The Insatiable and Unknowable Anthony Bourdain
June 8, 2018
Anthony Bourdain devoured the world. That’s not hyperbole. It’s not even metaphor. There was no place that he wasn’t curious to explore, no food that he wasn’t determined to try, no cap on his hunger and no ceiling, or so it always seemed, on his joy.
In his writing and especially on his TV shows, most recently CNN’s “Parts Unknown,” he exhorted the rest of us to follow his lead and open our eyes and our guts to the wondrous smorgasbord of life. He insisted that we savor every last morsel of it.
It turns out that he himself could not. Bourdain, 61, was found dead on Friday in a hotel room near Strasbourg, France, where he was shooting an episode of that CNN show. The cause, according to the network, was suicide.
His death ends a blazing career that contributed as much as anybody else’s to Americans’ increased fascination with, and knowledge about, food in all its multiethnic splendor. If we’re savvier to the ways of banh mi, bo ssam and dim sum than we were two decades ago, we have Bourdain in large measure to thank. With television cameras in tow, he showed us Asia, Australia, Africa — and he tasted all of them for us.
But his death, coming just days after the suicide of the beloved designer Kate Spade, is at least as noteworthy for another reason: how powerfully it speaks to the discrepancy between what we see of people on the outside and what they’re experiencing on the inside; between their public faces and their private realities; between their visible swagger and invisible pain. Parts unknown: That was true of Bourdain. That was true of Spade. That’s true of every one of us.
Bourdain’s and Spade’s deaths happened in a week when newly released government statistics revealed a staggering increase in suicides by Americans of more than 25 percent from 1999 to 2016, when nearly 45,000 Americans took their own lives. Experts worry that this trajectory reflects a breakdown in social bonds, in community. It’s unclear how or if Bourdain and Spade fit into that picture.
But they certainly reflect the faultiness of our assumptions, the deceptiveness of appearances and the complexities of the soul. On Friday morning, as I took call after call from friends who work in the restaurant and food industry, I again and again heard variations of this statement: “This is the last person I would have expected.”
They were acquainted with Bourdain and knew him as the embodiment of wit, smarts and cool. I was acquainted with Bourdain and knew him to be the same way.
One of my first bits of business after I was chosen to be The Times’s new restaurant critic in 2004 was to reread his best-selling book “Kitchen Confidential,” about his culinary coming of age, including his ribald, randy years as the executive chef of Brasserie Les Halles in Manhattan.
One of my perks after leaving that job in 2009 was to be invited by Bourdain to join him on a show that he was doing for the Travel Channel, “No Reservations.” I met him in downtown Manhattan one afternoon at the chef Daniel Boulud’s former restaurant DBGB, and we drank beer and ate an array of sausages on camera. He sauntered away afterward with a bounce in his step. I poured myself into a taxi and went home to nap for two hours.
We also quipped, or at least he did. He had few rivals when it came to spontaneous verbal dexterity, which I experienced firsthand as well when I interviewed him onstage in late 2009 as part of the TimesTalks series.
He wasn’t just funny; he was fearless, to go by his words. “Vegetarians are the enemy of everything good and decent in the human spirit,” he wrote in “Kitchen Confidential,” and that was gentle in comparison with how, in the same paragraph, he described vegans. He called them vegetarians’ “Hezbollah-like splinter faction.”
His attitude about eating was captured in another of his riffs. “Your body is not a temple,” he said. “It’s an amusement park. Enjoy the ride.” He seemed to.
“He had this fire,” my friend Sarah Rosenberg said when we spoke on Friday morning, trying to make sense of it all. She’s a former producer for ABC News who once showcased Bourdain in a segment, and she now owns a restaurant marketing and publicity firm. “And he was this pied piper,” she added. “You wanted to follow him. You wanted to listen to him.”
I suspect that many people wanted to be him, just as many wanted to be Spade.
Spade’s image, as conveyed through her signature handbags and other designs, wove together threads of whimsy, optimism and merry mischief. She was color. She was brightness.
Bourdain’s image, as conveyed through his epicurean odysseys, combined flavors of daring, irreverence and supreme confidence. He was appetite incarnate. He was wanderlust with a lavishly stamped passport and an impish, irresistible grin.
“If I am an advocate for anything, it is to move,” he once mused. “As far as you can, as much as you can. Across the ocean, or simply across the river. Walk in someone else’s shoes or at least eat their food. It’s a plus for everybody.”
How that expansive and inclusive outlook — which was less about the pleasures of the table than about the glory of humanity — didn’t buoy him is a puzzle. He had a romantic partner for the last few years, the actress and director Asia Argento, whom he obviously adored — and whose cause he took up during the #MeToo movement. He had an 11-year-old daughter whom he loved.
And he had so many meals, strange and sumptuous, ahead of him. We’d do his memory justice to relish the ones on our plates.
If you are having thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (TALK) or go to SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources for a list of additional resources. Here’s what you can do when a loved one is severely depressed.