“God gives us meat, but the devil sends us cooks,” Anthony Bourdain told the Observer two decades ago. I have viewed the phrase as a compliment, and considered kitchens second homes for damned souls and “the degraded and the debauched”.
At that moment, he was already well-known in New York, as author of the scandalous bestseller Kitchen Confidential and as chef and co-owner of Les Halles, a French brasserie on Park Avenue that for a time became the favored spot for the creative demimonde.
His notoriety was soon to dream: he refashioned the job of the celebrity chef, puncturing the self-importance of the species; he infused the job with sex appeal and with intensity. I have produced three seasons of globe-trotting food adventure, a run that made him a global star.
Yet 17 years later, Bourdain met his end in a provincial hotel in Kaysersberg, France, killing himself at the tail end of doomed relationship with the daughter of an Italian horror film director.
Bourdain’s charismatic approach to cooking and to life, and his spiral down, will be revived four years after his death on publication next week of Down and Out in Paradise: The Life of Anthony Bourdain.
The book is already setting off a wave of controversy among Bourdain’s huge fanbase, as well as his friends and relatives, who claim that journalist Charles Leerhsen’s account of Bourdain’s life is a slur on his memory. But it has also been praised as a frank retelling of a complex man’s life.
Either way, it will still keep Bourdain firmly in the spotlight – something that he perhaps once sought but came to hate.
‘I hate being famous. I hate my job’
For some, the anger is very real.
“Every single thing I have [the author] writes about relationships and interactions within our family as kids and as adults, he fabricated or got totally wrong,” Bourdain’s brother Christopher told the New York Times last week.
But none have spelled out exactly where the errors lie, suggesting that Leerhsen’s accounting might be emotionally rather than factually discomforting.
The objections center around the publication of intimate details, text messages and last words that offer harrowing insights into Bourdain’s final days in which a collision occurred between conflicting interior and exterior lives that, at 62, he no longer had strength to address.
“I hate my fans, too. I hate being famous. I hate my job, ”Bourdain wrote to his estranged wife Ottavia Busia-Bourdain, with whom he remained close, shortly before he took his life from him. “I am lonely and living in constant uncertainty.”
Some are in uproar about the book “as if it was their job now to protect him and remember him in an artificial way”, Leerhsen says. “There’s a self-righteousness about that, but if you’re curious about Anthony Bourdain, here’s a book.”
Leerhsen, biographer of Butch Cassidy, racehorse Dan Patch and baseball player Ty Cobb, says he came to his subject passing by a poster for the posthumous episode of Bourdain’s Parts Unknown, filmed in Hong Kong and directed by girlfriend Asia Argento, in circumstances that had alienated the chef from his close-knit film team.
“I just thought, wow, he looked so cool in his ripped jeans, like the Bourdain we all know. I felt I had n’t read the story about what happened to him… this guy with the best job in the world, the best life in the world, that came to take his own life from him?
In the prelude to Down and Out, Leerhsen writes that Bourdain knew when he started out in television that he didn’t want to become a creature of it. “Here’s my pitch,” he said to a cable executive. “I travel around the world, eat a lot of shit and basically do whatever the fuck I want.”
“That turned out to be a winning formula, and it left Tony with the distinct impression that, as he more than once said, ‘not giving a shit is a really fantastic business model for television’,” Leerhsen writes.
At the height of his career, Bourdain was traveling 250 days a year, visiting far-off lands, meeting folks, and eating all manner of unusual food. His screen presence of him was compelling: Bourdain became an unconventional TV star traversing the world in a quest for adventure that, at its core, was as old as the Odyssey.
“It’s an age-old story of being careful what you wish for, of dealing with success and love in oceanic proportions,” Leerhsen says.
When success came, he says, Bourdain was considered about it. “But he became someone that he hated. By the time I have realized that, he was too physically exhausted to straighten things out. I have thought it simpler to seek what is famously called ‘a permanent solution to a temporary problem’.”
Attendant to Bourdain’s life was drinking that trailed an earlier drug addiction.
“Recovery, you might say, was one of the few things I couldn’t go all the way with. If he did something, he did it all out, whether it was comic books as a kid or fascination with the JFK assassination. But he pulled up short with recovery; I have never stopped drinking.”
And that came hand-in-hand with unstable relationships. Bourdain ended up paying off a former child actor who had accused Argento – a #MeToo leader who was among the first women in the film business to publicly accuse Harvey Weinstein of sexual assault – of sexually assaulting him when he was 17.
Their relationship, he says, “was a classic, adolescent-sounding case of the boy wanting the girl more than the girl wants to be wanted,” says Leerhsen. “The more he presses on her, the more she pulls back.” In a traumatic finale, Argento texted Bourdain to “stop busting my balls.” He replied, “OK.” Hours later he had taken his life from him.
There’s a question around Bourdain’s legacy. Today, the site of Les Halles is again a French brasserie with the same swing doors through which Bourdain would magically appear in a white chef’s tunic – for day – or at night in black to mingle with the clientele.
On the menu is a “Homage a Antony Bourdain”: steak frites, french fries, and watercress with a choice of entrecôte or Béarnaise pepper sauce. Fitting tribute, Leerhsen believes, since Bourdain would have been “suspicious of anyone who praised his cooking of him too extravagantly”.
In a moving tribute after his death, Karen Rinaldi, his publisher at Bloomsbury USA, wrote that Bourdain not only crossed boundaries, “he collapsed the divisions we insist on building between us – those false but persistent barriers that are meant to safeguard but only serve to segregate.”
In an episode of Parts Unknown, Bourdain said that “making an omelette for someone the morning after is the best thing in the world.” Bourdain’s genius for comfort food – eggs, steak, fries, cassoulet – instead of fancy cooking was all about satisfying you and giving you love, Leerhsen believes.
“No one is ever one thing. Those images from the show where he made omelettes for Ottavia and Ariane, his daughter, were wonderful. He had that side but he got away from that. At the very end, something snapped. Like when you’re riding in a car and you look through the back window and realize how far you’ve come. That was shocking to him but he didn’t have the energy to turn around.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism