Missing Anthony Bourdain

The celebrity chef’s death was mourned worldwide. A new film about his life serves as a therapy session for friends and admirers still reeling from the loss

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Missing Anthony Bourdain
Anthony Bourdain attends “Parts Unknown Last Bite” Live CNN Talk Show hosted by Anthony Bourdain at Atomic Liquors on November 10, 2013 in Las Vegas, Nevada / Isaac Brekken / WireImage

Last year’s tragic blast in Beirut robbed Lebanon of much that was precious. All the lives lost, homes destroyed, monuments erased. The lost lives are irreplaceable, of course. But at least one of Beirut’s beloved establishments has experienced a resurrection. The modest but popular restaurant Le Chef is back in business because a benevolent spirit was looking over it. After the blast, when journalist Richard Hall organized a fundraiser to help the owners rebuild the restaurant, it received a sizable donation from a certain “Russell Crowe.” Unsure if it was indeed the “Gladiator” superstar, Hall asked for confirmation. Crowe replied: “Yes. On behalf of Anthony Bourdain. I thought that he would have probably done so if he was still around.”

In July 2006, Bourdain had arrived in Beirut to film an episode of his show “No Reservations,” and Le Chef was the first restaurant he visited. He loved its unpretentious, diner-like atmosphere, its exquisite food and its unruly energy. Bourdain was there “to make a happy food and travel show,” but soon war broke out between Israel and Hezbollah, and the city was pounded by daily airstrikes. Bourdain witnessed Israeli jets bombing Beirut airport, which left him and others stranded in the city. Bourdain watched the war unfold while safely holed up at a hotel on a hill in the north of the city. However, his crew of local fixers and assistants had to flee to move their families to safety. He spent the weeks in an introspective mood. The experience seems to have had a deep and permanent effect on him. While Bourdain decided not to air the dramatic war footage, his coda to the show, which would earn him his first Emmy nomination, is worth revisiting.

“In the few years since I’ve started to travel this world, I’ve found myself changing,” Bourdain said. “The cramped, cynical worldview of a man who had only seen life through the narrow prism of the restaurant kitchen had altered. I’ve been so many places, I’ve met so many people from wildly divergent backgrounds, countries and cultures. … I’ve begun to believe that the dinner table was the great leveler, where people from the opposite sides of the world can always sit down and talk and eat and drink, and if not solve all the world’s problems, then at least find, for a time, a common ground. Now I’m not so sure. Maybe the world’s not like that at all. Maybe in the real world, the one without cameras and happy food and travel shows, everybody, the good and the bad together, are all crushed under the same terrible wheel. I hope, I really hope, I’m wrong about that,” he said.

The experience shaped the humane realism that would define his oeuvre and propel him to global stardom. On June 8, 2018, when Bourdain committed suicide, the loss was felt worldwide.

It was a dark day. Like earlier generations, who remembered where they were when they learned of the great rock ’n’ roll deaths of the ’60s and ’70s, the moment we heard of Anthony Bourdain’s death will be forever etched in our minds. While he’d have likely preferred a comparison to Sid Vicious or Joey Ramone, Bourdain was a bona fide rock star with enough cultural currency to have his death resonate on the level of a Jim Morrison or a Jimi Hendrix. Bourdain fans were left with a sense of being robbed, as though in need of another fix.

Few could have imagined the impact of a middle-aged man who, prior to being discovered by book publishers and television producers, had spent his entire adult life toiling and sweating over searing, industrial-strength stoves in the hidden vestibules of New York City restaurants. Among his signature achievements was an ability to cut through the noise of network and cable news reports from troubled hot spots both present and historic. He shone new light upon formerly forbidden zones, introducing us to the cultures, cuisines and — more important — people of places as alien to American audiences as Iran, Myanmar and the Congo. And he did it with heart, putting principle above profit or sensationalism.

“Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain” arrives like a silver cloche over a plate that’s almost too hot to touch. Those of us who’ve read every Bourdain postmortem and debated friends and strangers alike about how it all went wrong remain riddled with questions. Wasn’t he the guy who had life all figured out? The one who could succeed without having to sell out? A man who was able to spread so much joy through food, storytelling and travel? Was he not able to feel himself any of the joy that he was bringing to his audience? How could someone with this much success — creative, critical, financial and seemingly every other measure — commit such an act?

The film provokes more questions than it answers, though through no fault of the film or the filmmaker, Morgan Neville. He could have gone in many directions, having literally thousands of hours of footage to work with, but no path was likely to please everyone. The highly emotional testimonials give this film the feel of a therapy session, for both the interviewees and the audience.

“Roadrunner” introduces us to Bourdain before he was claimed by fame. There is extensive footage from his pre-cable TV years. We see him at his day job as the head chef at Les Halles restaurant near New York’s Union Square; we see him at home. Like the hero in a Greek tragedy, Bourdain is oblivious to the stratospheric rise that awaits him, though the audience knows his story and is looking for all the junctures where the eventual fall could have been averted.

It is fascinating to learn that Bourdain’s dream job was never the result of extensive career plotting, but rather of the right people stumbling upon his writings and imagining them as a TV show. Equally accidental was his writing career — the result of a friend reading Bourdain’s entertaining emails aloud to his wife, who happened to be a reputable New York publishing industry rep. As we meet him, Bourdain’s 1999 piece in The New Yorker, “Don’t Eat Before Reading This,” followed by his now iconic memoir, “Kitchen Confidential,” has just caused a stir. He is on The New York Times Best Sellers list and booked on Oprah.

In outtakes from his earlier forays in front of the camera, we see a certain diffidence that belies the easy charisma that everyone associates with his later on-screen presence. His very first trip to Japan is a stew of awkwardness and discomfort. His previously wide-eyed producers have become exasperated, ready to cut losses like the head of a tuna on ice at the Tokyo fish market. However, a subsequent visit to Vietnam — with its free-flowing atmosphere that runs counter to Japan’s stuffy decorum — triggers an epiphany: Why not try a different approach? What if he were an antidote to the type of television chef he found cringeworthy? Soon he is engaged in slurping noodles amid the swarming of motorbikes in Hanoi, bonding with rural ex-Viet Cong soldiers while downing shots of home distilled rice liquor and engaging in other activity we could never imagine from the likes of Emeril Lagasse and Guy Fieri.

Along the way, we hear from numerous friends, family members and associates. Some famous, some not: Eric Ripert — the award-winning French chef with whom Bourdain developed an “Odd Couple” type of friendship — fellow punk rocker of restaurateurs David Chang, Ottavia Busia (his second wife and mother of his daughter), and various longtime producers and crew members. All trying to come to grips with Bourdain’s loss. Some clearly still processing it while on camera.

Yet, it is abundantly clear that while Bourdain may have kicked the habit, the scars of addiction remained.

Bourdain’s death may still feel unreal, but there were signals that foreshadowed it. One was the seriousness of his addictive tendencies. While his drug days long predate the sprightly presence on camera, he referred to them often. Bourdain would speak about his youthful substance abuse in the same manner he’d describe narrowly escaping danger during his televised adventures. It seemed that he’d moved on and channeled those impulses into creative pursuits: cooking, writing, filmmaking and later, martial arts. In this sense, he brought to mind musicians such as David Crosby, the legendary songwriter who quickly rose to fame, became a junkie, lost everything, went to prison, then became clean and sober and is now producing some of his best work. Yet, it is abundantly clear that while Bourdain may have kicked the habit, the scars of addiction remained.

Bourdain was adept in the use of spices, oils and flours, but the one ingredient whose use set him apart from his fellow celebrity chefs was words. He seemed to have less in common with Gordon Ramsay, Julia Child, Jamie Oliver and other preeminent talking heads of taste-inducing television than with his oft-cited hero, the writer, journalist and rebel Hunter S. Thompson. He may not have scaled the same heights of literary achievement as Ernest Hemingway, Jack London, Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath or David Foster Wallace, but like all of them, he tried to erase the gap between word and experience. And like all of them, he died by his own hand.

Bourdain’s words permeate “Roadrunner” like a delicate glaze upon the main course of his raw on-screen persona. There is a dark aura captured by his thoughts concerning the state of the world, our place in it and the juxtaposition of reality and presentation. Exposing this reality seemed to be part of his purpose, from showing what really goes on in restaurants beyond those nicely presented meals to humanizing the people who are too often relegated to mere statistics — the undocumented workers in his kitchens, the limbless survivors of the Vietnam War, the suffering Haitians without enough food, the Lebanese civilians trapped by a battle between Hezbollah and the Israel Defense Forces. All make appearances in “Roadrunner.” For all his irrepressible humanity, an existentialist despair often seems to shadow his thoughts.

The real lacuna here, however, is the absence of Bourdain’s high-profile paramour during the last years of his life. The decision not to include Asia Argento — the Italian actor, filmmaker and daughter of cult filmmaker Dario Argento — is perhaps a sage one, since “Roadrunner” functions as a belated memorial for Bourdain friends and admirers. Although she is discussed unfavorably, Argento’s reputation is not further damaged by the film. In one small respect, the film may have even helped since it dispels the view of Bourdain as an otherwise happy, healthy person full of joie de vivre who was undone by his encounter with Argento. It appears Bourdain was already in a place of deep, existentialist despair well before they met. It was as though she had supplanted the drug he’d kicked but whose hold he had failed to exorcise: heroin.

Argento is no heroine, however. Bourdain was in a vulnerable state when he met her. He clung too hard, smothering her with affection. In the scenes of them together, one can’t escape the sense that a disintegration of the relationship could also destroy the man. She seems to have shown little regard for Bourdain’s vulnerability. Argento is also guilty of using his support and goodwill to help launch herself into the highest echelons of the #metoo movement, only to face scrutiny for her own questionable behavior. Meanwhile, Bourdain foists Argento onto the set of “Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown” as director, creating friction with his staff. In one telling scene from a shoot in Hong Kong, she is seen interrupting a meaningful and weighty conversation with dissidents to make some trivial aesthetic adjustment. Bourdain also let go a loyal friend and longtime cinematographer — a crucial part of his success — to appease Argento.

Although he claims to never have been happier during this period, one gets the sense that it is the love-struck equivalent of a drug-filled delusion. As the film makes clear, Bourdain and Argento were both damaged, and each brought out unhealthy instincts in the other. Both are to blame for the toxicity of their togetherness. There’s no better evidence than the fact that they both resumed smoking, a habit that each had successfully quit.

For all the delight that Bourdain brought to the world, it was a challenge being his family, friend or co-worker. He could say hurtful things to friends or be unfair to loyal, longtime colleagues. And though he was capable of profound empathy toward humans, he showed complete disregard for the lives of animals. On this point, while there is constructive debate to be had about the ethics of a “meat positive” palate, as he did, it is another thing entirely to be as indifferent to animal cruelty as he was. Indeed, he often participated in it, undermining the otherwise positive qualities of his presentation. One scene in “Roadrunner” captures Bourdain cradling a small pig he’d just stabbed with a spear, standing in a blood-filled river. Next, we see him at the Emmys looking as dapper as Don Draper, a fictional TV character similarly racked by internal torment. In the end, whatever bloodlust he displayed toward pigs, camels, ducks, rabbits, goats and other creatures seemed to have been tragically turned upon himself.

Contradictions aside, Bourdain’s broadcasts were meaningful to the world. They were especially enlightening to Americans, a disproportionate number of whom have rarely or never left the United States. While a few — touring musicians like myself, for example — are fortunate enough to spend significant time each year visiting the world beyond our borders, most Americans lack the resources or motivation to travel abroad. Indeed, Bourdain had himself rarely been overseas prior to lucking into what the comedian Dave Chappelle calls “the greatest job that show business ever produced.” He inspired his viewers and readers to travel unbound by the homogenization of big hotel chains, cruise ships and other trappings of tourism. A fine street taco in Mexico or exceptional noodle bowl in Thailand was presented with equal appreciation and attention to detail as a course at Le Bernardin, The French Laundry or any other similarly posh restaurant.

As tantalizing as his self-described “food porn” segments were, his shows would go on to serve a higher purpose: bring about a greater understanding between people. From West Virginia to the West Bank, he entered with no judgment, listening to those with diverging cultural and political views from himself and one another. Over the finest local food and wine, he emerged as a global equalizer, a champion for humans.

As an etching on the wall behind him says in a scene from the film, he wanted us to be travelers, not tourists. He challenged American exceptionalism and the U.S. history of military and cultural imperialism — from misguided foreign policies in Latin America, the Middle East and Asia to the food industrial complex, led by three fast food giants he would mockingly refer to as “The King, The Clown and The Colonel.” In some respects, his show did for Americans what Hemingway once did with his writings. He was their savvy guide to the world.

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