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Anthony Bourdain in 2006.
James Keivom/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images

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In Anthony Bourdain, the Food World Found One of Its Strongest Voices

The television host and writer, who died today at 61, changed how we talk about food

Anthony Bourdain, the author of Kitchen Confidential, star of numerous food and travel TV shows, and one of the food world’s most outspoken voices, died June 8. He was 61. CNN, the network that produced his award-winning travel show Parts Unknown, announced the news and noted that the cause of death was suicide.

Bourdain rose to national fame in 2000 with the debut of his memoir Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly. The best-selling book, published while Bourdain was a chef at New York City brasserie Les Halles, offered a window into the little-discussed goings-on behind restaurant kitchen doors, and inspired a new public fascination with kitchen life. It also revealed the strength of his indelible voice — proudly disruptive, with a roguish charm — that would sweep food media.

After Kitchen Confidential, Bourdain would never work in a kitchen again: The book quickly led to TV deals with Travel Channel and later CNN, making Bourdain a household name. In his popular shows, he become a proxy for at-home viewers wishing to experience far-flung parts of world as the locals did. In CNN’s Parts Unknown, the show he was shooting at the time of his death, episodes reached outside pure travelogue and often tackled politics, contextualized war, and laid bare local struggles — although Bourdain was hesitant to call himself a journalist. “A journalist has to have an agenda — who-what-why-where — and I don’t want to ask those questions,” Bourdain said in a 2016 Eater interview. “That’s a prison to me. I’m not here to ask you specific questions, I’m here to ask general questions. What’s your life like? Tell me a story.

Anthony Michael Bourdain was born June 25, 1956, in New York City. He grew up just outside the city in Leonia, New Jersey. His father worked as an executive for Columbia Records and his mother was a copy editor at the New York Times.

Although Bourdain would go on to make a career out of traveling the world, as a child, his family limited their excursions to France, where his father had relatives. That initial trip to the French seaside was nonetheless life-changing for Bourdain. It was where he tried his first oyster and subsequently fell in love with food, an experience he details in Kitchen Confidential.

The summer after graduating high school (a year early), Bourdain got his first taste of professional kitchen work as a dishwasher at Cape Cod restaurant the Flagship. It was there, after witnessing a dalliance between a Flagship chef and a wedding party guest, that Bourdain decided, for the first time, that he too wanted to be a chef.

After that defining summer, Bourdain followed his girlfriend Nancy Putkoski to Vassar. He spent two years at the liberal arts college before dropping out to pursue cooking at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park.

Bourdain and Putkoski moved to New York City in 1978. During this time, Bourdain struggled with his well-documented addiction to heroin and cocaine. In a 2017 New Yorker profile of Bourdain, Bourdain described the relationship: “That kind of love and codependency and sense of adventure — we were criminals together,” he said. “A lot of our life was built around that, and happily so.”

Meanwhile, Bourdain rotated between kitchens at New York City restaurants the Rainbow Room, W.P.A., Chuck Howard’s, Nikki and Kelly, Gianni’s, and the Supper Club, according to the New Yorker. In 1998, he answered an ad in the New York Times for an executive chef position at Les Halles, and he got the job.

Just two years later, Bourdain’s talent for storytelling would earn him mainstream fame. In 1999, the New Yorker published Bourdain’s first piece of nonfiction writing on kitchen life, an essay titled “Don’t Eat Before Reading This.” The story had come to New Yorker editor David Remnick via his wife, Esther Fein, who worked with Bourdain’s mother at the New York Times. “You never know, good writing, where it’s going to come from, and I opened this envelope with no expectations whatsoever,” Remnick tells Eater. “I immediately found myself entertained by and riveted by [the piece].” That essay would become Kitchen Confidential, the memoir.

Bourdain’s first show, A Cook’s Tour, aired on the Food Network from 2002 to 2003. In 2005, the Travel Channel launched No Reservations: Part travelogue, part food show, it played to Bourdain’s strengths of narration, conversation, and personal curiosity, with episodes relaying Bourdain’s experiences as he learned about other cultures through food. No Reservations aired from 2005 to 2012, and made Bourdain a familiar name in the community of people who similarly relished their experiences with food. In 2011, the Travel Channel added a second Bourdain show, The Layover, to its roster.

In 2013, after leaving the Travel Channel, Bourdain launched the CNN show Parts Unknown, which he was filming until his death. The show took Bourdain to little-traveled destinations, and more so than in No Reservations, its content often went well beyond food to tackle politics and social issues. (In 2016, President Barack Obama appeared on an episode in Hanoi, Vietnam.) In his usual style, Bourdain’s raw, honest commentary fueled Parts Unknown, with his frustrations about the world’s inequities, and his sincere appreciation for its beauties, coming to the forefront.

Bourdain’s television output garnered several awards. No Reservations won a Primetime Emmy in 2011 for Outstanding Cinematography for Nonfiction Programming. From 2013 to 2016, Bourdain and Parts Unknown won four consecutive Primetime Emmy Awards for Outstanding Informational Series or Special. In 2014, Parts won a Peabody Award; in his acceptance speech, Bourdain thanked all of those who worked on the “wonderful and deeply satisfying” project. Bourdain also won several industry awards as a producer: His program The Mind of a Chef won three consecutive James Beard awards between 2013 and 2015 for “Television Program, on Location,” and an Emmy for Outstanding Culinary Program in 2014.

Bourdain also produced a prolific body of work as a writer and publisher. In addition to his memoirs on working in the restaurant industry, he wrote and published a series of mystery novels, a cookbook (Appetites, released in 2016), and a comic-book series (Hungry Ghosts, which completed its four-issue run earlier this year). Bourdain also oversaw his own line of books within HarperCollins Publisher’s Ecco imprint.

In recent months, Bourdain was also an outspoken advocate for the #MeToo movement, and one of the loudest male chefs voicing support. Bourdain credited his partner, Asia Argento, who accused producer Harvey Weinstein of sexual assault, with drawing his attention to the cause. “I’m someone who met an extraordinary woman with a very painful story, who introduced me to other extraordinary women with very painful stories,” Bourdain said in November 2017.

He is survived by his daughter and Argento.

Anthony Bourdain Dead at 61 [E]
The World Reacts to the Death of Anthony Bourdain [E]
Anthony Bourdain’s Most Memorable Quotes [E]

If you or anyone you know is considering suicide or self-harm or is anxious, depressed, upset, or needs to talk, call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255 or text the Crisis Text Line at 741-741. For international resources, here is a good place to begin.


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