Anthony Bourdain was a working chef in New York City. His dream was to be a writer like his hero George Orwell. He took a writing workshop with famed editor Gordon Lish and then wrote two food-based mystery novels (Bone in the Throat and Gone Bamboo). Random House published the books and both received poor reviews. Bourdain financed his own literary tour but the books sold poorly and his writing career was stillborn.
Bourdain was 42. He was a recovering addict heavily in debt with a history of cooking at failed restaurants. In 1998, he became executive chef at Brasserie Les Halles, a French restaurant in Manhattan. He was beginning to accept his lot in life. A chef’s life wasn’t so bad. He’d probably never travel like he wanted but at least he was working and still alive after years of alcohol and heroin abuse.
In 1999, he wrote a short article about the underside of the restaurant industry. His intended audience included the bus boys and line cooks he worked with. He titled the piece “Don’t Eat Before Reading This.” He shopped the article to magazines and alternative newspapers (including Russ Smith’s New York Press). No one seemed interested. Bourdain later told reporters he submitted the article to the New Yorker “on a drunken whim.” The truth was a bit different.
David Remnick had recently become editor of The New Yorker. Remnick’s wife Esther Fein was a reporter at The New York Times. Bourdain’s mother Gladys was a copy editor at the Times and one day she approached Esther and said, “My son has written something, and maybe you could pass it along to your husband.” Esther gave the article to Remnick to read.
Remnick recounted what followed to GQ magazine. “I took this manuscript out of its yellow envelope, not expecting much. I started to read. It was about a young cook, working at a pretty average steak-and-frites place on lower Park Avenue. I called this guy up on the phone. He answered it in his kitchen. I said, ‘I’d like to publish this work of yours in The New Yorker. I hope that’s okay.’ That was the beginning of Anthony Bourdain being published.”
The article became one of the most popular stories in the history of The New Yorker. It’s filled with gallows humor. Chefs loved the piece because it detailed restaurant kitchens in a way no one had done before. The opening paragraph is filled with edge and intensity:
Good food, good eating, is all about blood and organs, cruelty and decay. It’s about sodium-loaded pork fat, stinky triple-cream cheeses, the tender thymus glands and distended livers of young animals. It’s about danger—risking the dark, bacterial forces of beef, chicken, cheese and shellfish. Your first 207 Wellfleet oysters may transport you to a state of rapture, but your 208th may send you to bed with sweats, chills and vomits.
The most quoted passage from the article was Bourdain’s advice to avoid eating restaurant fish on Mondays since it was delivered on Friday morning and has likely been sitting around without proper refrigeration. Regarding beef he wrote, “People who order their meat well-done perform a valuable service… they pay for the privilege of eating our garbage.” He explained that when cooks find a piece of steak that is “tough, riddled with nerve and connective tissue… and maybe a little stinky from age,” it’s put aside for “the philistine who orders his food well-done and is not likely to notice the difference between food and flotsam.”
The New Yorker article changed Bourdain’s life. It led to a publishing deal with Bloomsbury that birthed the book Kitchen Confidential. This led to Bourdain’s television career and allowed him to become friends with chefs like Eric Ripert and Mario Batali. “That these guys feel any kinship with me at all is a shock and a fucking honor,” Bourdain said. “They’re gods to me. I feel goofy around them. I’m a fan boy.”
Bourdain exposed the brutal underbelly of restaurant life. He wrote that restaurants traffic in barbarity and that “gastronomy is the science of pain.” He informed diners that restaurants don’t like them. They have “a contempt for outsiders and a loyalty to no flag but their own.” He compared restaurant kitchens to a submarine crew where staff are “confined for most of their waking hours in hot, airless spaces and ruled by despotic leaders” like those in “the royal navies of Napoleonic times.”
In an NPR interview with “Fresh Air,” Bourdain said, “I just wanted to write about my life from the point of view of a working journeyman chef of no particular distinction.” He told Men’s Journal, “I wasn’t that great a chef, and I don’t think I’m that great a writer.” But he had a distinctive voice and an irreverent sense of humor. He saved his most savage insults for vegetarians “and their Hezbollah-like splinter faction, the vegans.” He called them “enemies of everything that’s good and decent in the human spirit. To live life without veal or chicken stock, fish cheeks, sausages, cheese or organ meats is treasonous.”
Bourdain painted himself as a rebel misfit attracted to “the unsavory side of professional cooking.” In the New Yorker article he wrote “as most of us in the restaurant business know, there is a powerful strain of criminality in the industry.” He was attracted to this energy. He loved the “ghoulish kitchen humor, the free food, the pilfered booze, the camaraderie that flourished within rigid order and nerve-shattering chaos.”
Bourdain’s writing was also an act of mythmaking. He carefully carved his outlaw persona that followed him the rest of his life. As his legend grew, strangers plied him with booze and drugs wherever he traveled. This isn’t a formula for health and happiness for anyone let alone an acknowledged addict. In the book Difficult Men, writer Brett Martin reflected on Bourdain’s rise to fame. “I think people forget, in the sanctification that’s followed Bourdain’s death, that his persona early on was really sort of an asshole, shot through with this adolescent, faux-gonzo narcissism.”
Bourdain eventually became an empathetic reporter concerned for the downtrodden and marginalized. But his early food writing glorified the kitchen culture of toxic masculinity. He later expressed remorse for his early views. “To the extent which my work…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.”
Bourdain suffered from depression. In a 2016 episode of Parts Unknown, he described how something as innocuous as an airport hamburger could trigger “a spiral of depression that can last for days.” In 2017 he told The Guardian, “I was an unhappy soul… I hurt, disappointed, and offended many, many, many people, and I regret a lot. It’s a shame I have to live with.”
Bourdain’s propensity for addiction made him a workaholic television creator. He yearned to spend more time with his daughter but his grueling travel schedule kept him on the road 250 days a year. A crewmember on his CNN show Parts Unknown said Bourdain was “always very tired and not especially cheerful.”
In the book Down and Out In Paradise: The Life of Anthony Bourdain, author Charles Leerhsen shared a text Bourdain wrote to his second wife Ottavia Busia-Bourdain. “I hate my fans. I hate being famous. I hate my job… I am lonely and living in constant uncertainty.” Leerhsen wrote that at the end of his life, Bourdain “was isolated, injecting steroids, drinking to the point of blackout and visiting prostitutes.”
On June 18, 2018, Bourdain committed suicide while on location in France for Parts Unknown. He was 62. His best friend Eric Ripert discovered his body. Fans around the world paid tribute. President Obama (who ate street food with Bourdain in Hanoi) tweeted, “He taught us about food and its ability to bring us together.” Chef Andrew Zimmern wrote, “Tony was a symphony. A piece of my heart is truly broken this morning.” Gordon Ramsay said, “It illustrates that success is not immune to depression. We all need to be more aware of our friends who are suffering.”
Behind-the-scenes cooking shows and restaurant-based dramas like The Bear and Boiling Point are very popular today. None would exist without Bourdain. And if not for an unsolicited essay in The New Yorker, Bourdain might still be cooking steak-and-frites in kitchens throughout New York.