Anthony Bourdain, the writer, chef, television host, and outspoken food and media personality, died early Friday morning. He was 61. CNN, the network that airs Bourdain’s show Parts Unknown, confirms the cause of death was suicide.
Bourdain rose to fame in 2000 with his best-selling book Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly, a memoir of his time as a chef that established his reputation as the bad-boy rock star of the food world. From there, he moved on to host the Food Network’s A Cook’s Tour, then the Travel Channel’s Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations, and finally CNN’s Parts Unknown, for which he won five Emmys and a Peabody Award.
In a New Yorker profile last year, Bourdain described most of his shows as, simply, “I travel around the world, eat a lot of shit, and basically do whatever the fuck I want.” It would be easy to hate Bourdain for the fantastical life he lived, the profile concluded, “if he weren’t so easy to like.”
“I have the best job in the world,” Bourdain said. “If I’m unhappy, it’s a failure of imagination.”
In the same New Yorker profile, Bourdain said he was uncomfortable with the idea that his shows had any journalistic merit — “I would be bullshitting you if I said I was on some mission. I’m not,” he insisted — but although he used food as a way to introduce his audience to global culture, he also used it to raise awareness of serious global humanitarian issues.
Bourdain frequently used his position to draw attention to political issues and humanitarian conflict
In 2006, while Bourdain was filming an episode of his Travel Channel show No Reservations in Beirut, armed conflict broke out between Lebanon and Israel. Bourdain’s crew was stranded after Israel attacked the Beirut airport. Bourdain made the decision to continue filming the episode, turning a food show into a moving example of on-the-ground reporting.
“Where once I believed that the meal was a leveling experience, a thing that could make a difference, that over food and drink in some small way people could make a difference ... I’m not so sure anymore” he said in an interview with the Washington Post about the experience. “It seems now that whatever we eat, however proud we may be, good and bad alike are crushed under the same wheel. Obviously, I’m feeling a little pessimistic about the world these days.”
Ultimately, however, the experience seemed to galvanize him to use food as a lens through which to explore politics. On Parts Unknown, his jaunts across the US included a deep dive into the politics of coal mining and the Second Amendment in West Virginia, and a look at heroin addiction in Massachusetts. Over the course of Parts Unknown, Bourdain would travel to Armenia, Libya, Gaza, and the Democratic Republic of Congo to show people eating and living their lives in the midst of violence. Food, he maintained, is political, and his shows made the argument that by learning how people in ignored and marginalized parts of the world eat, we could see that fundamentally, we are all the same.
Bourdain was also increasingly attuned to power struggles in the workplace — a trait that made him a vocal ally of his partner, Asia Argento, during the Harvey Weinstein scandal. In October, he publicly second-guessed his role in perpetuating what he called the “institutionalized meathead culture” of the food industry. Speaking at the Culinary Institute of America in December, he spoke about toxic kitchen culture and cautioned against perpetuating workplace environment that enabled abuse, hazing, and harassment.
Bourdain blended his love of food with his other cultural obsessions
A less well-known side of Bourdain’s life involved his love of film, comics, and geek culture. A self-described “super nerdy fanboy,” he was a comics collector as a child and a lifelong fan of the medium.
In 2012 he co-wrote with Joel Rose a best-selling graphic novel with Vertigo, Get Jiro!, which was a loose cross-homage of famous sushi chefs and Japanese mobster tropes. A prequel, Get Jiro: Blood and Sushi, followed in 2015. When interviewed, Bourdain could name-drop a dizzying array of cultural influences that went into these works, from Ridley Scott to obscure manga. Rose and Bourdain teamed up again this year for a recently announced horror comics anthology, Hungry Ghosts, forthcoming from Dark Horse in fall 2018. The anthology was inspired by the legendary Japanese samurai game 100 candles.
Bourdain had high standards for himself as well as the media he consumed. Those high standards also filtered into his filmmaking; as the New Yorker profile noted, he emphasized authenticity in filming and never staged scenes. His latest episode of Parts Unknown, set in Hong Kong and directed by Argento, is a loving homage to Wong Kar-wai films, which wound up being spontaneously filmed by legendary cinematographer and frequent Wong collaborator Christopher Doyle.
This method of seamlessly blending reality and fiction in his productions seemed to come naturally to Bourdain. Take his description of the environment of a high-intensity kitchen in his famous 1999 essay for the New Yorker on the joys of working in meat-loving restaurants. “Line cooking, done well, is a dance,” he wrote, “a highspeed, Balanchine collaboration.”
Above all, Bourdain relished the opportunity for real connection that happened over food during these moments around the world — and he conveyed that to his audience in ways that felt all the more meaningful for his attempts to ensure realism and authenticity.
“We spent hours eating and drinking and talking about a shared affection for a ‘dirtier,’ more natural, more reactive shooting style,” Bourdain wrote only last week about his trip to Hong Kong, “all while sitting in Hong Kong’s dai pai dongs. These casual, open-air food stalls represent the way the city used to eat. ... Pull up a plastic stool, crack a beer and fire up the wok.”
CNN will air the Hong Kong episode of Parts Unknown, as well as other recent episodes, throughout the weekend.