Anthony Bourdain, the television host, writer, and cook, has died. CNN, the network that hosted his show “Parts Unknown,” reported the cause of death was suicide. He was 61.
It is hard to think of anyone who has had a greater influence on the way we think about food and restaurants.
Bourdain first came to attention as the author of “Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly,” his 2000 bestseller that exposed readers to the sometimes unsavory realities of life in a restaurant kitchen and introduced them to his worldview — sardonic, funny, provocative, honest, and deeply humane. He wrote frankly about his appetites, for food, sex, drugs, and experience. He taught us not to order fish on Mondays (old) or steak well-done (we’d get the worst cuts). A man who relished blood, guts, and off cuts, he railed against vegetarians and vegans — “the enemy of everything good and decent in the human spirit, an affront to all I stand for, the pure enjoyment of food,” he wrote. (Also on his list of targets: the Food Network, Alice Waters, food writer Alan Richman, Guy Fieri, people who brunch . . . ) He showed us that restaurant culture was indeed just that, a culture, and that it did not look like the shiny celebrity-chef version presented on reality TV. It was a place where misfits could find a home, as he had.
Full of swagger and profanity, the book gave him a reputation as a “bad-boy chef” and made him a role model for countless cooks coming up. The stereotypical tattooed, carnivorous, proudly in-your-face, and often (but not always) male chef was modeled directly in his image.
Anyone who spoke with Bourdain — Tony, as he was called — encountered a much more reflective reality. As his career developed, he increasingly brought that to the screen as host of the Food Network’s “A Cook’s Tour,” the Travel Channel’s “Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations” and “The Layover,” and CNN’s “Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown.” He was filming an episode of the last in France when he died, according to CNN; his close friend Eric Ripert, chef of New York restaurant Le Bernardin, found him unresponsive in his hotel room. The two traveled the world together, appearing live in conversation at venues like Symphony Hall.
In a 2010 interview with the Globe, Bourdain mocked his transition to television stardom: “I’m part of the problem, right? I complain about people who are on the Food Network, I’ve almost made my living ridiculing celebrity chefs, yet I become one,” he said. “I travel the world looking for unspoiled areas and family-run operations. I embrace and enjoy them and put them on TV; soon people in ugly shorts and white socks will be there. I don’t know if I think it’s a good idea to fetishize food, and I can’t help it. I have mixed emotions about the ultimate effect on society of my good works.”
But he didn’t just fetishize food. He understood it as an essential and universal connector. He used it as a way in, illuminating for viewers corners of the world most of us would otherwise never see. He celebrated our differences, and he showed us our common humanity, with appreciation and respect. He visited Uzbekistan and New Jersey, Korea and Haiti, Houston and Hong Kong, South Boston and Provincetown, where he first began working in kitchens at the former Flagship restaurant. In 2006, filming “No Reservations,” he and his crew were trapped for a week in Beirut, caught in the war between Israel and Hezbollah. Before they were evacuated, they documented their experience in an Emmy-nominated episode. It shifted Bourdain’s approach. “I came away from the experience deeply embittered, confused — and determined to make television differently than I’d done before,” he later wrote for CNN.
Over a television career that spans 15 years, viewers are witness to a host’s evolution on-screen. Off-screen, Bourdain evolved, too. He became a father at 50; he and ex-wife Ottavia Busia had a daughter, Ariane, in 2007. In his 2016 cookbook, “Appetites,” he documented the recipes he cooked at home with family and friends and wrote of his love for his daughter.
Romantically involved with actress Asia Argento, who was one of the first to allege sexual assault by producer Harvey Weinstein, Bourdain became an outspoken ally of women in the #MeToo movement — a role that didn’t always sit well with those in the industry who perceived the stance as being at odds with his behavior earlier in his career.
“I’m always willing, prepared, and even inclined to believe that I’m absolutely wrong about whatever I said yesterday,” Bourdain said once in an interview with the Globe.
Bourdain had many fans and more than a few detractors. Our feelings about him were often complex, because he was complex, a writer of mysteries and graphic novels, punk-rock fan, Brazilian jiu jitsu devotee, denizen of old New York, addict, family man, cynic who loved and hated vocally and in equal measure.
In an interview, I once ribbed him about having permanently scared everyone away from eating fish on Mondays. “I’m sorry about it,” he said. “It’s 10 years later. Things are better now. But it will be in the obit.”
Tony, it is.
If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts or planning self-harm, there are resources available to help:
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
A 24-hour, toll-free, confidential suicide prevention hot line available to anyone in suicidal crisis or emotional distress.
The Massachusetts Coalition for Suicide Prevention
An alliance of suicide prevention advocates. The website contains resources and information: www.masspreventssuicide.org
Crisis Text Line
Crisis Text Line is free, 24/7 support for those in crisis. Text 741741 from anywhere in the US to text with a trained Crisis Counselor.
Text 741741 to talk with a real-life human being trained to bring texters from a hot moment to a cool calm through active listening and collaborative problem solving.
Riverside Trauma Center
Offers services and referrals after traumatic events. The center’s Crisis Response Line is answered 24 hours.
The Trevor Helpline
This crisis intervention and suicide prevention hotline is focused on LGBTQ youth.