I am certain of nothing. Bourdain had that tattooed on his arm. It was an honest self-assessment. But it was, in his case, also a mission statement. “It’s what makes travel what it is, an endless learning curve, the joy of being wrong, of being confused ” he once said.
It’s that curiosity he brought to his critically acclaimed and award-winning shows. Food was just a vehicle. Sure, he searched for a great meal but got an even better story. He was called a lot of things, bad boy celebrity chef, the Hunter S. Thompson of the Kitchen, etc., but when it came down to it, as a friend recalled, he was a badass with the heart of a poet. A unique storyteller who could shoot guns with Ted Nugent in Texas or have dinner with President Obama in Vietnam. He was a journalist for sure, but he preferred essayist.
Either way, there was nothing like him on the beat. No Reservations, 24 Hour Layover, and Parts Unknown featured food and travel, but there was so much more than that. He brought a gonzo approach to his work, becoming part of the story. Whether traveling to a city, village, or country, he would immerse himself, lay his finger down, and pick up the pulse. One episode might find him in Paris, Denver the following. There were some truly dangerous excursions too, Myanmar, Libya, Iran, and Gaza. Doubt you’ll find Guy Fieri hanging in those locales anytime soon.
Rock and Roll was always a constant. He often name-checked songs in his narration or chose musicians as guides to find off the beaten path food joints. During his final episode of Parts Unknown (one dedicated to Berlin) there was an entire segment on David Bowie, his years in the city, and the effect it had on his music.
He was a Vassar dropout, eventually attending the Culinary Institute Of America. From there it was the wild ride into the dark underbelly of food nation and the book that captured it all, Kitchen Confidential. Originally thought to have not much appeal outside the restaurant world, it became a best seller. Bourdain called the book “twenty-five years of sex, drugs, bad behavior and haute cuisine.”. I personally did a short stint at a St. Louis restaurant and years working at a nightclub in Illinois…it’s all true.
Here’s an excerpt:
“There will be horror stories. Heavy drinking, drugs, screwing in the dry-goods area, unappetizing revelations about bad food-handling and unsavory industry-wide practices. Talking about . . . why those who favor well-done get the scrapings from the bottom of the barrel, and why seafood frittata is not a wise brunch selection won’t make me any more popular with potential future employers. My naked contempt for vegetarians, sauce-on-siders, the “lactose-intolerant” and the cooking of the Ewok-like Emeril Lagasse is not going to get me my own show on the Food Network.”
And that last line, telling. When it came to his peers, Bourdain didn’t suffer fools gladly. His feuds were legendary. Rachael Ray: A bobblehead freakazoid who couldn’t cook. Sandra Lee: Pure evil and the “hellspawn of Betty Crocker and Charles Manson”. Guy Fieri: Called his Times Square restaurant a “terror dome,” gleefully ripped on the dude’s love of Nickelback, and claimed you’d get Fieri’s clone “if Ed Hardy fucked a Juggalo. Paula Deen:”The worst, most dangerous person to America…She revels in unholy connections with evil corporations and she’s proud of the fact that her food is fucking bad for you. Plus, her food sucks.” And when asked what he would serve at the Trump/Kim summit, “Hemlock”.
Obscenely eloquent, unapologetically opinionated.
But underneath it all, friends have said that he was a kind man with a big heart. The formula for his shows were simple, ask people what they like to cook and you’ll get some astonishing answers. Answers that often went beyond food. He made the unfamiliar known and in turn, made the world a little smaller. Less hostile. Amazing things can happen over a plate of good food. You watched, listened, learned. Something we desperately need more of.
“Your body is not a temple, it’s an amusement park. Enjoy the ride.”
― Anthony Bourdain