Over the last decade, the culinary arts have become something of a spectator sport. Cooking on television was once the province of daytime chat shows geared toward homemakers with a focus on simplicity, but the last ten years have seen a proliferation of programs dedicated to revealing the secrets of great chefs who cook in small kitchens for customers paying hundreds of dollars per table. Cooking on TV has become an escape; we watch people make wondrous creations that delight all the senses but that we, in all likelihood, will never experience ourselves. From Netflix’s “Chef’s Table” to Fox’s “Master Chef Junior,” consumers seek out radiant plating, molecular technique, and elevated fare.
Anthony Bourdain was not above all that; indeed, he sought out anyone who was doing something different in the professional space he cherished. But that was not what made his work on television and print exciting. His passion for cuisine was most infectious when he found himself marveling at the flavor profile of skewered mystery meat cooked over an open flame on a street corner in Ho Chi Minh City. On his Travel Channel program “No Reservations” and its successor, CNN’s “Parts Unknown,” Bourdain revealed a culinary universe of marvels not just a world away, but right under the viewers’ nose. His sojourns to the barrios of Miami, Bergen County in New Jersey, Brooklyn, and South Carolina were among his most compelling. He did not make a fetish of the new. He reveled in tradition and understood the value of heritage. He shined a spotlight on places and people that time and fashion had forgotten, and he made these marvelous artifacts present again in the lives of millions.
Anthony Bourdain’s mind was truly unique, and he was a talented writer. His first book, Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly, reads with the ease of fiction and is similarly compelling because the story and characters that populate its pages are vivid, accessible, and illuminating. It’s the story of a young and, in many ways, troubled man who found purpose and camaraderie in the grueling summer kitchens that fed lobsters to tourists on the shores of New England.
From 30,000 feet, it’s a familiar tale of the small town boy who made good. Bourdain describes his experience graduating from his humble origins and overcoming an addiction to drugs and alcohol to study at the Culinary Institute of American and, eventually, to serve as an executive chef in Brasserie Les Halles in Manhattan’s Rose Hill neighborhood. The beauty of that book is, though, that it is not a story about food. It is a story of people about whom a book should, by rights, never have been written: the remarkable, rough-around-the-edges personalities who populate America’s kitchens and whose company we’ve all had the pleasure of enjoying, if only in passing, but whose stories we know little about. Maybe we never bothered to ask.
And that was Bourdain’s true gift. It was not his experience as a chef that made him such a special presence in a media landscape increasingly glutted with talented and vivacious chefs. His outlook and his skill as an interviewer made him so unique. He was sardonic, but not bleak; worldly, but not pretentious; enquiring, but not interrogating. He could be funny and philosophical as the situation demanded. He confessed in Kitchen Confidential that his meandering career path was the product of his general indiscipline, but it’s no stretch to say that the world is a better place today because Anthony Bourdain didn’t spend his 20s chasing money (though he surely tried). No trepidatious, career-minded chef could have thrown himself with such fearlessness into cultures and situations, both strange and familiar, as he did.
Anthony Bourdain lost a battle with depression today at the age of 61. But the demons with which he struggled, the conflicts he generously shared with us on screen and in print, did not win in the end. Bourdain spent his life trespassing and taking others with him on that fraught journey. He was more than a chef or a travel show host; he exulted in the fleeting moments and marginal details that often go unnoticed but that make up the majority of a life. He made his career showing others how to live fully. And that’s a fine legacy.