Anthony Bourdain wrote so brilliantly about food that people who wouldn’t normally pick up a book, and people who didn’t really care about food, suddenly did. By his own admission, he was not a great chef, even though he ran a few kitchens in his native New York. But by the time his seminal book Kitchen Confidential was published in 2000, he had already begun to influence the world in ways his food alone never could.
Thanks to his groundbreaking food and travel TV shows, he is credited with creating ‘foodie culture’, although he probably would have hated the idea of that. For Bourdain, food and food culture was something everybody has a right to enjoy, without labels and categories, and without snobbery or fuss. His unique take on food and life was honed in unforgiving kitchens, from Massachusetts to Manhattan. It was amidst the daily grind that he learned the machinations of kitchen life. But in restaurants like Brasserie Les Halles, he also learned the intricacies of classical French cooking, a cuisine he had loved since he was a child.
In 1999, his essay Don’t Eat Before Reading This was published in the New Yorker magazine, and Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly was the bestselling book that followed. Part honest memoir, part gritty exposé, it detailed the reality of kitchen life from behind the scenes in all its raw and unfiltered glory, and it caused a sensation. Bourdain’s life was changed overnight. He cleared his debts and embarked on a new career as a writer and broadcaster, following up his first book with a TV series and an accompanying book A Cook’s Tour.
He travelled the world making further must-watch TV shows No Reservations, Top Chef, Bravo and All Stars, The Layover and Parts Unknown, and he wrote more books including Bone in the Throat, The Nasty Bits, as well as two culinary mysteries and the graphic novel Get Jiro. His Medium Raw: A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food and the People Who Cook was the sequel to Kitchen Confidential. He also appears in the movie The Big Short.
It would have been easy to forget that Bourdain was a cook and not just a prodigiously talented food writer, but his Les Halles Cookbook presented some of his favourite classic French dishes, with a side order of classic Bourdain wit. To accompany his Dutch oven cooked beef bourguinon recipe, he recommended a bottle of Côte de Nuit Villages Pommard, and for his coq au vin recipe, he advocated the adventurous step of thickening the sauce with fresh pig or chicken blood.
His other cookbook Appetites lists some of the most cherished foods of Bourdain’s travels, such as Macau-style pork chop sandwich, and ‘buddae jjigae (Korean army stew). Indeed, no matter which remote places he visited, or however strange the dishes he ate, he never judged or patronised the people who cooked for and ate with him. He was respectful to all the food cultures he experienced, no matter how challenging or alien to his own. Although when it came to bad food, made by indifferent or cynical chefs, his opinions could be scathing, and his pen acerbic.
In 2018 while filming on location for Parts Unknown in Alsace, France, Bourdain took his own life. Although his problems with addiction were well documented, nobody will know why this hugely talented and successful chef and writer took such a drastic step. But his death opened up a wider discussion about mental health both in the world of restaurants and beyond, which continues until this day.
Without Anthony Bourdain food writing might have been a stale old dish. He was Hunter S. Thompson with a chef’s knife, cleaving a path through ream after ream of staid and genteel prose to give us words that hissed and sizzled. But for all his macho verve and badinage, there was an air of vulnerability about him. His words always came with a healthy sprinkling of self-deprecation. He wrote with great soul and sensitivity about the simple pleasures of eating good food in good company. And he knew all about the power of food to unite people across diverse cultures. He will forever have a special place in the pantheons of chefs and food writers.