Anthony Bourdain: pot washer who made the big time

Anthony Bourdain
Bourdain: the Hunter S Thompson of the kitchen

Anthony Bourdain was the bad boy of the restaurant trade who wanted to eat his way to world peace.

“Tony had been in a dark mood these past couple of days,” said Anthony Bourdain’s mother, reported in The New York Times. But she had no idea why her son might have decided to kill himself. “He had everything,” she said. “Success beyond his wildest dreams. Money beyond his wildest dreams.” Bourdain died earlier this month at the age of 61.

The celebrity chef and writer had come a long way from his first job washing dishes at a restaurant in Provincetown, Cape Cod. He spent more than two decades in professional kitchens, moving on from the sink to cooking in high-end Manhattan restaurants. The “second act” of his life began when he sent an unsolicited article to The New Yorker about the dark side of his trade. They accepted it. Book deals and globetrotting TV shows followed. At the age of 44 Bourdain had barely left town. By 61, he had seen almost every country on earth.

The new rock ‘n’ roll

His breakthrough book, Kitchen Confidential, was written between shifts, says The Economist, and all the dirty secrets came out. Uneaten bread sent out to the next table. Leftover butter strained of fag ash and used for hollandaise. He praised foie gras; cursed vegetarians. People loved it. He floated an idea for a TV show: “going to cool places, eating great food, while they paid”. They bought it.

To an audience still expecting “stand and stir” cookery shows, Bourdain was a revelation, says Tim Hayward in The Guardian. His programmes were “part rockumentary, part combat footage”. He “stalked the screen in boilermaker sunglasses” looking like “a gaunt, smashed Joe Strummer”. It was brilliant.

Bourdain is often compared to Hunter S Thompson. He got through his early days in the kitchen “crunching aspirins like sweets”, and used heroin for seven years “just because it was the most dangerous drug in the room”, says The Economist. Kitchen Confidential was the original handbook for “toxic masculinity in the kitchen, glorifying the kind of behaviour that has been the secret shame of the food industry for decades”, says Hayward.
But Bourdain was in later life horrified that his book might have contributed in any way to a culture of abuse and was a vocal supporter of the Me Too movement, as well as of other charitable endeavours. On one trip to the Middle East, says The Economist, he wondered aloud whether the world’s problems couldn’t all be solved if people just sat down, without fear, and ate together.

He disdained the view that the body is a temple and used his instead as an amusement park. That ride must come to an end, but along the way, he found joy in simple pleasures. “I was a shy, goofy, awkward teenager,” he told The Guardian. But in the blue-collar environment of that first kitchen, “there was no blurred line, no grey area”, nothing to fret over. “Dishes had to go in the washer and come out taintless and doing this swiftly and competently meant I was acknowledged as a human being by colleagues I wanted to be like. The day they promoted me to dunking fries I was overjoyed.”