With the tragic and premature passing of Anthony Bourdain, the world has lost a vital, maverick voice at the heart of mainstream media. The hugely popular celebrity chef, television personality and author was found dead on Friday morning in a hotel room in Strasbourg, France, where he was filming an upcoming episode of his award-winning CNN series Parts Unknown. He was 61. Bourdain’s death has been widely reported as an apparent suicide.
His passing brought endless waves of distraught condolences and joyful remembrances across social media to mourn and celebrate a deeply revered, larger-than-life figure. Bourdain’s untimely death was especially painful as it came just three days after the apparent suicide of iconic fashion designer Kate Spade.
I've interviewed hundreds of celebrities in my time; #AnthonyBourdain is one of the few I ever asked to take a photo with. Thank you, Toño, for everything that you did. May you have found the peace that you sought in life... pic.twitter.com/a5DflCGevR— GustavoArellano (@GustavoArellano) June 8, 2018
“#AnthonyBourdain was everything I hoped he’d be in real life: smart AF but humble, kind and even goofy. And a man with a huge heart,” Orange County–based journalist Gustavo Arellano tweeted as part of a larger thread in tribute to Bourdain. Arellano appeared alongside Bourdain in a 2017 episode of Parts Unknown.
Bourdain’s show twice visited Los Angeles, where he shunned the white-tablecloth eateries of Beverly Hills and Hollywood in favor of exploring the city’s Latino communities (in 2017) and Koreatown (in 2013). His 2018 “Little Los Angeles” micro-series for his Parts Unknown website extolled the oft-overlooked joys of dining in Little Armenia, Little Britain, Tehrangeles, Little Ethiopia and Little Guatemala, and of Filipino fare in the city’s Chinatown.
Continuing a style of off-the-beaten-path foodie/culture journalism for which he credited Pulitzer Prize–winning former L.A. Weekly food critic Jonathan Gold as a pioneer, Bourdain was equally comfortable and enthusiastic scouring L.A.’s strip malls and street vendors for best-kept culinary secrets as he was sharing a leisurely dinner with then–President Barack Obama (as seen on Parts Unknown in 2016).
“Low plastic stool, cheap but delicious noodles, cold Hanoi beer.” This is 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. We’ll miss him. pic.twitter.com/orEXIaEMZM— Barack Obama (@BarackObama) June 8, 2018
Bourdain’s writing and TV work were marked by irrepressible curiosity, roguish wit and a warmth toward humanity across continents and cultures, which burst from his books and onscreen persona to enormous effect. In an era of increasingly homogenized and trivialized television, he was a unique, often outspoken persona (unfashionably lampooning vegetarianism and veganism while defending MSG) who all but invented his own TV subgenre — part travelogue, part cooking show, part open-minded mulling of the human condition.
“When he narrated a story, you felt like you were right there with him, and he inspired you to travel,” chef Akasha Richmond of AR Cucina and Akasha in Culver City tells L.A. Weekly. “He was global and had fans like a rock star. His voice and body of work will live forever and continue to inspire."
When Bourdain first ambled onto our screens with the Food Network’s A Cook’s Tour in 2002, fewer than one in six Americans held passports. That number has doubled since. In stark contrast to the paranoia and fear-mongering of much televised content, Bourdain’s shows — he followed two seasons of A Cook’s Tour with the Travel Channel’s No Reservations (2005-12) and The Layover (2011-13) before moving to CNN for Parts Unknown — plunged into often obscure and seldom-celebrated corners of far-flung destinations with unfettered joy. To dramatically underline his conviction that Americans have overly blinkered appetites, he tried delicacies repugnant to traditional Western sensibilities, from beating cobra heart (in Vietnam) to raw seal eye (Canada) and unwashed warthog rectum (Namibia).
Relentlessly poetic and philosophical, Bourdain’s shows often go minutes at time without so much as a mention of food, while detailing the culture, history and lifestyles of destinations from Tanzania to Tbilisi, Mexico City to Mississippi. Much as he savored the making and eating of all manner of dishes, he was perhaps even more intrigued by their backstories — and those of the people who prepared them.
As fast-food chains continue their march across our planet, he was a (very loud) voice of protest, insisting that traditional “street” and “peasant” dishes have far more virtue and value than anything served from a franchise drive-thru (he was once quoted as saying that a Chicken McNugget was the most disgusting thing he ever ate). He championed the family-owned-and-operated restaurants of America, while lamenting their diminishing numbers and influence.
Fame did not come early, easy or necessarily intentionally to the New York City–born Bourdain. After graduating from NYC’s Culinary Institute of America in 1978, he threw himself into a two-decade romp through the city’s upscale restaurant kitchens, culminating in becoming executive chef of Manhattan’s now-defunct Brasserie Les Halles bistro steakhouse in 1998. He irreverently detailed this rock ’n’ rollercoaster of a career in his breakout 2000 best-seller, Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly, the first of more than a dozen books he authored.
“We were high all the time, sneaking off to the walk-in refrigerator at every opportunity to ‘conceptualize,’” he recalls in Kitchen Confidential. “Hardly a decision was made without drugs. Cannabis, methaqualone, cocaine, LSD … secobarbital, Tuinal, amphetamine and, increasingly, heroin.”
Famously open about his prior drug use, and long an unrepentant drinker and smoker, Bourdain — whose high-profile pro-pot attitude and anecdotes have, inadvertently or otherwise, helped shape America’s cannabis conversation — said he quit cigarettes after the birth of his daughter with ex-wife Ottavia Busia in 2007. He had previously been married to his high school sweetheart, Nancy Putkoski, for two decades. Lately, Bourdain had exhibited a markedly healthier lifestyle, including earning a blue belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu.
His television career had gone from strength to strength, with Parts Unknown attracting weekly audiences upwards of 680,000 and winning multiple Emmy Awards. Significantly, in 2012 he received an honorary CLIO Award, which is presented to individuals whose work has encouraged people around the world to think differently.
“Anthony gave all of himself in everything that he did,” tweeted his romantic partner, Italian actress and director Asia Argento, earlier today. “His brilliant, fearless spirit touched and inspired so many, and his generosity knew no bounds. He was my love, my rock, my protector. I am beyond devastated.”
Argento was also a creative partner with Bourdain, and she directed the mostly recently aired episode of Parts Unknown, filmed in Hong Kong. A prominent Harvey Weinstein accuser, she had enjoyed the fiercely vocal support of Bourdain for the #MeToo movement (“I stand unhesitatingly and unwaveringly with the women,” he wrote in a Medium essay in December.) He also used his fame to assist charitable causes including the Make-a-Wish Foundation, while partnering with the Rockefeller Foundation to raise awareness of food waste through a 2017 documentary, Wasted! The Story of Food Waste.
“If I am an advocate for anything, it is to move,” he once said. “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.”
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
Bourdain was a man who encouraged us to explore our planet with wide eyes and open hearts; to challenge preconceptions and reconsider societal norms. The world is a better place for his legacy, which transcends just overt influence on food and television.
If you are experiencing thoughts of suicide, confidential help is available for free, 24 hours a day, from the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: (800) 273-8255.
L.A. Weekly Food Editor Michele Stueven and L.A. Weekly Entertainment Editor Michele Raphael contributed to the reporting of this story.
Paul Rogers is a transplanted British music, culture and entertainment journalist, based in Los Angeles. His cover story on Anthony Bourdain, "Better With Bourdain," appeared in Culture magazine in October 2016.