Anthony Bourdain: The Renegade Chef

Anthony Bourdain
Anthony Bourdain poses backstage with the Emmy for Outstanding Informational Series in 2014
REUTERS/Kevork Djansezian

Anthony Bourdain was a famous chef and respected journalist who was accessible and willing to rewrite—“an editor’s dream,” wrote Ruth Reichl, longtime Gourmet editor and former New York Times restaurant critic.

His friend Eric Ripert, Le Bernardin executive chef and co-owner, told People, “He was an exceptional human being, so inspiring and generous. One of the great storytellers of our time who connected with so many.”

But Bourdain was also an abrasive and arrogant renegade who slammed his fellow top TV food personalities, from Guy Fieri to Rachael Ray. A professional annoyance. A curmudgeon.

He was called awkward and withdrawn; Reichl observed, “Behind that swagger, there was always that tortured shy guy.”

Bourdain was all of these, with conflicting emotions competing to dominate his personality. Which one won? He secreted that truth away when he committed suicide.

DOING NOTHING ON LI

As executive chef in Manhattan’s finest restaurants, popular television host and jet-setter, “Tony” Bourdain defined the term “celebrity chef.” It was as though he was possessed by an unstoppable demon of adventure, which drove him to try every dish and travel anywhere.

But his favorite vacation meant doing nothing on Long island every August, relaxing in “an area of the Hamptons that none of the cool people go to and I never see anyone I know,” he told the Boston Globe.

The icon took “an indecent pleasure in feigning normalcy,” he told Drift Travel. Starting in 2012, he did “the suburban dad thing,” loading up the car with luggage and heading out east with his third wife, Ottavia, and their 7-year-old daughter Ariane. As northjersey.com reported, he said he was happy with “a pile of to-be-read books, a hammock and a nice, warm body of water,” in a place with no parties or openings—“It’s mostly old people and golfers.”

He posed with Ripert for Hamptons magazine in 2012 at Shelter Island’s Sunset Beach, appeared at East Hampton’s Guild Hall in 2014 in Stirring the Pot: Conversations with Culinary Celebrities and studied jiu jitsu with champion Lucas Lepri. He drove, shopped at farm stands and said his life was ruled by a 7-year-old, telling northjersery.com in 2016, “A child changes everything. I don’t drink or smoke as heavily as I used to because I have a responsibility to her to at least try to stay alive a little longer.”

He cooked steamer clams, to remind himself of his Jersey Shore childhood vacations.

A $6 PRESIDENTIAL MEAL

His upbringing helped him develop food appreciation. He was born Anthony Michael Bourdain in 1956 in New York City; his mother Gladys (G.S.) Bourdain was a New York Times copy editor on the culture and metropolitan desks and his father Pierre Bourdain was a classical music recording industry executive. The family vacationed in Montauk and crossed the Atlantic aboard the Queen Mary, visiting relatives in France.

He later recalled in his 2000 blockbuster memoir Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly that it was as a fourth-grader aboard the luxury liner that he became conscious of enjoying food—specifically, “vichysoisse, a basic potato-leek soup that held the delightful surprise of being cold.”

After high school and several lackluster years at Vassar College, he graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in 1978. He paid his dues, shucking oysters, washing dishes and studying Cape Cod chefs.

Throughout the 1990s his minute attention to detail drew Manhattan diners to the Rainbow Room, One Fifth Avenue and the Brasserie Les Halles restaurants. Major TV series followed, including Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations and Parts Unknown; starting in 2010, he received numerous nominations and wins from the Emmy Awards and the James Beard Foundation.

In Parts Unknown, he turned the focus away from himself, sharing discoveries and interviews at unassuming restaurants serving unusual dishes. One conversation was with then-president Barack Obama in Vietnam, in 2016. They discussed American and Vietnam politics, Obama’s last months in office and being a father.

Obama described their $6 meal on Twitter: “Low plastic stool, cheap but delicious noodles, cold Hanoi beer. That’s how I’ll remember Tony. He taught us about food—but more importantly, about its ability to bring us together. To make us a little less afraid of the unknown.”

“THAT TORTURED SHY GUY”

Despite his success. his low self-esteem persisted. “I should’ve died in my 20s,” he told Biography, referring to his cocaine and heroin addictions. “I feel like I’ve stolen a car—a really nice car—and I keep looking in the rearview mirror for flashing lights.”

His grueling travel and filming schedule helped end his marriage in 2016. He told People that living the dream was costly, but rejected retirement: “I just think I’m just too nervous, neurotic, driven … I might have deluded myself into thinking that I’d be happy in a hammock or gardening. But no, I’m quite sure I can’t.”

On camera, he told viewers, “… I find myself in a spiral of depression that can last for days.” He sought psychotherapy in Argentina for his dark moods.

He was 61 when he hanged himself in a Paris hotel room on June 8, 2018.

This story first appeared in Long Island Press.

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