From Journeyman Cook to a Culinary Sage Who Served Up Unsavory Truths

Posted June 8, 2018 8:52 p.m. EDT
Updated June 8, 2018 8:54 p.m. EDT

Anthony Bourdain entered the literary stage with an inside tip, delivered in the gruff whisper of a racetrack tout: Don’t order fish on Mondays.

It was the part that everybody remembered from his first published work, a long essay about the unglamorous and sometimes unsavory work of cooks and dishwashers that ran in The New Yorker in 1999 and that made it almost impossible for waiters to sell seafood between Sunday and Tuesday for at least a decade.

And the advice gave Bourdain, a journeyman cook and chef nobody had heard of, a new career. He was the witty, connected guide who, in memoirs, cookbooks and television shows, would tell you things that others wouldn’t.

Bourdain was found dead Friday in his hotel room in Kaysersberg, France; local authorities said that the cause of death was by hanging, and that no foul play was suspected. He was 61.

In the glossy, cheerful, relentlessly promotional realms of food and travel writing, that left him a fair number of truths he could claim as his own, and he took full advantage of the situation.

A close reader of Orwell, he modeled that first essay and the book that grew out of it, “Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly,” on Orwell’s “Down and Out in Paris and London.” While other restaurant writers had helped build the cult of the creative, artistic chef, Bourdain made folk heroes out of the dishwasher and the line cook — a job description previously known only to restaurant employees. He described their lives and their day-to-day work in concrete, indelible detail.

When kitchens were being wrapped in a shimmering gauze of glamour, Bourdain got busy unwrapping them, revealing the injuries and addictions, low wages and high tempers that took a toll on workers.

Among other things, he was one of the first writers to tell the dining public that many high-profile New York restaurants would cease to function without the work and talents of Mexican employees. It was almost a casual aside, yet it suddenly opened new subjects to the purview of food writing: immigration policy, labor conditions, racism.

He identified with the grunts, portraying himself as a slinger of cheap steaks and French fries. The grunts, in turn, identified with him, not because of his contributions as a chef — who can name an Anthony Bourdain dish? — but because he told the world what the work was really like. And once he left kitchens behind for a career in travel television, he didn’t lead his camera crews on a tour of the world’s most luxurious resorts. He went to Detroit and the Bronx, Libya and Beirut.

“Good food, good eating, is all about blood and organs, cruelty and decay,” he wrote in the opening sentence of that New Yorker piece, and it set the tone for all the work that followed.

Bourdain was a blood-and-organs kind of guy, and he became identified with his unflinching, at times ostentatious, descriptions of life, death, sex and digestion. Footage of fly-speckled goats’ heads in open-air markets was to his travel shows what harbor sunsets were for other programs.

Although he wasn’t immune to hyperbole, he had an old-school chain-smoking newspaper editor’s hatred of self-serving hypocrisy, particularly in other television hosts. He delighted in mocking celebrity chefs like Guy Fieri (whose Times Square restaurant he called “the Terrordome”) and Paula Deen (“the worst, most dangerous person to America”).

At times Bourdain’s capacity as truth-teller could bleed into other, less salutary roles: the attention-seeking bully, the purveyor of well-polished shtick, the lecture-circuit fixture who, on cue, would curse like a line cook who has just chopped off the tip of his finger.

“I do a lot of speaking engagements and sometimes I feel like I’m being paid to curse in front of people who haven’t heard it in a while,” he said in a 2008 interview.

In the past few months, as accusations of sexual harassment and predatory behavior have shaken the restaurant industry, Bourdain’s swaggering accounts of kitchen life have come in for re-evaluation. He certainly took pleasure in telling outsiders what it was like. Was there some pride in there, too, in belonging to a band of misfits and rule-breakers? Had he helped to popularize a workplace culture in which misogyny and abuse were overlooked, tolerated and sometimes even celebrated?

“To the extent which my work in ‘Kitchen Confidential’ celebrated or prolonged a culture that allowed the kind of grotesque behaviors we’re hearing about all too frequently is something I think about daily, with real remorse,” he wrote on Medium in December.

Having regularly heaped disgust and outrage on Harvey Weinstein (who was accused of rape by Asia Argento, Bourdain’s partner), he was also confronted with serious and deeply unsettling allegations about Mario Batali, a friend. “In these current circumstances, one must pick a side,” Bourdain wrote. “I stand unhesitatingly and unwaveringly with the women.”

But if the feminist perspective was relatively new to his repertory, speaking out about sexual abuse was not. Long ago, in “Kitchen Confidential,” he had written about a union shop steward who had inserted his fingers into Bourdain’s rectum every day, in front of the other kitchen workers. Experiences like this may be common for male cooks, but they are not commonly discussed in public.

Bourdain was too unsettled, his moral compass too twitchy, to have written an account of kitchen life that was purely celebratory or purely accusatory.

“Life is complicated. It’s filled with nuance. It’s unsatisfying,” he once said. “If I believe in anything, it is doubt.”