Since chef, writer, and television star Anthony Bourdain’s suicide in June 2018, colleagues and friends have struggled to understand the reasons for his death and to define his legacy. Two recent projects—a film from acclaimed documentarian Morgan Neville (Best of Enemies, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?) and an oral history edited by Bourdain’s longtime assistant, Laurie Woolever—search for the real Bourdain. Their efforts reveal a man both more and less admirable than the one we thought we knew.
Bourdain was witty, striking, and unconventional, and he had a tremendous work ethic. (Imagine a drug addict who was never late for work; that was the young Tony Bourdain.) Even so, the source of his success is difficult to pin down, because it’s hard to say what exceptional talent he possessed. The book that launched him at 43, Kitchen Confidential (2000), was vivid and original, but most of his writing had a larkish or catchpenny quality: two culinary crime novels; another memoir; two cookbooks. He always thought of himself as a writer, but he died at 61 never having written the kind of serious book to which he aspired. It was our good fortune that his restlessness took him away from his desk and to bistros, noodle joints, and hotel bars across five continents.
His two longest-running shows, No Reservations (The Travel Channel, 2005–2012) and Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown (CNN, 2013–2018) were travel documentaries that pushed beyond cultural and visual clichés. Bourdain romanticized travel, but he also recorded its moments of exhaustion and dysphoria. Whatever Bourdain’s mood was, it always got through the camera; he would have rebuked editing designed to make him more affable or telegenic. This was his offbeat charisma: a reluctant performer, craving respect but wary of attention, he seemed both easy to like and somewhat unknowable. To his admirers, he was a symbol of integrity in a corrupt world.
Both shows were putatively about food, but as the seasons passed, Bourdain ate less and less and moved politics and culture to the center. He seemed determined always to thwart expectations. A cinéaste who disdained television, he was not anchored to what had come before and was determined not to repeat it. “I would rather make bad television than competent television,” he said. Like Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling, Bourdain struggled against the medium, ridiculed it, transformed it, and owed his immense success to it. Neither could outrun it.