Anthony Bourdain, Renegade Chef Who Showed the World How to ‘Eat Without Fear,’ Is Dead at 61
Posted June 8, 2018 10:52 p.m. EDT
Updated June 8, 2018 10:56 p.m. EDT
Anthony Bourdain, whose darkly funny memoir about life in New York City restaurant kitchens made him a celebrity chef and touched off his second career as a journalist, food expert and social activist, was found dead Friday in his hotel room in France. He was 61.
His death was being treated as a suicide. Christian de Rocquigny du Fayel, the prosecutor for the city of Colmar, in the Alsace region near where Bourdain was found, said the death was by hanging. “At this stage, we have no reason to suspect foul play,” he said.
Bourdain’s lasting work was not in U.S. kitchens; it was on television, where he ate noodles in Hanoi with President Barack Obama, sucked on soft-boiled turtle eggs at a market stall in Colombia, and stopped to appreciate handmade spring rolls in Cambodia en route to interview a member of the opposition government.
In his 2000 memoir, “Kitchen Confidential,” Bourdain introduced a profane, aggressively truthful voice that translated effortlessly to the screen, where he proved he would eat anything, go anywhere and say anything on camera. His early public persona — the macho, unrepentant, drug-loving chef — evolved into that of a clear-eyed crusader for global food justice.
Recently, Bourdain had emerged as a leading male voice in support of the #MeToo movement, in the wake of rape and abuse allegations against film producer Harvey Weinstein. Bourdain’s girlfriend, Italian actress Asia Argento, has accused Weinstein of attacking her.
Bourdain had traveled to the Alsace region, near France’s border with Germany, with a television production crew to record an episode of “Parts Unknown,” CNN said. “It is with extraordinary sadness we can confirm the death of our friend and colleague,” the network said in a statement.
His mother, Gladys Bourdain, who was a longtime editor at The New York Times, said she had no indication that Bourdain might have been thinking of suicide. “He is absolutely the last person in the world I would have ever dreamed would do something like this,” she said.
Eric Ripert, a celebrity chef and restaurateur who appeared with Bourdain on several of his shows, found him “unresponsive,” CNN reported. Bourdain was staying at Le Chambard, a luxury hotel in the village of Kaysersberg.
“Anthony was a dear friend,” Ripert said in a statement. “He was an exceptional human being, so inspiring and generous. One of the great storytellers of our time who connected with so many. I wish him peace.”
Gladys Bourdain said Ripert had told her that “Tony had been in a dark mood these past couple of days.” She said she had no idea why he might have decided to kill himself. “He had everything,” she said. “Success beyond his wildest dreams. Money beyond his wildest dreams.”
‘Try Everything Once’
Bourdain spent more than two decades in professional kitchens, first shucking oysters and washing dishes in a Cape Cod seafood shack and later cooking in high-end Manhattan kitchens, before accepting a friend’s offer to fly him to Mexico if he agreed to write a novel.
It was the start of his second act.
He wrote two novels while working as an executive chef at Brasserie Les Halles before sending an unsolicited article to The New Yorker about the dark side of the restaurant world and its deceptions.
To his surprise, the magazine accepted it and ran it. The article was adapted into the book “Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly,” a memoir that elevated Bourdain to a celebrity chef and brought him a new career on TV.
“Do we really want to travel in hermetically sealed popemobiles through the rural provinces of France, Mexico and the Far East, eating only in Hard Rock Cafes and McDonalds?” Bourdain wrote in the memoir. “Or do we want to eat without fear, tearing into the local stew, the humble taqueria’s mystery meat, the sincerely offered gift of a lightly grilled fish head? I know what I want. I want it all. I want to try everything once.”
Bourdain became an instant hero to a certain breed of professional cook and restaurantgoer when “Kitchen Confidential” hit the best-seller lists in 2000. He is largely credited with defining an era of line cooks as warriors, exposing a culture in which drugs, drinking and long, brutal hours on the line in professional kitchens were both a badge of honor and a curse. Bourdain was open in his writing about his past addictions to heroin and cocaine. “Kitchen Confidential” has sold more than 1 million copies in paperback and remains the defining memoir in the field. “His prose voice was instant and unmistakable,” said Daniel Halpern, the HarperCollins editor who became Bourdain’s friend, fellow eater and literary collaborator. “You can read out any sentence and know instantly who wrote it.”
In 2011, Bourdain, an omnivorous reader, began his own publishing imprint at HarperCollins, editing books by chefs Roy Choi, Wylie Dufresne and Danny Bowien that were as unconventional as his own.
Before he joined CNN in 2012, he spent eight seasons as the host of “No Reservations” on the Travel Channel, highlighting obscure cuisine and unknown restaurants. “No Reservations” largely focused on food and Bourdain himself. But on “Parts Unknown,” he turned the lens around, delving into different countries around the world and the people who lived in them. He explored politics and history with locals, often over plates of food and drinks.
Bourdain famously appeared with Obama on an episode of “Parts Unknown” in Vietnam in 2016. Over grilled pork, noodles and beers at a restaurant in Hanoi, they discussed Vietnamese-American relations, Obama’s final months in office and fatherhood.
“'Low plastic stool, cheap but delicious noodles, cold Hanoi beer.’ This is how I’ll remember Tony,” Obama wrote in a Twitter post Friday. “He taught us about food — but more importantly, about its ability to bring us together. To make us a little less afraid of the unknown.”
Bourdain had been dating Argento. “Anthony gave all of himself in everything that he did,” Argento wrote Friday on Twitter. “His brilliant, fearless spirit touched and inspired so many, and his generosity knew no bounds. He was my love, my rock, my protector. I am beyond devastated.”
On Friday, people placed flowers and letters on the front door of the long-shuttered Les Halles on Park Avenue South, and celebrities in the food and entertainment worlds expressed shock and disbelief.
Andrew Zimmern, the TV personality and chef, had much in common with Bourdain. The two met 13 years ago and became friends. They often spoke of the pressures that come with fame, and both worked to overcome addiction.
“We shared a very, very deep feeling of wanting to get off this crazy roller coaster, but at the same time knowing that this was our work,” Zimmern said. “When I did see him, he and I would walk off into a corner or have dinner together and share our deepest, darkest stuff.” Ruth Reichl, the longtime editor of Gourmet and a former restaurant critic for The New York Times, called Bourdain an editor’s dream. “He was professional. He was funny. He was always willing to rewrite,” she said. Especially during his early years as a food writer, he could be awkward and withdrawn, she said.
“Behind that swagger, there was always that tortured shy guy.”
A Life in Kitchens
Anthony Michael Bourdain was born June 25, 1956, in New York and grew up in Leonia, New Jersey. His father, Pierre Bourdain, whose parents were born in France, was an executive in the classical-music recording industry.
Anthony Bourdain first became conscious of food in fourth grade, he wrote in “Kitchen Confidential.” Aboard the Queen Mary on a family trip to France, he ate a bowl of vichyssoise, a basic potato-leek soup that held the delightful surprise of being cold. “It was the first food I enjoyed and, more important, remembered enjoying,” he wrote.
Bourdain graduated from high school in 1973 and followed his high school love, Nancy Putkoski, who would become his first wife, to Vassar College, where he spent long nights drinking and smoking marijuana. He dropped out after two years. “I was — to be frank — a spoiled, miserable, narcissistic, self-destructing and thoughtless young lout,” he wrote in “Kitchen Confidential.”
Bourdain spent a summer working as a dishwasher at a clam shack in Provincetown, Massachusetts. The experience solidified his determination to make cooking his life’s work. “I saw how the cooks and chefs behaved,” Bourdain told The Times in 1997. “They had sort of a swagger, got all the girls and drank everything in sight.”
He enrolled at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, in 1975, graduated in 1978, and worked his way up the kitchen hierarchy in New York City, with stops at restaurants like the Rainbow Room, One Fifth Avenue and Sullivan’s, all of them now long-shuttered. In the 1990s, when he was at the helm of the two Les Halles restaurants in Manhattan, the dining rooms were jammed nightly. Affordable but atmospheric French steakhouses modeled on the Paris bistro, they reflected Bourdain’s proud renunciation of culinary creativity.
Unlike many famous chefs who came after him, Bourdain was not particularly determined to put his own stamp on American cooking, and has rarely been cited as a culinary influence by other chefs. But his respect for tradition and minute attention to detail meant that his escargots were buttery and pungent with garlic and parsley, that his fragrant coq au vin was actually made from old birds meant for stewing, that the bearnaise sauce was made to order for each sizzling steak that came out of his kitchen.
While traveling the world for his television shows, Bourdain began charting a return to the New York food scene. In 2015, he unveiled an ambitious plan called Bourdain Market — 100 retail and wholesale food vendors he would gather from around the world to sell their wares at a pier on the Hudson River. But the plan did not come together, and it was called off in December.
Bourdain’s first marriage ended in divorce in 2005. In 2007, he married Ottavia Busia, and they had a daughter, Ariane, now 11. The marriage ended in divorce in 2016. At his death he had been dating Argento for about two years.
Argento, 42, said in a lengthy article in The New Yorker that she had endured multiple attacks and manipulation by Weinstein and that he had sexually assaulted her in a hotel room years ago, when she was 21. Last month in France, she gave a speech during the Cannes Film Festival that stunned the room. “In 1997, I was raped by Harvey Weinstein here at Cannes,” Argento said. “This festival was his hunting ground.”
In an interview with IndieWire this month, Bourdain called her speech a nuclear bomb.
“I was so proud of her,” he said. “It was absolutely fearless to walk right into the lion’s den and say what she said, the way she said it.”
Bourdain continued speaking out boldly on the subject of sexual abuse and harassment, taking on everyone from Alec Baldwin to chef Mario Batali, who is under investigation by the New York police; several women have said Batali sexually assaulted them. When news of Batali’s plans to attempt a comeback came to light, Bourdain kicked down the idea. In December, Bourdain wrote about how the #MeToo movement had shaped his perspective and said he had “real remorse” that the culture described in “Kitchen Confidential” may have contributed to the abuse of women.
“Right now, nothing else matters but women’s stories of what it’s like in the industry I have loved and celebrated for nearly 30 years,” he wrote, “and our willingness, as human beings, citizens, men and women alike, to hear them out, fully, and in a way that other women can feel secure enough and have faith enough that they, too, can tell their stories.”
Bourdain never stopped marveling at the unlikeliness of his own success. “I should’ve died in my 20s. I became successful in my 40s. I became a dad in my 50s,” he said in a 2016 interview. “I feel like I’ve stolen a car — a really nice car — and I keep looking in the rearview mirror for flashing lights.”