Remembering Bourdain

Content Warning: this post includes references to suicide.

Anthony Bourdain took his own life a little over three years ago, prompting me to write a teary reflection of this man who I had never met. In this post I reflected on what Bourdain meant to me, a single face in the crowd of fans. I pointed to his apparent success in the middle age of life and beyond and to the spirit of warmth and humanity that seemed to emanate from this acerbic man even when purveyors of hate seemed to be winning.

Anthony Bourdain had the capacity for all of these things, to be sure, but I was eulogizing Tony the TV character.

Retrospectives about Anthony Bourdain’s life have started to emerge this year. Morgan Neville’s documentary Roadrunner dropped first in July, followed by Laurie Woolever’s Bourdain: The Definitive Oral Biography in September, and Tom Vitale’s memoir In the Weeds in early October.

While I have not read Woolever’s volume, the other two pieces, both of which I consumed last weekend, paint a more complicated picture.

Tom Vitale started in the editing room on A Cook’s Tour, Bourdain’s first TV show, before working his way on to the road crew and ultimately directing more than a hundred episodes of Parts Unknown, including some of the most challenging ones in Libya and the Congo. His memoir takes readers on the road and behind the camera of the shows while also grappling with his feelings about Bourdain’s death, something that happened while one of the other two crews was overseeing the shoot.

Tony was a big believer in failing gloriously in an attempt to do something interesting, rather than succeeding at being mediocre.

Tom’s story is not the glorious eternal vacation that made it to television. For one thing, every hour of television required dozens of hours of painstaking filming, most of it with Tony Bourdain nowhere in sight, to say nothing of arguing with accountants, fixers, and editors. And looming over the entire enterprise, driving it to ever greater heights was an agoraphobic, camera-shy, obsessive star. More than once Tom resolves that he simply cannot take the strain of working for him.

I don’t think I realized just how spoiled I was to work on a show where quality not only came first, but it was also pretty much the only concern.

Behind the scenes, Tom describes, Tony was a different person than the witty and eloquent person who made it on screen. He was still charismatic, but he was also mercurial and manipulative. He was showed a different side of his personality to each person, as though he instinctively knew what it would take to get the best work out of everyone. The face he showed Tom was, it seems, crueler than the one he showed others. Their relationship was combative. Tom prodded Tony to speak. Once, in Borneo, Tony attacked him. He wonders at several points whether Bourdain actually liked him.

(He ultimately concludes that, yes, he did.)

Inevitably, the story comes around to Bourdain’s suicide. The last episode they filmed together, in Bali, concluded with a funeral and Tom reflects on how both of their emotional states had frayed precipitously over the past few seasons, leading him to ask whether there was more that he could have done.

“These are some of the things I look back on that are signs that I should have seen… I think that so many things in his life were like a drug. You were like a drug to him. If somebody overdoses on a drug, do you blame the drug or do you blame the junkie?”

In a memorable scene, he also addresses the rumors about Asia Argento…by going to Italy, getting drunk with her, and asking her directly whether she caused Tony’s death. Ultimately, though, he lands on a simpler solution. Tony was an addict for whom down-time amounted to giving in to his thoughts, to his demons.

I’d learned that the truth was he couldn’t rest. Tony always needed a distraction, a project, a problem to solve. And, for better or worse, the show provided that in spades.

In the Weeds gave me a new appreciation of Anthony Bourdain. Tom’s boss — and coworker and friend — was more human than the man who appeared on television and I found the fits of anger, the fits of insecurity, and the evident exhaustion from not being able to stop all-too relatable. Likewise in how Tony, a famously verbose person, was better able to apologize with actions than with words. This is not a flattering picture, but it is a fitting one.

At the same time, what makes this memoir so good is how this different portrait of Tony Bourdain is balanced against stories from the road that allow me to look at these shows I love so much with new eyes. I have been watching the Jamaica episode that features prominently in the memoir to test this while writing this post and it is remarkable how different it is, from small tics in conversation to how often Tony is noticeably alone in front of the camera.

By contrast, Roadrunner offers a synthetic, impressionistic interpretation of Anthony Bourdain that splices together extant video with reminiscences of the people who knew and worked with him, including Tom Vitale.

(The film also includes a brief deep-fake that I probably wouldn’t have caught had I not known about the controversy in advance, but doing something so potentially scandalous for so little return seems unwise.)

The film proceeds in rough chronological order from his bursting onto the scene with Kitchen Confidential to international stardom, and then death. This structure allows for one of the best things about the show, which was to watch Tony’s evolution from a patently inept star in the earliest film from A Cook’s Tour to the confident host of the polished show Parts Unknown. However, there is another way one might describe the structure of Roadrunner: before television, the evolving television star, and after Asia.

If one of the most moving parts of the film was the outpouring of grief from the people who loved him, I found the topic of Asia Argento, who did not appear in the film, to be a sticking point.

Roadrunner reaches many of the same conclusions as In the Weeds, highlighting how Tony was an addict who threw himself into whatever his passion was and noting that Asia (as well as her fight against Harvey Weinstein) was the latest addiction. However, the film also gives voice to a number of crew members who worked on the Hong Kong episode of Parts Unknown and exhibit a hostility toward her that Ton Vitale simply didn’t have. The result is that the film seems to blame her without explicitly doing so.

It is hard to say what I would have thought about Roadrunner had I not first read Tom Vitale’s In the Weeds. The film has its powerful moments, but it was also limited by so relentlessly placing Tony front and center while both acknowledging and brushing aside that this was not where he wanted to be. As a result, I found the memoir both less flattering and more satisfying as a tribute to both Anthony Bourdain and the vision of the world he helped create.

Kitchen Confidential

A friend of mine has a story about a particular show he saw at a bar in Austin. At one point during the performance, the singer explained to the audience that the world was divided into day people and night people. The crowd cheered the night people, obviously (and probably intentionally) believing that singer was praising them, the people who went out and enjoyed the night while the “day people” slept.

In fact, the night people were the performers, bartenders, and kitchen staff who made the going out possible.

Rereading Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential in anticipation that I will soon get to see the new documentary Roadrunner reminded me of this anecdote.

The closest I came to being one of the night people was the period immediately after college when I spent a year managing a quick-service restaurant that closed at 9 PM. I parlayed that employment into a part-time position as an “assistant manager” at another franchise of the same restaurant for the first two years of graduate school, a time when I usually went from the closing shift to either Starbucks to do my homework, the Applebees bar down the street from where I lived to drink beer and watch sports, or, sometimes, the Applebees bar to drink beer and do my homework.

That is to say, I was never really one of the night people.

At best, I was night-people-adjacent. I got to know some of the repetition that comes with the weekly orders, the tedium of making the exactly same food in the exact same way day after day, and got pretty good at breaking down a kitchen at the end of the day, but my trajectory in life even in that first year was going in another direction.

My only glimpses of the other side of that life came on trips back to Boston when a friend in the industry invited me into the off-duty experience.

Kitchen Confidential is, basically, the distillation of Tony Bourdain’s public persona. This is the cocky, swaggering, observant, and surprisingly sentimental chef who went on to develop No Reservations and Parts Unknown. I have no memory of my first introduction to this person, let alone whether I knew him through the TV show or through the book first, but I had been a fan for about a decade at the time of his passing in 2018. Tony changed over the years, but he is recognizably there in this memoir first published in 2000.

At the time of the first publication Tony Bourdain was the executive chef at Brasserie Les Halles, a French steakhouse in New York City who had published several culinary mystery novels that had more or less flopped. He kept writing, though, and this memoir developed out of an article titled “Don’t Eat Before Reading This” that he placed in the New Yorker.

The book, like the memoir that came out of it, promised to take readers into the greasy and messy kitchens of the restaurants where the American diner was eating.

But, in many ways, Kitchen Confidential is a conventional memoir, just ostensibly organized like a multi-course meal. Bourdain takes the reader back to his childhood when a trip to France ignited a life-long obsession with food and to his teenaged years when his rebellious streak led him to summers on Cape Cod where he launched himself into the chaos of the kitchen. He details how he dropped out of college and attended the Culinary Institute of America at a time when the standards weren’t exactly high and then to the run of jobs at which he progressed further into serious heroin addiction.

Despite writing a memoir from the perch at Les Halles, Bourdain positions himself as an outsider taking shots at the establishment and confidently declaring that the great Eric Ripert would never deign meet him (they became close friends and Bourdain besieging Ripert’s delicate palette with Sichuan chilis is one of the best episodes of Parts Unknown). The contradiction comes because Les Halles was not at the pinnacle of the food scene and Bourdain’s story was one of frequent, repeated failure. Celebrated chefs might put in their dues, but they weren’t supposed to be leaving a train of sunk restaurants in their wake or spend time making brunch years into their career.

And yet, this trail of wreckage and failure allows Bourdain to give a face to the lurid stories from the back of the house, to lend weight to the hard-won lessons, and to point out some ugly truths about the restaurant industry. You might not like what you see, but they aren’t going to get you sick. Probably. It just also isn’t going to be quite as fresh as it could be.

The food scene has changed significantly since Kitchen Confidential came out in 2000. Antony Bourdain had a hand in those changes, too, given that his shows introduced audiences—and possibly even Tony—to a wide range of cuisines. The No Reservations episode on Istanbul from 2010, for instance, has him say that he doesn’t know anything about Turkish food several times and he at one point refers to the local flatbread as “like a tortilla.” There has also been a proliferation of celebrity chefs and shows like Top Chef have steered away from a universal (mostly French) vision of culinary excellence.

A lot of what Bourdain talks about is still relevant, of course—the hours, lessons about running a kitchen, tricks of the trade, that (illegal) immigrants make up the backbone of the restaurant industry—but Kitchen Confidential is also a snapshot of that industry in the 1980s and 1990s through one very particular experience. Bourdain’s kitchens were a riot of chaos and disorder and testosterone that created an atmosphere that was not uncommon, but neither was it exactly the rule.

By the last years of his life, Bourdain was reflective on how his memoir given license to men who sexually harassed women in the kitchen. Reading Kitchen Confidential now, it is easy to see why he was concerned. He sexualizes food by his own admission and the book seems to condone all sorts of bad behavior. He mentions a couple of times women who can stand up to the men in the kitchen, for instance, and certainly he doesn’t seem to hold anyone to account. At least, this is true if Kitchen Confidential is read as a simple celebration of being a chef and not first and foremost a memoir of a junkie who obsessed over food and experiences with the same abandon as he did drugs. The latter caused him to hit rock bottom, but the former remained with him for the rest of his life.

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Between recent hours spent on the road and furiously trying to get my classes ready for the fall semester, I have managed to plow through a bunch of books I have not written about, including Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends, Lisa See’s The Island of Sea Women, Kelly Baker’s great memoir Grace Period, and Helene Wecker’s The Golem and the Jinni. I intend to write about some of these books at least, and have some thoughts about Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, but I’m already starting to feel sped up so it may or may not happen.

I am now reading two books, James Lang’s Distracted, which examines attention in the classroom, and Zen Cho’s Sorceror to the Crown, which I will likely write about in conjunction with H.G. Parry’s A Declaration of the Rights of Magicians because they have radically divergent approaches to inserting magic into a historical story and I like Cho’s approach significantly better.