A Tribute to Anthony Bourdain: Chef, Writer and Searing Personality

Bourdain, who took his own life at 61, was a beloved chef, author and travel host who embraced the unique and hidden parts of the culinary world, and invited viewers to do the same.

Photo courtesy of Getty Images.

Anthony Bourdain seemed so fearless in the world. On TV, he eagerly scaled every culinary height and poked his nose into every dark alley in search of food experiences and camaraderie available only to the intrepid. That is what makes his death today, reportedly by suicide, not only shocking and sad but perplexing, upending everything we thought we knew about him. We, who only watched him on TV and read his books, knew nothing of his own dark alleys.

Bourdain, born in New York City in 1956, grew up in Leonia, Bergen County. We interviewed him in 2007 about his early food experiences on both sides of the Hudson River.

“My parents loved restaurants and often took me and my brother into Manhattan,” he told Karen Tina Harrison. “We were eating Japanese, Indian—all kinds of food—back in the 1960s.

“We also ate out a lot in Jersey, mostly in Bergen County. At that time, there was a lot of mediocre red-sauce Italian and gluey Cantonese. When you’re a kid, though, it tastes good. I have fond memories of eating hot dogs at Hiram’s in Fort Lee. We went to the Sol ’n’ Sol Deli in Englewood, where I liked the chopped liver. Then there was Baumgart’s soda fountain in Englewood, which I loved.”

Bourdain became a cook and a chef, but his greatest talents were for eating and talking about eating with those who loved food as he did—as adventure, indulgence, affirmation and defiance.

He also had an exceptional talent for writing. He was probably one of the few unpublished writers who ever sent a story unsolicited to The New Yorker and had it accepted for publication. That piece became the basis for Kitchen Confidential, the book that launched his subsequent career as a world traveler.

Maplewood food writer Josh Friedland was as shocked and saddened this morning as everyone else in the food world. He never met Bourdain, but he channeled Bourdain’s voice and temperament in a way that won him the James Beard Foundation’s first and still only award for humor writing.

Some years ago he created a Twitter character he called Ruth Bourdain, whose over the top pronouncements mashed together the fey lyricism of Ruth Reichl with the junkyard dog growl of Anthony Bourdain. The food world desperately sought to unmask the creator of Ruth Bourdain while waiting breathlessly for the next satirical dart.

Friedland, who wrote a book in the voice of Ruth Bourdain, Comfort Me With Offal, eventually outed himself.

He says he came to create the character because “I was a Bourdain fanboy, and I really liked what he did. He was skewering people, poking at hypocrisy and cliché in the food world. So I was inspired to say, ‘Okay, I’ll go with that and take it to an absurd level.’

“Reichl, on the one hand, was this poetic and earthy voice about the sensual experience of food, and Bourdain was sarcastic, obscene, the complete opposite. Joining those together spoofed the whole of food media and turned it on its head.

“Bourdain has had a lasting influence, I think. We would not have so many different voices and artists in food media today without him. We would not have had these other inquisitive television food personalities who go around the world.

“In doing his shows and in his writing, Bourdain was always very personal. He admitted his own biases, talked about his past experiences and how they played into his interpretations of food.

“There’s a lot of politics in food, and sometimes it gets very heavy-handed about nutrition and things and turns people off. But Bourdain looked at food through the lens of culture, bringing in race and many angles on society. I don’t think anybody did that on television before him. And he made it look like fun.”

Obviously, not everything in anyone’s life is fun.

“There is something dark and disturbing when you think about him,” Friedland says. “He was Hunter Thompsonesque, in a way. On some level he glorified his own history with drugs and hard times, and he  seemed to admire writers who went through those kind of experiences.

“You had the impression this was something in his past that shaped him. But you cannot know what’s going on with a person. Now it’s actually very sad and painful that this was the trajectory of his life.”

Bourdain’s death occurred in France, where he was filming an episode of his show Parts Unknown. CNN, which had aired Parts Unknown since 2013, released this statement:

It is with extraordinary sadness we can confirm the death of our friend and colleague, Anthony Bourdain. His love of great adventure, new friends, fine food and drink and the remarkable stories of the world made him a unique storyteller. His talents never ceased to amaze us and we will miss him very much. Our thoughts and prayers are with his daughter and family at this incredibly difficult time.

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline in the U.S. is 1-800-273-8255.

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