I discovered who Anthony Bourdain was too late. I first found out who he was while scrolling through Twitter and seeing that former President Barack Obama had tweeted about someone who he deemed a friend, had unfortunately died. It was when I noticed that the tweet had over 1 million likes that it peaked my interest.
Woah, this guy was clearly something of a big deal. And before I know it, Twitter is flooded with people talking about how they’re going to miss Anthony Bourdain, how there will never be anyone like him again, and how iconic he was with his various books and TV shows. Now, I’ve heard the name once or twice in the past, but I hadn’t really paid much attention. But this was clearly someone who was something of an idol. But I knew absolutely nothing about him, what he had done whatsoever. But I knew I had to find out.
It started like most things, with a quick google search. Anthony Bourdain was a chef, and a very well known one at that. Maybe not a super-fancy one, but a chef with strong opinions and lots of character and flare. One of the first thing that came up when I searched for him, aside from lots of tributes pouring out from every corner of the internet, was one of his famous TV shows called “Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown”. From just looking at the title, this wasn’t a dead giveaway. Although, finding out he was a chef did give me the hint that it was most likely a cooking show of some description. Which I guess was half right, in a way. Turns out most of the seasons of this show were on Netflix, and I instantly flicked the TV on, got comfy, and decided to see what the show was all about.
7 hours later, I decided to take a small break. I was instantaneously hooked. The first episode was set in Myanmar, which already seemed quite different for a location for a cooking show. I tuned in expecting it to all be about the food of the country, and okay, that was sort of right, but it had so much more to tell. Food was the glue that held the show together, but it showcased the culture of the country, as well as famous and sometimes infamous parts of its history, and had many interviews with people that were either experts in their field, or just someone who knew the area well, or even just random people who happened to be in the right place at the right time (Although, they usually had food to offer!) It was a mixed bag, but it had so many interesting facts and views that helped to give you a new perspective, it was hard to not keep watching. I didn’t really know anything about Myanmar, but I knew slightly more than I did beforehand after having watched it. Then there was Korea Town in California, then Quebec, London, Libya, Ethiopia, Manila. He really had started to cover the globe with this show, and in some cases going to very dangerous or isolated parts of the world, and always diving right into the cuisine and exploring the culture and how it more often than not, links together.
He had this gift of the gab unlike a lot of hosts for these kinds of shows, and what with visiting so many places that peaked your curiosity, and often going into such depth, it was hard to resist. He made practically everything he ate seem irresistible. (Most things anyway, some seemed interesting… but only for the brave to try, which he certainly was. I don’t fancy trying “Blood Soup”.) And before I knew it, I was starting to get close to finishing the episodes that were available on Netflix, but I had to have more. And if not for more episodes of Parts Unknown, then it had to be something else. Without thinking I ordered his first book, Kitchen Confidential and eagerly awaited Amazon to ring my doorbell.
As soon as it arrived, I was stuck in. From what I’d gathered from my Dad who had already read it, it was about his early career as a chef from his humble beginnings, through all his various misadventures, pretty much to the point where he was given the chance to work on television.
From working in small-time restaurants in his home town, to moving to New York and jumping from place to place, all the time, his life never seemed to slow down, other than the occasional slump. He wrote in such a colourful language, it was hard to put down. (Admittedly, it did take me a while to finish it since I’m a bit of a slow reader, but I didn’t want to finish it too quickly either! It was great.) From his brief memories as a child in France, especially his first time having oysters, which for him was described wonderfully as this defining moment in his life, and changed him forever – to starting his first job, talking about all the various characters he worked with, whom a lot seemed fairly dodgy bunch, but full of character and must had been undoubtedly unforgettable for him.
From these early chapters to his journey into Culinary School, and about his many different teachers for the different aspects of cooking. Some of whom sounded ruthless, as he described the dread of particular classes. He talks a lot in these chapters about his comrades, and how it was a very sink-or-swim atmosphere. It made the call of becoming a cook seem like a brutal path to following, which it is, even now. (Although he assured us that this is not the typical standard these days. Sometimes.)
Then we get to his misadventures in New York. This part of the book did feature some dark moments and showcased the problems he faced at this time in his chef as a career. From some very serious drug addictions to bouncing from restaurant to restaurant, and not really seeming to fit in anywhere for too long. What brief moments of success he had during this period didn’t seem to last, and he seemed almost cursed for a while, but of course, that would all change in time.
He talks about some of the characters he had worked for over the years, with one getting his own chapter, although he never gave away his real name, although he does reveal the location of where the restaurant was, which he says that anyone who’s been a chef in New York, or knew of the area or worked nearby, would know who he was. But he simply refereed to him as ‘Bigfoot’. He talks about him at great length, and about how merciless yet generous he could be. He took him in and lent him money to find a new place when he was down on his luck and was known for doing the same for many young chefs and helping to train them up and be more immersed with all the other factors that came with running a restaurant in general. From what Bourdain tells us of Bigfoot in this chapter – this guy knew how to run a restaurant well, like a well-oiled machine. How meticulous he would be with food orders, making sure he always got the best deal, and how he would treat those who didn’t give him anything but the best for his hard-earned money.
Later, Bourdain is now doing very well for himself. Married, working in decent restaurants and earning more than enough money, and had kicked his nasty heroin addiction. After taking us through an entire chapter of his daily routine as head chef, talking us through the many tasks he would have to do, as well as keeping his staff in check, taking deliveries and actually cooking, it seemed exhausting. Overall, he said that he would work 6-7 days a week, often working 14-hour shifts at a time. At this point, it’s very clear that to work in this field, you had to have the passion. You had to love almost every aspect of the work you had to do, which is was extraordinarily clear that Bourdain did, and he excelled at it.
He also tells us about certain individuals that he worked with in the later parts in his career. Although he doesn’t give away most of their real names, he tells us how some of them never truly kicked their bad habits, as well as how some excelled further and shot up to fancy-hot-shots. He really worked with all kinds of people, from all over the world. Now, I really shouldn’t give too much away, since I do believe that it’s much more enjoyable to find out more yourself if you’re truly interested. Although, I will say that one of the last chapters in which he goes to Japan very briefly was amazingly written, and really captivated me, as it clearly did with him. I’m pretty sure I was at least craving sushi afterwards.
After finishing Kitchen Confidential, I felt a sadness overcome me. It had been one of my favourite reads in such a long time, and it was over, and knowing that he had unfortunately taken his own life added to that sadness. How could someone with such an amazing life, who had so much to offer, and brought so many people so much joy and intrigue possible even consider of taking their life? Sadly, that is the grim reality of mental illness. It affects anyone, and no one is exempt.
Regardless, he has obviously had a huge impact on so many people. Whether they were aspiring chefs, documentary aficionados, food lovers, or just enjoyed his flavourful writing, he had a lasting impact on everyone who had read or watched or maybe even tasted his work. I don’t have many heroes, but it’s unquestionable that Anthony Bourdain became one of mine quickly and swiftly, even after having passed on. If you haven’t heard of him, or seen or read his work, I highly recommend it. I can’t promise it’ll be your cup of tea, but you never know. It’s worth a shot.