The Profile Dossier: Anthony Bourdain, the World's Most Beloved Chef
"You learn a lot about someone when you share a meal together."
The late renegade chef Anthony Bourdain believed that breaking bread with strangers around the world had the power to unite us.
After two decades of working in kitchens all over New York City, Bourdain published a brash, entertaining memoir called "Kitchen Confidential" that changed the trajectory of his career. In it, he gave an honest account about his battle with addiction to cocaine, heroin, and LSD during his early days in the restaurant industry. In other words, he held nothing back. As a result, the book became a best-seller that allowed him to make a name for himself in a totally new world: The entertainment industry.
In 2005, he landed the opportunity of a lifetime: his own TV show on the Travel Channel that allowed him to travel the globe and sink his teeth into delicious (albeit at times peculiar) meals.
Over the course of his career, Bourdain traveled to more than a hundred countries including Vietnam, Morocco, Iceland, and so many more. This was his formula for a fulfilling life: "I travel around the world, eat a lot of shit, and basically do whatever the fuck I want.”
If you've ever watched an episode from one of Bourdain's shows, it's clear that it was never just about the meal. He spoke with the locals, tried to understand their culture, and offered us a new perspective on a country often misunderstood by many.
Due to his brash and straightforward nature, Bourdain was often characterized as "the culinary bad boy." In his shows, he used profanity and never hid his true feelings, but he was always aware that he hit the jackpot when it came to his career. Bourdain once asked, “What do you do after your dreams come true?"
But Bourdain was always candid about his personal struggles that haunted him even in the best of times — past addictions and a looming depression.
In 2018, Bourdain committed suicide while in France filming an episode of his show "Parts Unknown." He was 61 years old.
As Barack Obama put it, "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. We’ll miss him.”
Here's what we can learn from Bourdain's journey, which was full of food, adventure, and self-discovery.
On a life of mischief: Bourdain's memoir Kitchen Confidential is full of humor, mischief, and entertaining tales of the culinary trade. Bourdain doesn't take himself too seriously and reveals what he calls "twenty-five years of sex, drugs, bad behavior and haute cuisine."
On becoming Anthony Bourdain: Through his show “Parts Unknown,” Bourdain traveled to nearly a hundred countries and filmed 248 episodes. This profile shows a man aware of his good fortune and his demons, and trying to appreciate the former without being consumed by the latter.
On the human experience: In this 2011 Joe Rogan episode, Bourdain explains that having a show about food allowed him to see a side of people that news journalists do not. When you share a meal with someone of a different culture, their defenses are down and they feel more open than if they were to do a traditional interview. "They're less likely to put up a front or be somebody other than who they really are over the table," he says. "You can connect with people over food in a way that you can't if you're just some guy with a microphone and a camera."
On creative freedom: Bourdain said he always detested competent, workman-like storytelling. He embraced the creative freedom and relished the unstructured format of his show. "For me, I'd rather not make TV at all than make competent television," he says. "It's very easy to make a conventional travel or food show. I'd rather fail."
On being an open book: Over the years, Bourdain adopted something of an "I don't care attitude." When he published his memoir, he laid out the good, the bad, and the ugly. He discussed his seven-year addiction to heroin in vivid detail and opened up about depression and withdrawal. In this interview, he said: "It's an enormously liberating thing. When everyone knows all the nasty shit about you already, nobody can hurt you. You're free to say what you want and have an opinion."
On feeling lonely: When you have a life like mine, Bourdain asked, who do you talk to? His job may have been the envy of many, but he felt the sharp blade of loneliness every time he returned home from his adventures. He often struggled to find common ground with his friends and former colleagues. "It's alienating," he says. "When you have these amazing things happen to you, who do you tell?"
TECHNIQUES TO TRY.
Surround yourself with people who disagree with you: In a world of severe polarization, you need to work really hard to get out of your echo chambers. Bourdain put it really succinctly: "If I walk in a room where everyone agrees with me, I find that frightening, dismaying, and boring as fuck." Don't go into those rooms.
Go rogue when you travel: Bourdain once said that traveling to Paris to see the Eiffel Tower is lethal to the soul. It's the places that are off-the beaten path, the ones that rip you out of your comfort zone. “We tend to be over-concerned with safety and with cleanliness in ways that stand between us,” he said. He was an evangelist for street food because that's how he believed a tourist could experience the magic of the local cuisine. In other words, it's OK to go rogue when you're exploring a new city. Bourdain avoided the tourist traps by refusing to eat at English-speaking restaurants, finding a hole-in-the-wall eatery, pointing to whatever dish the guy next to him was eating, and being open to experimentation. The awkward interactions with strangers who don't speak your language is where the best experiences lie. "It’s those little human moments that are the ones that stick with you forever, the random acts of kindness,” he said.
Don't shy away from bad travel experiences: Bourdain had several disastrous travel experiences in Sicily, Libya, and Romania, but he was a big believer that you couldn't appreciate the good without the bad. He often said, "You're never going to find perfect city travel experience or the perfect meal without a constant willingness to experience a bad one." Context is key when evaluating new cultures and experiences.
Every place teaches you about yourself: When visiting a new place, Bourdain believed that you learned something — not just about the place, but about yourself. "Travel isn't always pretty. It isn't always comfortable. Sometimes it hurts, it even breaks your heart. But that's OK," he said. "The journey changes you; it should change you. It leaves marks on your memory, on your consciousness, on your heart, and on your body. You take something with you. Hopefully, you leave something good behind." After every journey, ask yourself, "What new thing did I learn about myself?"
Don't be a snob: In an essay about his father, Bourdain shares the biggest life lesson he learned from him: Don't be a snob. The dish you're eating is nowhere nearly as important as where you are sitting when you eat it and who you're eating it with. "It’s something I will always at least aspire to — something that has allowed me to travel this world and eat all it has to offer without fear or prejudice. To experience joy, my father taught me, one has to leave oneself open to it," Bourdain wrote. Embrace difference. Delight in strangeness. Find joy in the weird.
QUOTES TO REMEMBER.
"Your body is not a temple, it's an amusement park. Enjoy the ride."
“Without experimentation, a willingness to ask questions and try new things, we shall surely become static, repetitive, and moribund.”
"I would much rather fail spectacularly than not venture, not try."
"Context and memory play powerful roles in all the truly great meals in one's life."
"I always entertain the notion that I'm wrong, or that I'll have to revise my opinion. Most of the time that feels good; sometimes it really hurts and is embarrassing."
"If I'm an advocate for anything, it's to move. As far as you can, as much as you can. Across the ocean, or simply across the river. Walk in someone else's shoes or at least eat their food. It's a plus for everybody."
"Travel is about the gorgeous feeling of teetering in the unknown."
"Maybe that's enlightenment enough: to know that there is no final resting place of the mind, no moment of smug clarity. Perhaps wisdom ... is realizing how small I am, and unwise, and how far I have yet to go."
"You learn a lot about someone when you share a meal together."
"Without new ideas, success can become stale."
This was such a beautiful read. Thank you Polina!
Polina thanks so much for celebrating Anthony Bourdain this Thanksgiving Eve