Maverick chef who eschewed convention to become a star
Steely bravado was his suit of armour but it couldn't save Bourdain from enemy within, writes Tim Carman
Tall, tattooed and quick with a barbed comment, Anthony Bourdain, who died on Friday at the age of 61, loved to project his steeliness out into the world, as if nothing could ever penetrate the invisible armour he wore with such bravado. He was a cool, tough guy, a refugee of brutal, high-volume Francophile kitchens, and he often carried himself as such. He loved to mock the kind of people who ate tofu skewers and listened to Mumford & Sons.
But Tony - I'm sorry, but I've known him long enough that I only feel comfortable calling him Tony in this personal context - was more complicated than his public persona would lead you to believe.
I wasn't a friend to Tony, but he was always friendly to me. We had a few conversations over the years. We traded emails regularly. He once asked me to appear on his show as tour guide, back when he was on the Travel Channel. He knew me well enough that he could tell me when I was full of it.
Yet even if we weren't drinking buddies, I soon became one more journalist who studied the life of Tony Bourdain. I watched his shows. I pored over his books (even the dashed-off collections like The Nasty Bits, which sometimes read like half-formed sketches penned after one too many shots). And I revelled in the fights he would pick on Twitter. He was a force of nature, a man who read extensively and was not afraid to pummel people with his knowledge. He was endlessly curious, a fact reinforced through his cable shows, which ventured to the farthest corners of the world for something good to eat.
I don't want to say that Tony's outward-facing persona was just a show. It wasn't. He was a thrill seeker, a former heroin addict who ditched the drugs and discovered that travel could be just as addictive. He was also hard on people, full stop. But that wasn't the full extent of him. Tony, I frequently thought, was a romantic trapped in a punk's body. He was not a nihilist. When he loved things, he loved them with abandon: he discovered a passion for French oysters as a boy. As an adult, he became a serious fan of mapo tofu from Sichuan Province. He arguably adored Vietnamese cuisine above all.
His love of Vietnamese cooking, in fact, came sharply into focus in 2008 when I took Tony and his crew to the Eden Center in Falls Church, Virginia, for the Washington episode of "No Reservations," which aired the following year. As we toured the delis and restaurants of the shopping mall, Vietnamese expats and their children started to magically appear on the sidewalks, eager to get a glimpse of the man and maybe, possibly, to persuade Tony to appear in a photo with them. (This was way before everyone had smartphones, too.) To them, Tony was a Western confirmation of what they already knew: their food rocked.
I fully expected Tony to politely brush them off. He had the perfect excuse: we were filming and had a tight production deadline to meet, with other stops scheduled that day. But he didn't. He stopped for them all. He posed for pictures. He shook hands. He wore his celebrity status so lightly that it almost blew off in the breeze of production.
I realised then that there was a fundamental humanity about Tony, this affection and compassion for people that he did not exhibit often. I suspect he learned long ago that people could abuse and exploit such vulnerability; his rise to superstardom would have only hardened his resolve to keep these finer qualities under wraps. Before I ever met Tony - before I became a food writer, in fact - I had read Kitchen Confidential, the memoir that made Anthony Bourdain a household name. It was published nearly 20 years ago, and it laid bare the unseemly underbelly of the culinary world, at least in the mid-level kitchens where Tony washed dishes and, later, flipped pans. He wrote about the knives, the fire, the violence, the drugs, the sex, the machismo.
If you've never read Kitchen Confidential, you should. As the son of a mother who was a copy editor at The New York Times and a father who was a classical music executive for Columbia Records, Tony came to the writing project with a clear understanding of style and prose. Bourdain's essay, "Don't Eat Before Reading This," which would evolve into the full KC memoir, was originally published in The New Yorker after editor David Remnick found himself "entertained by and riveted by" the piece. Kitchen Confidential became the blueprint for many food writers, mostly male, who came after Tony. Few, if any, were as talented (save perhaps for Josh Ozersky, another bright light now extinguished).
But when the #MeToo movement marched into the restaurant industry last year, sweeping up Tony's friend Mario Batali in the process, Kitchen Confidential took on a more sinister persona: in some circles, the book was seen as an early glamorisation of the savage kitchen - the hotheaded chef who belittles the staff and assumes women are readily available for a quickie in the back alley after the dinner rush.
Tony clearly struggled with his part in romanticising what he described as the male meathead culture of restaurant kitchens.
In December, he wrote a mea culpa for Medium, which included this confession: "To the extent which my work in Kitchen Confidential celebrated or prolonged a culture that allowed the kind of grotesque behaviours we're hearing about all too frequently is something I think about daily, with real remorse."
But the day before that short essay was published, I traded emails with Tony, offering my own thoughts on some of the forces driving the bad behaviour in kitchens. I theorised that many of these men are emotionally stunted, unable to process their fears and extreme stress except through the most grotesque behaviours. He wasn't buying it.
He, after all, had his own in-house mentor on the subject of detestable men and sexual harassment: his girlfriend was actress Asia Argento, who told The New Yorker last year that the Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein had raped her.
"Some men are just pigs," he emailed back. "Fame and power allows them to be bigger more dangerous pigs."
This was classic Tony. He had a strong sense of right and wrong, as defined only by him. When he thought others had strayed from the right path - it might be food writer Alan Richman or it might be President Trump - Tony could level the most withering criticism, the kind that made for widescreen, surround-sound Schadenfreude. The thing is, Tony could turn that critical eye on himself as well, if he felt he had strayed off course. His contrition over the book that made him a star is Exhibit A through Z.
I don't know where Tony's apparent suicide falls on that moral compass. I know it pains me to think that Tony's body was found in a hotel room by chef Eric Ripert, his closest friend on Earth. When you're in serious pain, I suspect you don't think about things like that.
Tony lived 61 years, and I have to think the invisible armour around him largely did its job. It protected him from a public always demanding more. But, today, I realise that armour failed to protect Tony from the cruellest force: the enemy within. It makes me unbelievably upset to write these words. I guess I was fooled, too: I thought he was invincible.
Tim Carman is a food reporter at 'The Washington Post'