Travels with Anthony Bourdain


When I woke up this morning and read that Anthony Bourdain had died, at the age of sixty-one, reportedly by suicide, it did not compute. Who was more volcanically alive? A chef turned writer and television host, he had designed a fantasy existence—travelling around the world, budget be damned, meeting interesting people and eating delectable food—and turned it into a paying job. When people asked Tony about his improbable life story, what they were really asking was how he had managed to get away with it. Tony himself tended to describe his good fortune as if he’d pulled off a spectacular heist.

Journalism can occasionally afford an opportunity for vicarious living. When, a couple of years ago, I proposed a Profile to Bourdain and he accepted, I was delighted by the prospect of following him around for a while, hanging out in New York and travelling with him to Vietnam. Tony was endlessly generous with his time: he liked to say yes to people. He bloomed late—it was only in his mid-forties that writing, and then television, secured a career for him outside the kitchen—and he never forgot that the first quarter century of his professional life had been spent toiling in sweaty, thankless, underpaid obscurity. Everything that had happened since, he told me, was “extra innings.”

Tony will be remembered for his infectious enthusiasms and his brash exuberance, but I was most inspired by his capacity for reinvention. As a young man, he had plunged, willfully, into heroin addiction—he had wanted to be an addict, he told me—and then decided, willfully, to quit. He was a good chef but never a great one, and, recognizing his limitations, he hustled to establish a writing career, eventually, in 2000, publishing the bestselling memoir “Kitchen Confidential,” which grew out of an article that appeared in this magazine.

In later life, Tony would recount his literary origin story in breezy terms: he wrote a little article about life in the kitchen, sent it off to The New Yorker, and, Whaddayaknow! They wanted to publish it. But, in truth, he had labored mightily on his writing, submitting fiction to literary magazines and publishing a couple of crime novels before someone suggested that he try nonfiction. When the opportunity arose to appear on television, he seized it. But, rather than falling into the stale but reliable formats of food and travel programming, he and his creative partners devised a show that was off-kilter and completely original. It started as “A Cook’s Tour,” on the Food Network, in 2002, and now airs on CNN as “Parts Unknown.” One CNN executive told me, “People visit us every month and say, ‘I want to be the Tony Bourdain of music,’ ‘I want to be the Tony Bourdain of art,’ of architecture, of religion, of science.” But the recipe couldn’t be replicated.

Even after turning sixty, Bourdain continued to push himself and seek out new experiences. He took up Brazilian jiu-jitsu several years ago, and he became obsessed with the sport, training every day and competing in tournaments, where he trounced much younger athletes. He became a father for the first time in his fifties, and was besotted with his daughter, who is now eleven. He was in a relationship with the actress and director Asia Argento, and became a vocal champion of her campaign for greater accountability for Harvey Weinstein and other perpetrators of sexual harassment and assault. Just last week, CNN aired an episode of “Parts Unknown” that Bourdain was particularly proud of. Set in Hong Kong, it was shot by one of his heroes, the visionary cinematographer Christopher Doyle, and directed by Argento.

Looking back over my notebooks this morning, I recognized dark threads running through our conversations. Bourdain freely acknowledged that part of the reason he continued to work at such a frantic pace might have been a fear about where his mind might go if he ever sat still. Any facile notion I might have entertained about writing a light-hearted portrait of a man with a dream job was, upon meeting Tony, quickly overtaken by a sense that he wasn’t content—that, in all that globe-trotting, he was chasing something that would forever elude him. While I was writing the piece, he had what he described to me as a near-death experience, at a café in France, involving an abundance of prescription medication and red wine. “I want to be happy,” Tony told me. “It’s a perilous, selfish, foolish enterprise, believing in such things. But I think those platonic ideals are worth pursuing, in spite of everything that I’ve learned and done and seen.” He added, “Life makes cynics of us all, especially when you travel as much as I do.”

The last exchange I had with Tony was in late April of this year. The piece I wrote about him had been nominated for a James Beard Award, and he was up for one as well, for producing a film about the chef Jeremiah Tower. Before the ceremony, I sent him a note asking if I would see him there. He wrote back immediately, a one-word e-mail that captured, in a poignant exclamation, the urgency with which he kept on moving: “Indonesia!”