The practiced, easy assumption of a public mask, an entertainer’s mask, is liable to strike the casual observer as sophistication — as an enviable social skill. The finer the mask, the more persuaded we are of its authenticity, and the late Anthony Bourdain’s was the finest of all, with a fit like a second skin.
Though he’s probably best known for traveling the world on CNN’s Parts Unknown, Anthony Bourdain first became famous for putting pen to paper. His landmark Kitchen Confidential, a behind-the-scenes look at restaurant kitchens, propelled him to stardom as a raconteur and chef-turned-author (a role that, in the wake of the awakening surrounding sexual harassment in restaurants, he said he regrets taking on).
He was impulsive, passionate, agreeably foul-mouthed, and often full of righteous anger. Despite his frequent explosions of outrage or delight, there was never an instance when it was impossible to ultimately agree with both his sentiments and his approach. But in Bourdain that elegant sure-footedness in public concealed the real and gnawing demon inside, whose spiky, venomous contours became apparent when I completed a close reading of his oeuvre.
Before he became a best-selling writer and an internationally famous symbol of restaurant kitchen machismo, Bourdain had already published two comedic crime novels; his eclectic portfolio would also later go on to include two ultra-violent graphic novels, and in between there were a few cookbooks and a couple more works of fiction. While Bourdain’s most diehard fans may have already pored over every printed word he’s published, others might wonder where to begin.
Like so many millions of people all around the world, I’m still grieving the man I couldn’t help believing was my friend, on some mutual plane of sympathy and curiosity about the world; egalitarianism, and a sense of justice, and of beauty. When you can manage it, I urge you to read these books and consider, as I know I will forever, whenever I think of Anthony Bourdain, how we are all in each other’s hands.
The Books of Anthony Bourdain
Bone in the Throat
New York: Villard Books, 1995
Bourdain’s very first book, written while he was still deep in the trenches of New York City restaurant kitchens, Bone in the Throat is a satirical wise-guy crime novel with some autobiographical shadings: Protagonist Tommy is a sous chef at his mobster uncle’s Soho restaurant, working under a head chef with a heroin habit when he gets caught up in a Mafia murder and the resulting FBI investigation.
New York: Villard Books, 1997
Before the fame and fortune that came with Kitchen Confidential, Bourdain spent his mornings away from the Les Halles kitchen writing fast-track spy novels; this is his second wise-guy story. It’s name that probably would have been changed to something less potentially offensive had it been published today, but it has more deeply drawn characters and a more absorbing plot than Bourdain’s first entry in the genre, Bone in the Throat. Henry, an assassin, and his killer wife Frances are retired in the Caribbean but get pulled back into work when a powerful mobster invades their paradise. It’s quite fun, provided you don’t mind gore.
Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly
New York: Bloomsbury, 2000
Bourdain’s breakout superstar kitchen renegade memoir is still one of his best books. It almost immediately became an anthem to the millions of cooks around the world who read it, and cemented him for all time as a hero to those that work behind the scenes to make a restaurant run. He revealed himself to be obsessed with and sometimes disgusted at restaurant life, but ultimately, entirely proud. The book holds up for the most part, though in recent years, Bourdain admitted that he regretted cheering on the bro culture that keeps so many women out of the restaurant industry’s top ranks.
Typhoid Mary: An Urban Historical
New York: Bloomsbury USA, 2001
The author missed his calling as an historian. Typhoid Mary is an excellent monograph about a gal in trouble. The gal in question is Mary Mallon, the patient zero of Typhoid Fever in New York at the turn of the 20th century. Bourdain imagines Mallon as an innocent carrier who makes her way as household help and a restaurant cook, unwittingly spreading disease along the way. (It isn’t Bourdain’s fault that it's called "An Urban Historical" — it’s one of a series of four books thus named by the publisher.)
A Cook's Tour: In Search of the Perfect Meal
New York: Bloomsbury USA, 2001
The absorbing travelogue of a neophyte TV star and world traveler, Bourdain approached his first food and travel show with one question in mind: What makes the perfect meal? The book follows the show’s premise, demonstrating Bourdain’s off-the-cuff candor, inquisitive nature, and eagerness to understand the world. A Cook’s Tour was allegedly inspired by Apocalypse Now, and starts out with Bourdain eating a still-beating snake heart in Saigon. He makes his way into Khmer Rouge territory, eats with Russian gangsters in Moscow, takes in a pig slaughter in Portugal, and famously visits Thomas Keller’s landmark the French Laundry, all ostensibly in search of perfection.
The Bobby Gold Stories
Bloomsbury USA, 2003
This is Bourdain’s third, most romantic, and best wise-guy novel. Oddly touching and gentle-hearted, one gets the idea that Mario Puzo’s The Godfather — the book, not the film — must have meant quite a lot to the young Bourdain, as it did to many children of the ’70s. Here, the protagonist is an ex-con whose new job in the club and restaurant business gets derailed when he falls in love with Nikki, a cook who’s out of his league.
Anthony Bourdain's Les Halles Cookbook
New York: Bloomsbury, 2004
After 25 years in business, New York City’s Brasserie Les Halles filed for bankruptcy and closed in 2016. Early in its tenure, Bourdain was the restaurant’s executive chef — even while he wrote fiction on the side. His first cookbook is a basic but voice-y overview of French bistro classics, like: veal short ribs, steak frites, escargots aux noix, foie gras au pruneaux, and steak tartare. It’s not super inspired, but fine for kids going off to college. Of note: It helped cement the idea that Bourdain was a chef in the minds of readers. He was a cook to the millions who read Kitchen Confidential, but here was proof that he knew how to run a restaurant, make a menu, and manage staff, too.
The Nasty Bits
New York: Bloomsbury, 2006
Enthusiastic, fun, and ever irreverent, Bourdain’s collection of short stories covers a lot of ground, from eating and scoping out locations, to meditations on filmmaking, fast-food chains, vegans, and the entire food industrial complex. He devotes an entire chapter to what he considers the most important job in a restaurant: the dishwasher. He’s hell-bent on examining his own demons here, including the guilt he has over killing lobsters alive.
No Reservations: Around the World on an Empty Stomach
New York: Bloomsbury, 2007
Here’s a behind-the-scenes look at the popular show that aired on Travel Channel from 2005 until 2012. The book is part travel guide, part coffee table decor, filled with (amazing) photos. It includes insights from Bourdain, who writes from France, Las Vegas, New Zealand, Russia, and so many more spots, including his home base, New York City. Included within: his favorite sushi stall in Japan, how to order reindeer, what shark tastes like, and why the Sicily show was “fucked up from the get-go.”
Medium Raw: A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food and the People Who Cook
New York: Ecco/HarperCollins, 2010
This is Bourdain’s somewhat gentler second memoir. I much prefer this to Kitchen Confidential, though many do not. Here he takes on some of the biggest names in the culinary space, including Alice Waters and David Chang, though he is thoughtful in his attacks and critiques. And here, unlike in Kitchen Confidential, he seems more aware: of his place in the world, of his impact on the dining scene in nearly every city, and of his own mortality.
DC Comics, 2012
An avowed comic book fan, Bourdain as a kid was devoted to Marvel and R. Crumb, and dreamed of becoming an underground cartoonist himself. In 2012 he took his own turn at the genre, joining with co-writer Joel Rose and illustrator Langdon Foss to produce this graphic novel with tons of blood and guts (too bloody for me) on DC Comics’ Vertigo imprint. Set in a near-future dystopian Los Angeles where obsessive food lovers will literally kill to snag a table at the hottest restaurants, the story follows sushi chef Jiro as he beheads customers for daring to order California rolls and encounters an Alice Waters–type named Rose who murders a chef for using out-of-season tomatoes — a biting send-up of the modern “foodie” culture that Bourdain took such joy in eviscerating.
Get Jiro: Blood and Sushi
DC Comics, 2015
After arguably launching the golden era of food comics with Get Jiro!, Bourdain followed it up with an equally gory prequel in 2015. Co-written by Joel Rose and illustrated by Alé Garza, this one’s set in Tokyo and chronicles how a young Jiro pursued his love of cooking while working for his father, a Yakuza gangster. “I wanted to take the story back to its beginnings — in Japan (albeit a slightly-in-the-future, dystopic Japan), and indulge my own enthusiasms for both the place and the many classic genre films that have been made there,” he said of his second foray into comics. I'm not a good judge of the graphic novels because all the beheadings and things really yowl me, but on balance I think the first one had lovelier drawings and this one, maybe a slightly stronger story.
New York: Ecco/HarperCollins, 2016
Bourdain knew he wasn’t really a chef anymore by 2016, and he owned his status as a television personality and cultural critic. But once he had a family — his daughter was nine at the time of the book’s publication — he found his way back into the kitchen. This book, which was written with his longtime collaborator and friend Laurie Woolever, is essentially a set of recipes he liked cooking for his family, daughter, and her friends. It’s uncharacteristically warm and heartfelt, but clings to Bourdain’s signature grit in design and tone, with kind of beautiful, deliberately messy photos, like toast stuck to bottom of a work boot. Most of the recipes are super simple, but, disappointingly, there’s no dessert. The dessert “chapter” literally says "Fuck dessert," opposite a photograph of a wheel of Stilton. But read through the introduction, where he confesses to having (had) an unusual family, a skewed view of the “normal” world, and “enormous relief” at becoming a father at 50. Still, he writes, “the human heart was — and remains — a mystery to me.”