Anthony Bourdain and The Enigma of Cool
Since chef, writer, and television star Anthony Bourdain’s suicide in June 2018, colleagues and friends have struggled to understand the reasons for his death and to define his legacy. Two recent projects—a film from acclaimed documentarian Morgan Neville (Best of Enemies, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?) and an oral history edited by Bourdain’s longtime assistant, Laurie Woolever—search for the real Bourdain. Their efforts reveal a man both more and less admirable than the one we thought we knew.
Bourdain was witty, striking, and unconventional, and he had a tremendous work ethic. (Imagine a drug addict who was never late for work; that was the young Tony Bourdain.) Even so, the source of his success is difficult to pin down, because it’s hard to say what exceptional talent he possessed. The book that launched him at 43, Kitchen Confidential (2000), was vivid and original, but most of his writing had a larkish or catchpenny quality: two culinary crime novels; another memoir; two cookbooks. He always thought of himself as a writer, but he died at 61 never having written the kind of serious book to which he aspired. It was our good fortune that his restlessness took him away from his desk and to bistros, noodle joints, and hotel bars across five continents.
His two longest-running shows, No Reservations (The Travel Channel, 2005–2012) and Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown (CNN, 2013–2018) were travel documentaries that pushed beyond cultural and visual clichés. Bourdain romanticized travel, but he also recorded its moments of exhaustion and dysphoria. Whatever Bourdain’s mood was, it always got through the camera; he would have rebuked editing designed to make him more affable or telegenic. This was his offbeat charisma: a reluctant performer, craving respect but wary of attention, he seemed both easy to like and somewhat unknowable. To his admirers, he was a symbol of integrity in a corrupt world.
Both shows were putatively about food, but as the seasons passed, Bourdain ate less and less and moved politics and culture to the center. He seemed determined always to thwart expectations. A cinéaste who disdained television, he was not anchored to what had come before and was determined not to repeat it. “I would rather make bad television than competent television,” he said. Like Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling, Bourdain struggled against the medium, ridiculed it, transformed it, and owed his immense success to it. Neither could outrun it.
Woolever’s Bourdain: The Definitive Oral History fills in the chef’s early years. He grew up in New Jersey in a faintly bohemian family of reasonable means. His father was a music executive, his mother a copy editor at the New York Times. Disdainful of convention, with a suburban teenager’s appetite for cool, Bourdain was a rebel from the start, and by his mid-twenties, having made it to Manhattan via Vassar and the Culinary Institute of America, he was using heroin and crack cocaine.
Bourdain expressed countercultural values that, while perhaps vague, were at least not fraudulent. His anti-materialism was real and contributed to his making uncommonly interesting television because he was prepared to walk away from the money if his creative wishes were not honored. He was always sardonic about fame, and unless he could use it to advance the causes he favored, it largely bored him.
Against the grain of Bourdain’s postmortem sanctification, Neville’s documentary, Roadrunner, focuses at some length on the less appealing aspects of his character. Outsize ego and attenuating self-doubt were mythically joined in Bourdain’s psyche. He was conspicuously generous to other creative people whose work he admired but impatient with colleagues whose work fell short of his ideal. He occasionally fell short of decency, as when he fired his longtime cinematographer, Zach Zamboni—one of the people most responsible for the look and feel of No Reservations and Parts Unknown—on a slender pretext. Likewise, he coldly dropped many of the friends he had made before Kitchen Confidential changed his life.
Roadrunner also offers a somewhat unfashionable perspective on suicide—that it is a narcissistic gesture, at least in some cases, and to that extent morally blameworthy. Bourdain courted death from early adulthood with his drug abuse, and the number of references in his writings and interviews, not just to suicide in general but to the specific method he eventually used, tends to refute the consoling idea that he made an impulsive decision. (A lifelong substance abuser, he died sober.) The powerful stigma that attached to suicide for centuries has been weakened; whereas once it was said that someone “committed suicide,” the preferred locution now is to say that they “died by suicide,” which removes agency and therefore culpability. Roadrunner gives Bourdain’s survivors the opportunity to express the disappointment and betrayal that coexist with their love and admiration for him.
In the last two years of his life, having parted with his second wife, Bourdain had an intense relationship with the Italian actress and filmmaker Asia Argento. Bourdain’s suicide followed closely the publication of tabloid photos showing Argento out in Rome with another man. Roadrunner makes a villain of Argento, a woman of volatile temperament and almost supernatural sexual charisma. Both Neville’s documentary and Woolever’s biography give a powerful negative impression of her as a manipulative narcissist. Even so, the temptation to hold her responsible for Bourdain’s death should be resisted. It was Bourdain who ultimately made her a dramatis persona in his personal tragedy and not the other way around.
The location of the shoot was probably less important to the success of any given episode of No Reservations or Parts Unknown than was Bourdain’s mood, which ranged from enthralled or ecstatic to bored and irritable. An episode filmed in Sicily, seemingly a natural Bourdain setting, was a notorious failure, while Iran, a place of daunting reputation, proved a lovely surprise. Though deeply self-involved, Bourdain was most fulfilled when the lens was pointed somewhere else. As his fame grew, his instinct was more and more to try to look beyond himself.
The Philippines episode, shot during Christmas 2015, was Parts Unknown at its best. The show opens with a voiceover essay dedicated to the millions of Filipinos who must leave their families to find sustaining work abroad. Bourdain interviews the members of a young Manila cover band, drawing out their dreams of overseas stardom without condescension. A tiny matriarch, Aurora Medina, who herself spent 30 years working in the U.S. as a nanny before coming home to coastal Pasay City, serves a large, informal meal for Bourdain and the rest of her guests. Bourdain reads a letter from the American child Medina raised, who has grown up to become an executive producer on Parts Unknown; he says that he is the man he is today because she raised him. In a tremulous voice, she sings “Edelweiss” from The Sound of Music, whose lyrics seem to commemorate both those selfless years (“Blossom of snow may you bloom and grow/bloom and grow forever”) and her feeling for the home to which she finally returned (“Bless my homeland forever”). As she sings, the camera moves from face to face as the guests struggle to contain their emotions. In this moment, the show courts sentimentality, but the scene is immensely moving. Bourdain and his producers took risks like this again and again. And when these shows came together, they were like nothing else on television.
A 2015 episode shot in Miami ends with Bourdain standing on the beach at dusk with musician Iggy Pop. The sun is setting; the beach chairs have been stacked. Pop, once an avatar of punk rock at its most anarchic, has at last achieved peace in this azure paradise. “I think this last phase of my life has been a reward for stuff I did up to the age of 30,” Pop says, “stuff you had to do on instinct rather than intelligence.” Bourdain confesses his own stubborn ambivalence. “I think you deserve it,” he tells Pop. “But when I look at my own life—I’m still not so sure.” Nonetheless, the show ends on a crescendo. Over Pop’s rousing anthem, “The Passenger,” Bourdain sums up: “I guess that’s what it comes down to. All of it led here. I write a book, I get a TV show, I get to meet my hero. Two old men on a beach.”
Alas, Bourdain didn’t have his happy ending. Three years later, he was gone.