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Anthony Bourdain: Out of the Frying Pan…
Trapped by His Own Success. Reviewing Laurie Woolever’s ‘Bourdain: The Definitive Oral Biography’
What happens if the narrative you believe about yourself no longer makes sense, if there’s no way to be the hero in the story you’re telling the world?
Author Will Storr follows the connection between failed stories and suicide in his 2018 book, Selfie: How the West Became Self-Obsessed. Storr’s book came to mind as I recently reflected on Anthony Bourdain, the cynical-but-beloved cook, writer, and television personality who hanged himself that same year while shooting an episode of his popular CNN show, Parts Unknown.
I don’t recall when I first read Kitchen Confidential, Bourdain’s infamous memoir and exposé of restaurant life. It was somewhere between 2005 and 2007. I was reading a lot of books about food and wine at the time—e.g., Lawrence Osborne’s The Accidental Connoisseur, David Kamp’s The United States of Arugula, Bill Buford’s Heat.
Nobody wrote about food like Bourdain. He spilled across the page like a volatile mix of Julia Child, Marco Pierre White, Mick Jagger, and Tony Soprano. Here’s a passage describing his first foodie forays during a childhood trip to France:
Brains? Stinky, runny cheeses that smelled like dead man’s feet? Horsemeat? Sweetbreads? Bring it on!! Whatever had the most shock value became my meal of choice. For the rest of that summer, and in the summers that followed, I ate everything. I scooped gooey Vacherin, learned to love the cheesy, rich Normandy butter, especially slathered on baguettes and dipped in bitter hot chocolate. I sneaked red wine whenever possible, tried fritures—tiny whole fish, fried and eaten with persillade—loving that I was eating heads, eyes, bones and all. I ate ray in beurre noisette, saucisson à l’ail, tripes, rognons de veau (kidneys), boudin noir that squirted blood down my chin.
I bought a new knife based on his advice (“ONE good chef’s knife, as large as is comfortable for your hand”), and I didn’t stop there. When publishing business took me from Nashville to New York, I ate at his restaurant, Les Halles—several times—and I cooked from his Les Halles Cookbook. His singular voice came through even there:
You should really never cook duck breasts more than medium rare. . . . If you must overcook your duck, simply toss in the oven for a few more minutes after searing in the pan. And may God forgive you.
Beyond that, I watched his television shows almost religiously. I caught some episodes of A Cook’s Tour and saw every episode of No Reservations. I followed right along as he went to CNN for Parts Unknown. In all those shows he emerged as one of the most humble, hilarious, and humane personalities in media.
Suffice it to say: I was part of the Cult of Tony, perhaps not as dedicated as some but a serious fan nonetheless. Bourdain made food and food service cool. More than cool: He made it exciting, even rebellious. Thanks to him—and mainly him—being a cook was every bit as renegade as being a biker, a pirate, or a gangster. Wielding that “ONE good chef’s knife” was like knowing how to fight with your fists.
And Bourdain was over it. I don’t mean existentially; that came later. By the time his star finally rose, he was already anxious to ditch the kitchen.
Escaping the Kitchen
Bourdain was fried and trying to escape the grills and ovens by developing his writing career. That’s one of many surprising details to emerge from Laurie Woolever’s Bourdain: The Definitive Oral Biography. Collecting an impressive array of perspectives, Woolever gathered testimonies from more than ninety family members, friends, colleagues, and others who lived and worked alongside Bourdain. Woolever herself worked with Bourdain for nearly a decade.
Her book begins in the beginning: family, home, school, and the rest. Curious and clever, Bourdain was wildly smart but not one for school. He ended up following his girlfriend Nancy to college but didn’t last. He more or less wandered into food service. The job gave him tremendous freedom. He could tan all day and work all evening. If he got tired or fired, he could simply find a new gig. He cycled through several kitchens before landing his most famous and final job with an apron: Les Halles.
But as time dragged on reality pressed down. His earning potential was more or less capped. The work became stifling and oppressive. And it pulled him away from the one thing he really wanted to do: write. He could run a kitchen in his sleep, but he dreamed of getting out.
Journalist Patrick Radden Keefe, who profiled Bourdain for the New Yorker, remembered both the myth and the reality: “All he ever wanted was to be a chef. . . . He really made it sound as though he wasn’t hustling all that time to get out of the kitchen.” And fellow New York chef, Scott Bryan, recalled, “I think Tony saw himself as more of a writer than a chef.”
The stirrings were there from the beginning. In the early eighties he submitted comics and other pieces to a little literary magazine, Between C & D, published by Joel Rose. Bourdain enrolled in a creative writing course in 1985. “He just wanted to be a writer in the worst way,” recalled Rose. “I think he dreamed of being a crime novelist.”
Compulsive writing overtook another compulsion—drugs, especially heroin—and allowed him to drop his habit cold turkey. Getting clean isolated him from former friends, but writing gave him a focus, a driving ambition.
He eventually wrote two crime novels, Bone in the Throat (1995) and Gone Bamboo (1997). They never amounted to much. Still, he soldiered on. The keyboard was his lifeline. He’d work all night in the kitchen, sleep a little, then get up early to write. “He was a fiend,” said one college friend. “Such was my lust to see my name in print,” Bourdain explained at the time.
The big break came in 1999. That’s when he got the book deal for Kitchen Confidential and the New Yorker ran his essay, “Don’t Eat Before Reading This,” which explained among other things why diners should never order fish on Mondays. The effect was immediate, sensational, and left readers ravenous for more.
“You’ll never know the consequences of getting what you want until you get what you want,” he told a colleague as his star began to rise. The statement’s more ominous aspects proved prophetic in hindsight.
A Cook’s Tour followed Kitchen Confidential and launched him onto television screens with a companion Food Network cable series, following Bourdain as he ate his way around the world: Japan, Cambodia, Scotland, Morocco, Mexico, Russia, Portugal, and many other destinations. He scoured everyplace he stopped for the most authentic eating experiences he could find. And that childhood glee in gustatory extremes played well on TV. In Vietnam he famously tossed back a beating cobra’s heart like an oyster.
There were limits to what he could accomplish at Food Network and so he moved to the Travel Channel for a new show, No Reservations. Awards followed. After nine successful seasons, he jumped to CNN for Parts Unknown where more awards awaited, including a Peabody.
The Success Trap
At first he eagerly courted the fame. “It’s all about fame maintenance,” Bourdain told fellow author and cook Michael Ruhlman. “Stay public!” someone advised him early on. “Promote, promote, promote, or it all dies.” Between television, lecture tours, and whatever else, he was on the road more than two hundred days a year, every year. And he couldn’t stop.
The demands of fame so repelled his wife Nancy they later divorced. When he married again, his constant traveling undermined that relationship as well. It also wore him down. It might strike some as a petty complaint, but he was never free from fans. Walking to the market by his apartment was like running a gauntlet. He was good to his fans—he’d stop, smile, and take a picture—but he could hardly breathe.
Then the work itself changed. Back in his restaurant days, there was adventure in pulling together the right crew who could weather whatever challenges and turn out a perfect service. They managed the rushes, cooked masterfully, and stayed out of the weeds. Television provided the same camaraderie—only instead of cooks on the line, it was cameramen, editors, and the rest.
But his reputation grew and expectations for the show ballooned. Shoots became more complicated, the work more taxing. He tended to stay back in the hotel and wait for his part of the action. That meant he was increasingly isolated as the seasons progressed.
It all showed up in his mood. Whereas he was once jocular and ebullient, he became increasingly grouchy and weary as the years dragged on. His production partners looked for ways of easing his burden. But the protection and pampering tended to amplify the isolation. When they tried to create a new and easier show with CBS, he bowed out because of the ratings pressure and instead reupped for three more years of Parts Unknown.
If you’re looking for a quote that tells the whole Bourdain story—beyond his own line about consequences—it’s this bit from cook and television personality Nigella Lawson, captured by Woolever:
Success is a great force for conservatism, because it’s quite hard to break out of what you do to do something else. . . . And I think that, for a restless person, that’s a constraint.
Bourdain was nothing if not restless.
No Satisfying End
Several of Woolever’s interviewees referred to Bourdain’s addictive personality. He traded heroin for obsessive work: writing, speaking, traveling. Work alienated him from his second wife, Ottavia Busia. How, after all, do you sustain a relationship when one person is gone two thirds of the year? How do you sustain the life you built in their absence when they return for a period and want you to stop everything?
After things cooled with Busia, Bourdain began a new relationship with filmmaker Asia Argento. He was infatuated—like a teenage boy, some recalled—while his friends were a bit more wary. It’s easy to say he should have paid more attention to their reluctance, but he didn’t.
He enthusiastically joined Argento’s #MeToo effort against producer Harvey Weinstein, only to encounter potential embarrassment when Argento faced an accuser of her own. She disrupted his friendships and his work—urging him in one case to fire a longtime crew member with little justification. The coup de grâce came when an Italian tabloid featured “romantically suggestive photos” of Argento with a journalist.
He felt depleted, isolated, now betrayed. What was the escape plan for this mess?
It’s impossible to identify what exactly might lead someone to end their life. There are too many variables, some forever subterranean. But amid all the tragic, poignant, and humorous memories shared in Woolever’s book, I kept returning to Will Storr’s thesis: Suicide happens when stories go wrong.
When a person can’t imagine a satisfying end, they scrap the draft. A writer like Bourdain would have intuitively understood that thesis, perhaps too well. Thanks to Woolever’s efforts, however, the rest of us at least have working notes of his life to that point. Along the way come lessons I wish he’d lived long enough to learn.
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