it becomes clear that Bourdain is not actually a star — he is a nebula. His fame is almost incomprehensibly vast, his brightness — or sometimes, his darkness — defines the very shape of the expanse, he’s so influential and creatively fecund as to regularly birth stars of his own. His assertiveness is uncommon for someone of his stature, a candor that’s both studied and unaffected, that — even as the topics to which he turns the knife of his attention have broadened in their scope over the years, from brunch eggs and getting high to the crisis of unexploded ordnance in Laos — has barely softened its acerbic swagger.
At the moment Trump was elected President — a man who had built his campaign on anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim demagoguery and vindictively rhetorical sleight of hand — the world flipped into slow motion for the 53.9 percent of voters who cast ballots for anyone other than him. I got in touch with Bourdain because I hoped he’d be able to cut through that feeling of powerlessness. After I asked if he wanted to talk, the reply came quickly: He’d love to, but not until late in December, once he got back from Oman. And so, over a few hours and innumerable Asahis and countless yakitori skewers — including chicken hearts, inevitably metaphorical (and, as Bourdain pointed out, his daughter’s favorite) — we did.
So, did you vote?
Yes. No fan of the Clintons am I, by a long shot. But I’m a New Yorker, Donald Trump is a New Yorker. And the New Yorkers I know, we’ve lived with this guy for 30 years. I’ve seen Donald Trump say things one day, and then I saw what he did the next. I’ve seen up close how he does business. Just like if you lived in a small town, you’d get to know the sheriff, the guy who runs the hardware store, the guy who runs the filling station — Trump comes from that era of guys you followed, guys you knew about every day: Trump, Giuliani, Al Sharpton, Curtis Sliwa. I’d see him at Studio 54, for fuck’s sake. I’m not saying I know the guy personally, not like I’d hug him, but I’m saying that as a New Yorker, we pretty much are neighbors. And my many years of living in his orbit have not left me with a favorable impression, let’s put it that way. There’s so many reasons to find the guy troubling. When Scott Baio’s the only guy you can find to show up at your convention, you’re in trouble.
The big platform that kicked all this off for him, his comments about Mexican immigrants, intersects so directly with your vocal championship of Mexican restaurant labor —
He has a vineyard in, is it Virginia? I think a very interesting project would be to see who’s picking his grapes.
That’s a good question.
Well, I believe I know the answer, which is why I’m asking the question.
Do you think he’s actually going to make moves toward deporting people?
I think it’s going to be hard times. Is he gonna do anything near what he promised? Of course not. But he will be forced to do something, by the people around him. He will have to do something, and it will be extraordinarily ugly.
Does that change the urgency of the work that you do?
I’ve spent a lot of time in Red State America. I’ve spent a lot of time in Trump country. I have a lot of sympathy, and I believe understanding, for cultures and for places where gun culture goes so deep — that first cold morning when Daddy takes a young boy out hunting with him, lets him use a rifle, shows him how to use it — I know how emotional and how deep that goes.
We are a violent nation, from the beginning. I’m not arguing for current gun policy, but I think it’s worth acknowledging that this is a country founded in violence, a country that has always worshipped outlaws, loners, cowboys, and people who got the things they got by the gun. We glorify it, we created an entertainment industry that does little but glorify solving complex problems with simple violence.
But I think to mock constantly, as so much of the left has done — to demonize, to ridicule, to treat with abject contempt people who live in a very different America than they live in — is both ugly and counterproductive. There are a lot of people who are pissed off, they’re tired of being talked to like that. There are a lot of people in this world who, when an Applebee’s moves to their town, it’s a big deal — and I don’t mean that in a dismissive way. Where somebody coming to take your guns away is a big concern. Look, I don’t think racism can ever be forgiven. It’s a conversation-ender for me, for sure. But if you grew up isolated, no interaction or little interaction, the only interaction you’ve had has been negative, and you’re fearful of the Other, and somehow everything you read in the paper makes it seem like they’re getting all the breaks, especially when, in the news environment we live in now, it’s perfectly permissible to lie.
With my shows, I seem to fall into power vacuums. I did at Food Network, I did at Travel Channel, I always feel like I somehow slip through the cracks. I have really no — zero, I don’t feel that I have any — responsibility. I’m following my heart. If I find myself talking about immigration, or multiculturalism — though I hate that word — at this point, it’s because that’s how I feel. It’s personal to me. Maybe at this point it’s because I travel so much.
So if your generous, inclusive perspective on humanity is in part engendered by the depth and breadth of your travels, and if your show winds up being the closest thing that many of us have to that kind of global experience, then doesn’t it follow that your show can serve as a point of entry for us to develop a similar perspective?
Maybe. When I do live tours, I hear that, I see that. But all I know is how my shows make me feel. Making them, experiencing them, going through the process of making them, and then watching them after they’re done. It’s either a successful story or a not-so-successful story. How they make other people feel? I think I’ve said before to you, it’s dangerous ground to start wondering about such things, and particularly now that my outlook is pretty damn bleak.
I mean, you would think, Gee, with all these great travel shows on, there are plenty of opportunities to see how other people live. But you know something else travel has taught me: People rise up and kill their neighbors all the time. People they’ve lived with their whole lives, yesterday they were fine, today they’re the enemy. You’ve seen it in Yugoslavia, you’ve seen it in Borneo. Now you’re seeing it here. So, I don’t know.
I’m a guy who’d like to blow up every safe space, every trigger warning. I would like to unleash every comedian to say “cunt” as many times as they like, or any other word they care to use. But the threshold of acceptable rhetoric right now, the threshold of hate and animus that’s being shown at this point — this really naked hatred of every flavor, racists, sexists, pure misogyny, class hatred, hatred of the educated — this is something I’ve never seen before. And it’s now acceptable! It’s more acceptable in public at political rallies than it is at universities, which is where people should be saying offensive shit.
So what will get us past this?
Changing demographics. Other than that, it’s Bond villain shit. I’m pessimistic to the extreme. I really think people have no idea how bad it already is, and how bad it’s going to get. I read a lot of history. We’ve heard all of this before. I think it’s that bad. It can easily go that way.
Do you expect anything will change with how you approach the show?
Already I’ve been accused, apparently indirectly, by the Erdogan government, who are sayingchefs are actually working [as agents of foreign intelligence].
How does that make you feel?
I’m heartbroken. I enjoy visiting Turkey. It’s a place I have a lot of friends. Now I have to think about what happens to friends who I visit in Turkey, would that compromise their position? I wouldn’t go to Turkey if anyone I’d talk to would lose it or would be potentially under suspicion.They just purged tens of thousands of teachers and government employees on much less grounds. So, you know, that’s not helpful.
Russia clearly is going to be a problem for me. The last time I was there, they killed my lunch partner, you know? And I’m a little pissed about that. And I’ve expressed that publicly, which is increasingly not such a wise thing to do.
Will you be complaining in public less?
No. I don’t give a fuck. What have I got to lose? I won’t be on TV anymore?
But if you can’t go to Turkey, you can’t go to Russia —
Well I can, but I choose — no. No, actually, I don’t know if I can go to Turkey at this point, given who said it, and what they said. Russia, I personally would feel uncomfortable there at this point. I have high hopes of seeing Turkey again, and I hope very much I will. I would love to see St. Petersburg again. But I’ve been a number of times. I’m old. There are still places to go.
As this far-right political wave is engulfing the world, do you think this list, the lineup of places where the cost of you visiting is too high, is going to grow?
Probably. Which makes it hard. I’ve been trying to get into Afghanistan for years. Kashmir has been difficult, I want very badly to go there. Yemen — that was high up on my list before everything went to hell there. But there are bigger problems. Venezuela, it’s a huge problem to get insured to go to Venezuela. I’ve been there a number of times, but with a TV show? It’s problematic.
As the number of conflict zones increase, as I’m guessing they likely will, I’m wary of looking to Uncle Sam for an understanding face at the embassy — especially given who’s up for ambassadorships now. I can call for help from whoever, but it’s nice to have someone who actually gives a shit. The last eight years have been very very good. [Ambassadors] have been smart people, for the most part. People who’ve lived in countries for a long time, even before they took the ambassadorships.
Have you thought about turning the camera inward on America even more, especially covering the people the media are now saying were under-covered — the white, red state, Trump’s-America, “real America” people?
I always do those shows. I like doing those shows very much. And I would try to do that in a loving way. I like Mississippi, I like Arkansas, Missouri, Montana.
What do you think of that phrase, “real America”?
“Real” — I hear that a lot, on my show. Any time I shoot in any city, someone’s going to say “How can you come to Mexico City and show only this and this and this, you didn’t show the real Mexico City.” It can mean a lot of things. “How come you didn’t show the real Baltimore” can mean “How come you didn’t show white Baltimore?” Or it could mean “How come you didn’t show my side of the city, the part of the city that I know and I’m proud of and I wanted the world to see? And instead you came and you made a show about my town and it was a total disappointment to me, you concentrated on a tiny pocket, a corner that interested you for some reason.” It doesn’t really mean anything, except to the people who say it, and whether they realize what it means or not, it’s a genuine expression of emotion. I mean, what is the real New York?
When you’re putting your shows together, if it’s not some semblance of “real,” what are you looking for?
Beautiful cinematography, that’s really important. I want it to look beautiful. I want it to sound beautiful. And I’d like there to be a good story. And I want to feel a measure of happiness and satisfaction as I’m making the show, if possible.
What happens if the truth isn’t that beautiful?
Well, then we’ll show that. I’m really proud of the Madagascar show [which featured film director Darren Aronofsky as a traveling companion], because we showed the Aronofsky version at the end. We had this rather beautiful show made, with a nice, potentially heartwarming kind of conclusion, and instead I decided we should let Darren look back and see what we’d already visited, and exactly how ugly it was — and how unreliable the entire television process is. The camera’s a liar. It only tells the story we want you to see.
Isn’t that exactly what people are mad at news media about? I’m also very cynical about this sort of stuff, but it seems clear to me that there’s no such thing as unbiased media, because there’s no such thing as unbiased experience.
Look, I think Walter Cronkite, Edward Murrow — those guys tried. The news was pretty dry, back then. They were all products of the same schools and the same environments. Chances are they shared many of the same experiences, too. These guys went through wars. But their backgrounds were similar. And in the eyes of many, that made them unreliable, and that’s not an unreasonable impulse. Our best and brightest and most liberal gave us Vietnam, after that.
Even though you don’t want to have responsibility, or even the illusion thereof, there’s still a responsibility that your audience imposes on you, whether or not you choose to accept it. Do you think those expectations are changing?
I hope not. I’m just going to keep doing what I’m doing. It’s about the story, whether you like it or not.
What happens if people stop liking the story?
That’s already the case. A lot of people are like, “I’m never watching your show again, now that you’ve moved to the Clinton News Network.” As if they’ll fall asleep for a few seconds at the end of my show, and wake up and catch a few minutes of Wolf Blitzer, and it causes some homosexual urges and a desire to join Al Qaeda.
I don’t have an agenda, but I do have a point of view, and it might change from minute to minute. I like going to places thinking one thing, and being proven wrong. A journalist has to have an agenda — who-what-why-where — and I don’t want to ask those questions. That’s a prison to me. I’m not here to ask you specific questions, I’m here to ask general questions. What’s your life like? Tell me a story.
But if I can convince people to look around, and see who’s actually doing a lot of the work in this country — picking vegetables, it’s all immigrant labor — and then ask themselves, truly, whether they under any circumstances would take that job? You know, to look in the eyes of the cook who makes their eggs-over every day, and ask themselves whether they’d want to stand outside their house and be dragged away from their kids? If I can convince a few people to go to a country like Oman, which has a completely non-sectarian version of Islam, which is incredibly tolerant and super cool, or to Senegal, where they’re Sufi, they’re just as devout as anyone in the Islamic world but people who just came from Dubuque, they’d be comfortable there, they’d find beauty in it, they’d hear the call to prayer and think “Okay, there might be something here other than what I thought”? That would please me. But it’s not my mission.
No. I’m a fool, I will die a fool. Relatively proudly, I hope. I’m trying not to do shit I’m ashamed of.
So if not you, who’s gonna do it?
I don’t see the platform. How? No one watches one news station. They pick their own now, where everything is rosy and wonderful — or evil and conspiratorial, depending on how you feel. Twitter is proving not helpful, Facebook has been, you know. The troll army has been really interesting. They come up pretty dependably any time the Russia show airs. For a while, any seriously anti-Trump shit I posted, I would get a group of them, a fairly organized troll army, and not just eggs. That’s a new wrinkle. And that ain’t gonna go away. This is now a new, effective way to communicate.
So there’s no way out?
Not at all. I honestly don’t think so. I’m sticking it out, I’m not gonna run away to Canada. I’m gonna pay my fuckin’ taxes, I’m gonna vote, I’m gonna do all of that. But I’m not going to be taking it to the streets any time soon — well, we’ll see. I think we’re going to be feeling the effects of this for a long time. I’m just not optimistic. I worry about my daughter, of course
Your daughter is nine, which means she’s coming of age probably right when the shit hits its peak.
She’s an Italian citizen. She has an exit strategy. She speaks Italian. She has an out, if she chooses.
But not everybody has an out.
Nope. I don’t. It’s too late for me. I’m not going anywhere. Maybe for a while, here and there. But I just don’t see a lot of light. If I were a hardcore revolutionary, I would be applauding this — I’d be like, “Oh, the pendulum will swing so far over, and it’ll bring the temple down, and then disaster, and then we’ll have our revolution!” But I don’t believe that, and I’m contemptuous of people who feel that way.
I think it was Lenin who said one of my favorite lines: “On the train of the revolution, we will lose the liberals at the first turn.” It’s always worth remembering: In any revolution, whose heads are gonna be on the pike first? Us. And shortly after that, the originators and founders of the revolution. Asia Argento said it in the Rome episode: We create idols so we can destroy them.
So what do you make of Alessandro Borgognone bringing Sushi Nakazawa into the Trump DC hotel?
I will never eat in his restaurant. I have utter contempt for him, utter and complete contempt. Just like David Burke — I mean, I never had the highest opinion of him in the first place, but I guess he’s the last person in this life I should look to for principles. Burke went in and took over [the space Jose Andres had originally occupied], and promptly tried to poach his staff, I hear. This was after Jose reached out and said “Everyone welcome him to Washington, don’t hold it against him, just because I decided to pull out.” So Burke’s a steaming loaf of shit, as far as I’m concerned, and feel free to quote me.
It’s not helpful, that sort of thing [opening in a contentious hotel]. I’m not asking you to start putting up barricades now, but when they come and ask you, “Are you with us?” You do have an option. You can say “No thanks, guys. I don’t look good in a brown shirt. Makes me look a little, I don’t know, not great. It’s not slimming.”
So what do you think was going through their heads when they were like, “I’m gonna throw in with the bad guys”?
“I’m gonna get in good with the President and make me some money!” What did Kanye West go to Trump Tower for? Why did Al Gore go? Why did Mitt Romney go?
What would you do if he invited you?
I’m not going. I’m not going.
And I would never go to the White House Correspondents’ dinner — though I doubt there will be another. Thank god, that’s an institution I’d like to see die for years. If there’s one good thing to come out of the Trump administration, let it be that there will be no more White House Correspondents’ dinners. It reinforces all the world’s worst notions about the hideous, inside-the-beltway, all-in-it-together culture. It brings honor to no one to have Kim Kardashian or Tara Reid sitting there next to a news anchor. What is this all about? Fuck that. If I’m gonna make fun of you today, I’m not accepting your food tomorrow. I had dinner with President Obama, but I paid. We were offered Air Force One, and I said, “There’s no way. No way.”
That sounds a lot like journalism.
Yeah! It’s like, “Be my friend, be my special friend.” No, we’re not going to be your special friend. Personally, I have a very low opinion of people who behave this way.
And Trump — the man eats his steak well done! I don’t think he’s a good person. I remember the Central Park Five, and what he said. I’ve seen how he’s treated employees. I saw what he did to Atlantic City. I saw what he did to the west side of this town. It’s fuckin’ ugly. He’s going to make the whole world look like the back of Rick James’ van.
Do you think we just have to sit back and wait for him to do all that, before the people who support him right now will realize it’s terrible?
Yes! Look, I came out of the ‘60s, and I remember very well all the demonstrations and the civil unrest against the Vietnam war. The left likes to remember it one way. I remember that the result is that you get Nixon — twice! By landslides! And we got him even after Watergate. That was the mood of the “real America” that you talk about. I don’t know that streets filled with demonstrators and opposition is a real argument.
Hunter Thompson said, America looks soft but under the flab it’s all fucking titanium steel underbelly, and it’ll come rolling right over you, any time it wants. And look, there are people in this world who have deliberately inspired exactly that kind of opposition, just to give them a reason to roll over it. So I’m not saying we should sit back docilely and silently while Trump dismantles our institutions, and our Supreme Court, and the rights of individuals, as men, as women, as parents — I’m not saying that at all. But we’d better come up with some fresh fuckin’ ideas. And I would think that they’d better be grass roots, and they should keep very much in mind all those people who voted for Trump. Many of whom surely, surely, are decent people who love their kids, and go to sleep at night like all of us wanting good things for their kids, a roof over their heads, some security, to live without fear, a measure of justice, some hope. Anything that doesn’t include that kind of an outreach, that’s not going to help. That’ll be playing into their hands. I lived through the ‘60s. There ain’t gonna be no revolution.
It laid the groundwork for a revolution, though.
Yes, but it failed. Everybody likes to pretend that it succeeded, but it didn’t. Are we any less racist now? Okay, some of the laws have changed. Great. But are we any less racist as a nation? I don’t know. I’m looking for some evidence right now and I don’t see it. If anything, I see that there’s a whole hell of a lot of people out there super pissed off at this “atmosphere of political correctness” that has not allowed them to say all the racist shit that they feel pressured into not being able to say. Apparently this was a very powerful compulsion. It must have been torture for them all these years. And now they can say it.
Political correctness was never law, it was just etiquette.
You know, it’s why they always kill the comedians and the poets first. People can’t stand ridicule. It clearly gets under Trump’s skin — he can’t bear it, it’s really a problem for him. So if you’re looking to do something, I think, you should ridicule him. Not his voters. His cabinet, for sure, and his appointees, but not all at once. Stick with him. Successful agitprop — I mean, look at Gerald Ford. He will always be remembered as this bumbling Chevy Chase, a head injury waiting to happen.
Do you think ridicule is the right form of activism?
There’s right, and then there’s effective. Now, to go all partigiano — tactically and strategically, I think at this point, it’s unsound, this idea that we’re gonna take to the hills. It’s not going to work. It’s going to be a long wait. I think we need outreach, understanding, to look inside yourself and ask, how the fuck did we get here? What did we do wrong? Who did we not convince? Who did we not make a meaningful argument to? And how do we reach them? What is our common ground? How do we bring them over, to understand that this man does not have their interests at heart? How do we make a reasonable argument? To not say that they’re idiots or fools or yokels or any of that shit, but to say look, these guys are not here to help. We’re here to help. Or at least, we’re marginally more likely to.
Do you have a point in your day where you’re on your third cup of coffee and you’re like “Oh, that’s right, we’re on the path to fascism”?
No, I’m not that panicky about it. I don’t know why. I’m clearly not that enthusiastic, or optimistic. But the Nixon reelection was a formative moment for me. We already knew that he didn’t have a secret plan to end the war. Everyone was aware of Watergate. But it didn’t matter. And the opposition, such as it was, had either been successfully dismantled or devolved under its own dead weight and self-indulgence.
But nobody wants to hear some successful Hollywood actor or TV person’s opinion on politics. I certainly don’t. It’s enraging.
And yet, I think a lot of people do.
They’re voting their own way anyway. People do what people do. People do good things and bad things. They do what they think is in their immediate self-interest, and in the interest of their families and loved ones.
This is the thing that shocks me. All of these guys [working with Trump], they’re like the cast of — they were the bad guys in Animal House, all grown up! Every frat movie, every meathead movie, Porky’s, Meatballs, the jocks versus the nerds, the jocks versus the hippies, any dystopian thriller, every film America’s ever done. These are clearly the bad guys!
“Rex Tillerson” is the most evil name. It’s straight out of DC Comics.
I mean, “Reince Priebus”! And Rudy, I mean he looks like he comes out of Powerpuff Girls. He’s absolutely, slaveringly demonic.
Do you think they know they’re evil?
Giuliani does. People have been telling him since the beginning of his career. But I’m sure he knows.
You know, in the run-up to the market on Pier 57, we were talking to some very interested, very, very rich parties — and I mean really rich, multi-billionaires, running somewhere in the 10 or 20 percent range of all commercial real estate in New York. What’s really amazing about them, I noticed, is they have really great skin. These guys are in their 50s, maybe early 60s, and their skin is fantastic. Their pores are really clean. Their grooming is impeccable. They must have their hair cut every two days. And they’ve gotta be exfoliated, or have a whole facial — I mean, the nails! Just the maintenance of the corpus is extraordinary. It’s an evil all its own. Already, you don’t like that guy. Does he have a manservant? He must. A barber, the nails, the French cuffs.
Is it possible to become that wealthy without becoming evil?
What, behind every great fortune there’s a great crime? I think behind every fortune there’s a crime. Behind every even reasonable amount of money, there’s a crime. I’m doing okay, and behind that there’s a crime. Many. If you make any money at all that you hang on to, you fucked somebody, somehow. You disappointed somebody. I’m not saying you betrayed a friend, you cut somebody’s throat, you cheated them out of their share of the deal. I haven’t done those things. But I’ve hurt and disappointed people, on my journey. I’ve hurt and disappointed people.
Capitalism as a series of exploitations.
Well, communism hasn’t worked out so great either. It’s far worse, in my view. I know we’re like, Democracy sucks! But it’s the best thing we’ve got going at the moment. I’ve been to a lot of communist countries, and where they take it seriously it’s a horror, and where it’s a joke, it’s a joke — except for the people who arbitrarily have to take it in the neck.
Do you think people will be watching your show in a different way now?
I have no idea. People watch my show for all sorts of reasons. I like it when I do speaking gigs up in serious farm country, especially in the northern Midwest. People will buy VIP tickets, which are a lot of fuckin’ money, and they’ll stand on line. It’ll be mom, dad, and their teenage son, and they’ve driven two hours, they live on a farm. You can smell the farm on them. And they always call me “Sir.” “Thank you for coming to wherever, Sir.” Relentlessly polite, very dignified, very proud. Smelling of that farm. That loneliness — living, as they’ve told me many times, miles from their neighbors. What do people take away from my show? What they need. What they want.
My ideal viewer would be a guy who isn’t involved at all in politics, who’s not interested in my opinion, who can freely reject me: “Oh that asshole, there he is with that shit again, let’s see. Oh, but that’s pretty, that’s interesting, that might be a place i might go some day, that cheese looks interesting, that looks good.”
That seems like it could serve as a hook to get him to eventually stop disagreeing with what you have to say. He thinks the cheese looks good or the place is pretty and soon — well, it’s a crack in the door.
In the Vietnam show, I asked my friend, who I’ve known for many years, about why she stopped giving tours at the American War Museum. It was a terrible thing to ask because I knew why she left, and I was pretty sure she was going to cry on camera. She gave tours year after year after year, mostly to Americans who would come to be confronted with the damage. I did this terrible thing because I wanted people to see how I felt about her. I really never thought that I want you to feel this way too, but to believe that I feel this way.
Film is so subjective. When I look off a boat, I want people to feel the way that I felt looking off that boat. We try really hard to get people to feel the way I felt. But it’s basically a selfish enterprise. I’m doing my best to create a beautiful object that will work, and my aim is to make you feel the way I felt. It is not for you to go running out the door, calling your congressman. I mean, it would be great if you do. But it would make me feel a little weird.
Anthony Bourdain on Writing, Hangovers, and Finding a Calling
What’s the one adventure, journey, or trip that most changed your life—like before you were famous I would guess?
My first trip to Japan — a couple of years before Kitchen Confidential — was absolutely life-changing. It was like my first acid trip. It was that mind-expanding and climactic. I came back thinking about everything in a completely different way. I went there thinking there were a certain amount of primary colors. I came back knowing, in fact, there were 10 or 12 more. It made me want to do things. It showed me there was so much more in the world than I had any idea about — there was so much to learn and there was so much stuff out there. It just gave me an appetite and drive. Where I was, was suddenly not enough. Whatever happened to me in Tokyo, I wanted more.
What’s the best advice you ever received from anyone? Who gave it? And when?
Show up on time. I learned this from the mentor who I call Bigfoot in Kitchen Confidential. If you didn’t show up 15 minutes exactly before your shift — if you were 13 minutes early — you lost the shift, you were sent home. The second time you were fired. It is the basis of everything. I make all my major decisions on other people based on that. Give the people you work with or deal with or have relationships with the respect to show up at the time you said you were going to. And by that I mean, every day, always and forever. Always be on time. It is a simple demonstration of discipline, good work habits, and most importantly respect for other people. As an employee, it was a hugely important expression of respect, and as an employer, I quickly came to understand that there are two types of people in this world: There are the type of people who are going to live up to what they said they were going to do yesterday, and then there are people who are full of shit. And that’s all you really need to know. If you can’t be bothered to show up, why should anybody show up? It’s just the end of the fucking world.
What have you learned from your drug experiences?
I was a long-time drug addict, and one of the things drug addiction did, especially when you have to score cocaine or heroin every day on the streets of New York — you learn a lot of skills that are useful when dealing with Hollywood or the business world. In a world full of bullshit, when you need something as badly as drugs, your bullshit detector gets pretty acute. Can I trust this guy with money? Is this guy’s package going to be all he says it was? It makes it a lot easier to navigate your way through Hollywood when you find yourself at a table and everybody says, “We’re all big fans of your work.” Well none of you motherfuckers have actually read it. You don’t fall victim to amateur bullshit when you’ve put up with professional bullshit. My bullshit meter is very finely tuned, and you learn to measure your expectations.
What are the benefits of hedonism, and what are the risks?
Look, I understand that inside me there is a greedy, gluttonous, lazy, hippie — you know? I understand that free time is probably my enemy. That if I’m given too much free time to contemplate the mysteries of the universe, I’m afraid of that inner hippie emerging. There’s a guy inside me who wants to lay in bed, and smoke weed all day, and watch cartoons, and old movies. I could easily do that. My whole life is a series of stratagems to avoid, and outwit, that guy. I make sure I commit to projects based on: Will they be interesting? I like to keep momentum going. I’m aware of my appetites, and I don’t let them take charge. It goes back to heroin: If heroin, or delicious delicious food, is the Number One thing on the to-do list every day, there probably won’t be a Number Two thing on your Things To-do list. You know?
What about drinking?
A little perspective is useful. I like to have fun. I do take intense joy in self-indulgence. But I’m honestly pretty disciplined. You see me drink myself stupid on my show all the time. And I have a lot of fun doing that. But I’m not sitting at home having a cocktail. Never, ever. I don’t ever drink in my house. I don’t even drink beer in my house. During summer vacation, maybe I’ll have some beers while I’m grilling in the back yard, because it’s part of the experience. I’m pretty moderate in my vices: When I indulge, I indulge. But I don’t let it bleed over into the rest of my life. I have shit to do, I caught a bunch of lucky breaks, I’m not going to fuck it up. That’s an important lesson to learn. Or at least an important thing that I understood after Kitchen Confidential came out. I was 44. I was uninsured, I was broke, and I was dunking fries into a fast-food fryer. I understood that I got a pretty lucky break here, and that it was statistically unlikely to happen again. I’ve been pretty careful about not fucking up the opportunities that have come since.
When should a man say “No”?
The “don’t fuck up” instinct is much more important than the “I’ve got to keep this going” instinct. People are going to offer you a lot of things, and I always have to ask myself, “Okay. This might be good and profitable today or tomorrow, but will this thing be good for me in a year or in two years when everybody thinks I’m an asshole for having done it?” I was offered a project years ago. It would have been spectacularly profitable franchise. And I went in with my partners, and we met with someone who’s very, very good at this business and would have no doubt made us spectacularly wealthy. We all emerged from the meeting and looked at each other, and I said, “Look, do you want to answer, when the phone rings, do you want to pick it up and have that guy on the other end? Do you want that person in your life? We’ll all be fucking miserable. I don’t want to go on that ride. I want to keep the assholes in my life to an absolute minimum, if not zero.” That’s worth real, real money — to not have assholes in your life.
What advice would you give the younger you?
I wouldn’t have listened. That’s the kind of asshole I was. I would never listen to me — I could show up and tell him exactly what’s happening, you know? I would have gone right ahead and made the same mistakes. I was that kind of person, I would have said, “Fuck it. I don’t care, old man, I’m still taking this ride.” And look — it paid off! All that fucking up seemed to directly get paid off. So I don’t think I’d even want to go back and have that conversation at all.
You’ve had some pretty famous feuds. When should a person start a feud with someone publicly?
I guess my threshold for feud is weird. It’s like, by all means feel free to say you find me just generally repulsive, that you hate me, you hate my work, that you think I’m an asshole. That I’m ugly or stupid or offensive. All of those are completely legitimate areas to criticize me or attack me in public, and I’ll probably shrug my shoulders. Where I get into a feud is if I feel like you’ve lied about me. Or that you’ve willingly misrepresented me in a way I really don’t want to be misrepresented. Or if you’ve misrepresented, or lied about, something I feel very passionate about — like food. If you’re going to have an enemy, it should be someone who you respect. My arch-enemy, Alan Richman who I wrote about having a feud with, we actually get along very, very well now and have snuck out for dinner together on more than one occasion. I feel happy about that. I enjoy having an epic battle, but I can change my opinion about a person, and I respect people who can change their opinions.
Being able to change your mind is a really important trait, isn’t it?
I have an operating principle that I am perfectly willing, if not eager, to believe that I’m completely wrong about everything. I have a tattoo on my arm, that says, in ancient Greek, “I am certain of nothing.” I think that’s a good operating principle. I love showing up to a place thinking it’s going to be one way and having all sorts of stupid preconceptions or prejudices, and then in even a painful and embarrassing way, being proved wrong. I like that. If you can get a little smarter about the world every day, it’s a win. I just came back from Iran, and perfect example: I went in thinking all sorts of things, and man I had every expectation, everything I thought I knew or suspected, turned up-side-down.
Is there a place you turn to time and time again?
Southeast Asia’s constantly inspiring to me and puts things into perspective. I’m a guy who lives in New York. I’m a very busy guy. I would say that I work hard. But — it was only 14 years ago that I was at the tail end of almost 30 years of actually working in a kitchen. And then to go to Southeast Asia, a place I find incredibly beautiful and enchanting, and deeply satisfying in every sense of the word, but you’re constantly confronted with what work really can mean. I love rice country for that reason. Any place where people grow rice. You see people bent at the hip, re-planting rice, eight, 10 hours a day. It puts words like “work” into perspective. You see how people fight to live every day in Congo — you know, it forces you to reevaluate words you thought you knew the meaning of. It just puts your own life and the world you live in, in a larger perspective.
How does a man find his calling? How do you know what you’re doing is right?
I don’t know — you keep at it. I like building things. I like making things. I liked making plates of food. I was a very happy dishwasher. You know, the plates went into the dishwasher dirty and they came out clean every time. And that felt good. I liked making plates of food. There was a sense of accomplishment every time, even if it was the same plate I made a thousand, or 10 thousand, times. It satisfied me. I liked making our episodes of television. How do you find your calling? For me, I like to create things or be part of the creation of things. Whether it’s a comic book, or a book, or a tv show, or a plate of food. If I just laid in bed all day with a big tube feeding me money, I would not be a happy guy. I need to make stuff. I need a fucking job. I think everybody does.
What’s the best cure for a hangover?
Look, you’re screwed in any case, especially the older you get. There’s no escaping it, and they get worse and worse as you get older. The best all-around cure I’ve found — and this is the best-case scenario, meaning, presumably, if you’re going to go out and drink too much, you have made allowances for this on the other end. This is something I learned very early. I mean if I’ve got to wake up and go to meetings tomorrow morning, I’m not getting hammered tonight if I can avoid it. I know — I’ve learned. So the thing is: Schedule. Schedule your hangover. Wake up as soon as you can. A cold Coca-Cola, or Pepsi. Wash down a couple aspirin. Smoke a joint. And the joint will help you to develop an appetite at which point, have some really spicy food. Some spicy leftovers, like — leftover Kung Pao Chicken would be perfect.
What’s the best way to motivate other people?
Make them feel special. Create an esprit de corp, and a feeling that you are an elite, that even if you have the shittiest jobs within a large organization, you should feel proud of the fact that you’re part of something. Recognize excellence. Celebrate weirdness, and innovation. Oddballs should be cherished, if they can do something other people can’t do. But also everybody needs to understand that there are certain absolutes; there is a certain line. That no matter how much I love you — you may be my favorite, but if you show up late, two days in a row, I’m sorry — but you’re going over the side.
How should a man handle his critics?
I got a book review in The New York Times a while back. It wasn’t a particularly good review, it was actually a painfully bad one. But it was well written, it was well-reasoned, it hurt like hell, nothing in it was unfair. I might have disagreed with some of the conclusions. Others, I had to reluctantly — wincingly — agree with, and I just ate it. I curled up in a little ball, recovered and hopefully learned from the experience. I can’t fault them for not liking my work. Especially when it was a well-presented indictment. There are critics that have been unfair, meaning they’ve misrepresented, or they came at something I did with a preconceived notion. And then sort of cherry-picked in order to reach the conclusion that they’d already made. I don’t like it — it hurts, but if you cook food or write books or make television, it’s like the tide — the weight will break on the beach. There is no stopping it. It will come, and then another wave, and then another wave. There’s nothing you can do about it, and there’s no point to railing against it. You’ve just got to toughen up. Learn to swim. I just suck it up. You’re lucky that people give a shit in the first place to even bother to talk about you.
What role does vanity play in a man’s life?
If you’re a writer, particularly if you’re a writer or a storyteller of any kind, there is something already kind of monstrously wrong with you. Let’s face it, it is an unreasonable attitude to look in the mirror in the morning and think, “You know, there are people out there who would really like to hear my story.” You know, “I’m an interesting guy, and I have interesting things to say.” Look, the numbers overwhelmingly disprove that notion. It’s an insane notion. Most writers fail. So the kind of drive — the kind of compulsion to spend a year or two of your life writing a book in the hope that people will buy it, that’s what’s called narcissism. An over-inflated sense of self. It makes a lot of us unpleasant or dysfunctional socially — so there’s that vanity. On the other hand, I’ve been offered a lot of money to do stuff that I turn down. And to be honest, a lot of it wasn’t because I have any integrity, it was because I didn’t want to take a million dollars to represent you know — anti-diarrhea medicine. My vanity would not allow it. Also, vanity saved me from heroin, a lot of people, with what they call, “low self-esteem”, if you look at anyone getting rogered on a dirty couch by Ron Jeremy in the history of film, chances are you’re going to find a self-esteem problem. That’s true with people who have the most trouble getting off hard drugs. When they look in the mirror, they don’t see someone worth saving. I looked in the mirror, and I was very unhappy, and embarrassed by the guy I saw there. And I think that’s what provided me with the will to kick narcotics, because I was too fucking vain to be that guy anymore. That whining, desperate, sick, fucking victim.
Is there a meal that every man should know how to cook?
In an ideal society, everyone over 12 should be able to cook a few basic things reasonably well. They should be able to feed themselves and a few friends, if called to do so, both as a kindness, and as a basic life skill. Everyone should know how to make an omelet. Everyone should know how to roast a chicken, properly, how to grill a steak properly, how to make a basic — very basic — stew or soup, prepare basic vegetables and pasta. After you’ve progressed through 101, the next thing to learn is how to cook a simple pasta pomodoro — I think it would make the world a better place if we all knew how to cook pasta properly. These are all very easy things to do. They require really only the will and some patience to learn through repetition, which is really the way most cooks and chefs learn. As I said in the last book, you know everybody you have sex with for the first time? If you’re going to have sex with someone, you should be willing and able to cook them a fucking omelet in the morning. And a proper one. It’s a nice thing. It would make the world a kinder and gentler place. It’s the least you can do.
How should a man handle regret? And what’s your biggest regret?
Regret is something you’ve got to just live with, you can’t drink it away. You can’t run away from it. You can’t trick yourself out of it. You’ve just got to own it. I’ve disappointed and hurt people in my life, and that’s just something I’m going to have to live with. If you made the basic decision that even in spite of your crimes, you are worth persevering, that it’s worth trying to get good things for yourself, even though you might not deserve them, then you eat that guilt and you live with it. And you own it. You own it for life.
Anthony Bourdain Was the Best White Man
I recently invited friends from America to India and my family showed them the sort of food tour worthy of an Anthony Bourdain production, of the exterior but mostly the interior, to borrow an important distinction made in so many episodes of No Reservations and Parts Unknown, the late TV host’s most famous shows — whether he’s in Iran, or in Maine. Bourdain understood that real life plays out in the home, where people feel comfortable, and where secret recipes come to life. My aunts treated my friends to the same curtain-unveiling, feeding them Jain food and Madhvist food, idlis and chutneys and steamed root vegetables and pickles prepared over the course of hours by a team of household help.
My friends were visiting royalty, as Bourdain clearly is in every household into which he steps, his hosts’ expressions shifting from the hope on the face of the person wired to feel misunderstood — that he approve — to a realization that he’s one of them, that they can chill out because he gets it. He’s not a royal, but a subject of the same tyrannical forces, great at wisecracking about them. With my friends, too, one aunt confessed that she felt relieved about her hosting abilities because these guests weren’t white. In America, their nonwhiteness isn’t always obvious — the one, with parents from Iran; the other, his mother from Malaysia — but to my aunt the code written in them was clear: told in their names, their noses, their coloring. “I just feel they get it,” my aunt said to me as we walked into the street a few paces ahead of them, her tone making me wonder if she’d ever said something similar about me, her American niece, though I feel as Indian as anyone else.
We all know what it is to feel not quite right wherever you are, to look one way and feel another, to be sized up by others based on split-second guesswork — and that was the magnetism of a Bourdain show, that he made the act of living at a time of mass interaction look easy. When Bourdain went to Rajasthan in 2006, I was just leaving college. I hadn’t invited my first white friend to India, didn’t even know a white person who’d been to the country where I lived out every summer of my life since birth.
The episode starts with a shot of the desert that could have been drawn by a Disney animator working off a text that would make Edward Said wince, but pretty soon you knew this wasn’t that kind of a production, because Bourdain was in the frame, sitting on a camel, a grin on his face and a joke out of his mouth about how he was never going to make it anywhere going this slow. Such breaks from protocol made me feel at ease bringing Bourdain to my home — because that’s inevitably how it felt when I watched him engage with brown folks and Indian accents, that he was my guest, my white friend, boyfriend even, in my ultimate fantasies. Simultaneously, he was me, the American niece who feels at home in India. He engaged without fetishizing, touristed with ease, in the way of a person who’s been toggling between identities so long, the act of meeting a stranger from a strange land is the only familiar feeling.
Everybody has a Bourdain story, it seems; and for a lot of nonwhite people in this country, those stories take place in the countries their parents left, and in the American enclaves where they settled. One of the tweets that went viral yesterday, after news of Bourdain’s passing by suicide, was from Jenny Yang, an American comic born in Taiwan and raised in California. “Bourdain never treated our food like he ‘discovered’ it,” Yang wrote. “He kicked it with grandma because he knew that HE was the one that needed to catch up to our brilliance. I wish so much for his legacy to take hold in western (mostly white) food media culture. What a loss. I’m so sad.”
Twenty-eight thousand people and counting retweeted Yang’s tweet, a testament to the strain of alienation that runs through this country, where we are simultaneously in and out, heard and unheard, excited by the white man who finally makes us feel he gets it. I saw the tweet after a friend shared it, herself born in India and transplanted to Dallas some years after my own parents got to Texas and had me. She is a cook now, her aim the subtle but true marriage of all of her influences: Tamilian home cooking, Texas meat culture, hipster locavorism, suburban fast food. I saw her retweet and thought about how Bourdain made his way into all of our homes, talked to all our grandmas.
But the episode I remembered in that moment wasn’t set anywhere with brown people, but in Maine, an episode of No Reservations this same friend insisted we watch soon after it aired. We did, in a barely furnished Austin apartment, windows open from the heat, with the reverence of new priests at the altar. The episode takes Bourdain to Maine under the tutelage of his camera guy, Zach, who’s from the northern state. They hit up fancy establishments in Portland and Zach’s family home, where they eat “mystery” bear and moose meat, found in the freezer the way the rest of us rediscover old Amy’s boxes. But it’s a scene at a traditional bean supper that stays with me, where Bourdain eats off a paper plate with Zach’s home community.
Watching the kids running around the cavernous space lined in long plastic tables, older people seated on their haunches and digging in, I felt I was watching a recasting of my own childhood, of lunches at the DFW Hindu Temple, where dozens, then hundreds, and now thousands of members walk the hot pavement and eat homemade food, commune without saying much, but with the familiarity of family. I saw a country I thought I knew expose itself to me finally, in the safety of its own home. At one of the long tables, Bourdain talks to grandmas, but they’re not from Korea or Vietnam or India — they’re Zach’s, from Maine, and he asks them for stories about Zach. He knows they know more, about a man he spends most of his time with, than he does. Or they know different. Watching that scene years ago, I felt connected at the heart level, the “I’ll show you mine since you showed me yours” level, the “I know you won’t mistake me” level, to white people I didn’t know, for the first time ever. Watching it now, I think Bourdain connected to everyone at the heart level all the time.
“We Know Phonies From a Thousand Miles Away. He Wasn’t One.”
Food writer Gustavo Arellano on why Anthony Bourdain meant so much to marginalized communities.
Anthony Bourdain was one of the few celebrity chefs who used his platform in large part to spotlight marginalized communities. He regularly discussed the rank hypocrisy of the American dependence on backbreaking, low-paying immigrant work that co-existed alongside rampant xenophobia and racism. “The bald fact is that the entire restaurant industry in America would close down overnight, would never recover, if current immigration laws were enforced quickly and thoroughly across the board,” he said in a 2007 interview with the Houston Press.
To understand Bourdain’s relationship to communities of color, I spoke to Gustavo Arellano, author of Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America and of the formerly nationally syndicated column Ask a Mexican.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Rachelle Hampton: What did Bourdain mean to you personally?
Gustavo Arellano: There’s a saying in Spanish: no tener pelos en la lengua. Without hair on his tongue, meaning someone who didn’t hold back. Bourdain was upfront about everything. On an extremely personal note, for him the one group he championed almost more than others were the Latinos in the food industry. By far the most exploited class, from the fields to the slaughterhouses to the lines to the people who are waiters to the people who wash dishes every night, he spoke again and again about their dignity. And not just their dignity, he also trashed anyone who dared to think that Latinos do not deserve to be given a fair shake in the United States.
One of my favorite moments of him was on Twitter. He was at the James Beard awards and he just started tweeting out, and he did it far better and more profane than my paraphrasing, but something to the effect of: Here I am at the James Beard awards. Where are all the Latinos?Latino immigrants make this industry run and I don’t see them in the crowd or being acknowledged, that’s bullshit. You rarely hear a food celebrity of his caliber speaking so eloquently and so angrily about such an important issue. It’s the issue no one ever wants to talk about and Bourdain was the one who made us talk about it, or at least made us uncomfortable with the damn truth.
Do any other specific moments come to mind where he really went to bat for the Latino community and other communities of color?
The Houston episode of Parts Unknown was amazing. Bourdain showed Houston in all its dynamism, its immigrant communities, the African American community, and not only that. What I love about that episode is he really showcased Houston as a model of what America should be: a multicultural city filled with people who get along and respect each other.
Far too often, the big thing in the food world is Columbus-ing. He was definitely not a Columbus-er. He was not someone who said, “Oh I discovered this food.” He was always about: This is who these people are and let’s hear what they have to say, not what I have to say about them. Especially in the food world, that was revolutionary.
I can’t remember the last time I saw so many people of color honestly grieve for a white male figure.
[Laughs] Yes, and we know phonies from a thousand miles away. We know people who try to exploit us and Columbus us and take so much of us and never give back and Bourdain wasn’t one of those people. He stood up for us and championed us before it became cool to do so.
Can you tell me about when you met him and what stands out to you about the man in person?
I appeared on a Parts Unknown episode about Latino Los Angeles, not just Los Angeles but Latino Los Angeles, which to me already was just like, wow this guy really knows his stuff and knows who he’s advocating for. I only spent a couple of hours with him, maybe two and a half hours because we started shooting at 10 and ended at midnight, in this historic part of L.A. called Olvera Street. He was in pain because he had just had a big tattoo, so he was uncomfortable. We went through the filming, then we talked a little bit afterward, but obviously he wanted to go back to his hotel room, so we get up and people realize that Anthony Bourdain is here on Olvera Street so they start coming up to him.
It’s mostly Latino workers getting off of work, or working people waiting for the bus because that’s where his car was, right next to a bus stop. He made his driver wait for a good 20 minutes while he talked to every single person that wanted to talk to him and not just like, oh yeah thank you for your support. He was having conversations. He did not have to do that.
It really speaks to who he is that you were in a working-class neighborhood that’s mostly people of color, and that they knew him. I feel like you couldn’t say that about most people who attend the James Beard awards.
Exactly. That, to me, speaks so much. The whole food world is in tatters over this but so are my cousins who don’t give a shit about James Beard. My mom, who doesn’t speak much English, she knew who Anthony Bourdain was because she would watch his show. There was an affection and genuine love for the common man and woman that really endeared him to that working-class audience. With Bourdain’s death, so many people that I never would’ve expected are in mourning.
What lessons should the food industry take from the way Bourdain interacted with the world?
Humility. I say this as a food critic, what the food industry needs is humility. Far too often we’re obsessed with the new, the trendy, the buzzy, what’s going to make us famous. We haven’t historically cared about stories from marginalized communities unless we could exotify them, and that’s the other thing about Bourdain: Even though he traveled the world, he never once exotified anyone.