How Anthony Bourdain's Raw Honesty Made His Demons Part of His Appeal

Chef turned author, TV star and culinary adventurer Anthony Bourdain, who took his own life five years ago, candidly chronicled his own personal and professional failings throughout his life.

By Natalie Finn Jun 08, 2023 11:00 AMTags
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Anthony Bourdain was famous for bristling at things. He bristled at perhaps nothing more than being called a "bad-boy chef."

Or even, eventually, "chef."

"I've reached the point where I'm not the bad-boy chef," the author, TV personality and globetrotting culinary ambassador—who used to make a living as a restaurant journeyman and eventual executive chef at New York's Les Halles—told Toronto's Globe & Mail in 2010. "I'm not a chef. I'm not bad. And I'm not a boy."

But reputations are hard to shake, especially when they're as self-inflicted as Bourdain's was with his industry-jolting nonfiction bestseller, 2000's Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly.

The book, which inspired a short-lived Fox sitcom starring Bradley Cooper, simultaneously established Bourdain as both an expert on food, with his take-to-the-heart tips such as to never order the fish stew on a Monday, and as the—you made your own bed, Tony—bad-boy celebrity chef, thanks to his stories about the heroin addiction that began in 1980 and snorting cocaine before dinner service.

Bourdain jauntily began his memoir-slash-exposé, an extension of his 1999 New Yorker article "Don't Eat Before Reading This," with the assurance that he wasn't going to win many friends nor influence people in high places with this dish.

"I don't think I'll be going on ski weekends with Andre Soltner anytime soon or getting a back rub from that hunky Bobby Flay," he wrote. "Eric Ripert won't be calling me for ideas on tomorrow's fish special. But I'm simply not going to deceive anybody about the life as I've seen it."

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Bourdain's own rollicking tale, which he had been building on with raw, unabashed candor as he carved out a place for himself in the pantheon of inimitable personalities, suddenly came to an end June 8, 2018, when he died by suicide in the Alsace region of France.

The 61-year-old had been on location shooting his award-winning CNN series Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown. Ripert, who had become a dear friend, found Bourdain unresponsive in his hotel room.

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Though he did piss off more than a few people over the years, and his well-thumbed contempt for what he thought were the more gimmicky aspects of the "celebrity chef" world and other culinary embarrassments was no secret, Bourdain became a beloved TV star and ultimately a revered authority on what and where to eat—as well as, incidentally, an explorer of far-flung cultures around the world, shared humanity brought to you by the universal act of breaking bread.

"I'm not a journalist. I consider myself an enthusiast," he told E! News in 2014. "By my way of thinking, given the opportunity, who wouldn't do what I do? I mean, to get to go to cool places and make self-indulgent television about it? Who wouldn't do that?"

His friends readily acknowledged that Bourdain would always be the first to marvel over where he had eventually landed in life, decades after a chance spying of a bride having a tryst with the chef in the middle of her wedding at the restaurant where he was working as a dishwasher set him on his initial path.


"Traditionally, we were the losers in the family. It has traditionally been a profession that is welcoming to misfits through history," Bourdain said in 2009 on a CT Forum panel, discussing the phenomenon of celebrity chefdom that initially came into being with the likes of Julia Child, became an essential part of the Hollywood firmament in the Wolfgang Puck era and then exploded thanks to the Food Network and its progeny such as Top Chef and Gordon Ramsay's one-man competition empire.

"All of us who got into the business because we presumably had bad communication skills, unlovely personal habits, couldn't get along with anybody—why, suddenly do we all have TV shows?" Bourdain mused.

"I think the best honest answer is...for better or worse, and I say this as someone who's milking this celebrity chef shit for everything I can get, very happily," he continued as the audience cheered appreciatively, then declared, "It's the new pornography, OK? It's people seeing things on TV, make things on TV, that they're not going to be doing themselves any time soon, just like porn."

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Then over the years, Bourdain became the PlayboyHustler and grainy celebrity sex tape all rolled into one. 

"He's got that incredibly beautiful style when he talks that ranges from erudite to brilliantly slangy," Nigella Lawson, a fellow judge on ABC's The Taste, told the New Yorker in 2017 for a profile on Bourdain.

After he died, Lawson tweeted that she was "heartbroken" and would be "going off twitter for a while."

While he may have lumped himself in with the misfits, Bourdain was no awkward savant, best expressing himself through the art of food preparation and plating. He had a way with words, written and spoken, and his charm was in his no-punches-pulled, brutally honest and self-effacing manner.

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"I am the easiest [restaurant] customer," he assured Oprah Winfrey on her talk show in 2001. "I'm just so grateful to be sitting down, having someone else cook for me. I over-tip, I almost never complain—unless the waiter has really insulted my intelligence."

The liberally seasoned judgment he passed on food and the people who make it, sell it and write about it was embraced all the more because of the unsparing eye he turned toward himself. He was astonishingly frank about his many failings, both professional and personal, and his demons became an inextricable part of his own mythology, the culinary and travel expert whom you could trust because he had already cut himself down to the bone and spilled his own guts for the world to see.

"Somebody called me the elder statesman of food the other day," Bourdain lamented to the Globe & Mail in 2010. "I found it deeply terrifying. I don't want to be one of them, because I see them as moribund, corrupt, tragic, angry for the most part."

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To the New Yorker in 2017, he further bristled at the "chef" title, saying, "Look, I put in my time, so I'm not uncomfortable with it. What makes me uncomfortable is when an actual working chef who cooks better than I've ever cooked in my life calls me Chef."

He said on Marc Maron's WTF podcast in 2011, "I fell into the business because I fell in love with the lifestyle, I liked the people, i liked that i was part of a cult, I liked that I was making something with my hands that you were either rewarded or punished for immediately. Now I guess I'm privileged to be able to travel the world on my stomach and really think about food and all of my previous life, in the life, 28 years, I guess allows me a perspective where I'm always thinking, 'who cooked this food?' Not just what am I eating, but who cooked it and why?" 

"Food that's devoid of bullshit" was what Bourdain appreciated.

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He initially won and embraced fame as the enfant terrible of the restaurant world, but since those heady early days—which followed his even more self-destructive earliest days—Bourdain, if not exactly mellowed out, then simply grew up.

In his second book, 2010's Medium Raw: A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food and the People Who Cook , he opened up about the end of his two-decade relationship with first wife Nancy Putkoski, his high school sweetheart—a breakup he readily admitted was hastened by his overnight fame. 

"That kind of love and codependency and sense of adventure—we were criminals together," Bourdain told The New Yorker, not using Nancy's name but comparing the relationship to the one between two junkies in Drugstore Cowboy. "A lot of our life was built around that, and happily so."

("It does look pretty bleak in the rearview mirror," Putkoski wrote in an email to the magazine. "But, when you're living it, it's just your life. You struggle through.")

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Ultimately, "vanity saved me from drugs," he told Maron on WTF. "I was just embarrassed and humiliated by what I'd see in the mirror every day." He kept working, luckily, because "there's always a job for somebody who can cook brunch. This is why the smell of French toast or hollandaise sauce...those are the bad times for me."

To get off heroin he was on methadone for eight years, then quit that cold turkey in 1987 but kept using cocaine for several more years. He "just bottomed out on crack," he said.

After Kitchen Confidential and then his TV shows put him on the map, his marriage imploded. "There were things that I wanted," Bourdain acknowledged, "and I was willing to really hurt somebody to have them." 

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Ripert introduced Bourdain to a fellow workaholic, a restaurant general manager who would become his second wife, Ottavia Busia. He took her to an $1,800 sushi dinner at Masa for their first date. On their second date they got matching chef's knife tattoos. They married in 2007, 11 days after their daughter, Ariane, was born. 

"I don't know exactly when the possibility of changing presented itself," Bourdain wrote in Medium Raw. "But some time, I guess, after having made every mistake...having realized that I'd had enough cocaine, that no amount was going to make me any happier."

Though having a daughter was the mental kick in the ass his health needed (Brazilian jujitsu had whipped him into shape in recent years; in 2010 he said he drank alcohol "very strategically," and he said on WTF that becoming a dad led to him thinking, "I might need my brain at any moment," so he cut to only occasional pot use), his innate restlessness didn't subside. 

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"I'm a guy who needs a lot of projects," Bourdain told The New Yorker. "I would probably have been happy as an air-traffic controller." He said he had just started smoking again, several years after kicking a chain-smoking habit (with help from the fact that it became increasingly harder to smoke in public, and especially in restaurants).

Two seasons of his culinary travelogue A Cook's Tour ran on Food Network in 2002 and 2003. From 2005 until 2012 he starred on the Travel Channel's Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations, then picked up his odyssey where it left off in 2013 on CNN with the Emmy- and Peabody Award-winning Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown

In 2016, Barack Obama joined Bourdain for noodles in Vietnam. "He seemed to enjoy himself sitting on a low plastic stool eating noodles and pork bits with chopsticks," Bourdain wrote on of the 44th president of the United States.

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"For fifteen years, more or less, I've been travelling two hundred days a year," Bourdain told the New Yorker. "I make very good friends a week at a time."

But that schedule wasn't particularly conducive to relationships, and his marriage to Busia ended in 2016. "It's not much of a change of life style, as we have lived separate lives for many years," he followed up in an email to the New Yorker's Patrick Radden Keefe before the profile was published. "More of a change of address."

He started dating Argento, whom he met and fell in love with when she appeared on a Parts Unknown episode shot in Rome in 2017. "Anthony gave all of himself in everything that he did," the actress said in a statement shared on social media June 8. "His brilliant, fearless spirit touched and inspired so many, and his generosity knew no bounds. He was my love, my rock, my protector. I am beyond devastated. My thoughts are with his family. I would ask that you respect their privacy and mine."

In February 2016 he had told the New Yorker he would continue doing Parts Unknown "until it's not fun." That September he added, "I have the best job in the world. If I'm unhappy, it's a failure of imagination."


But there was a reason why he never slowed down, was incapable of slowing down—why, in fact, he feared slowing down, unless it was in Greece, leisurely enjoying seafood at a waterfront taverna run by the same family for generations, or slurping noodles in Vietnam, one of his favorite places on Earth, with one of the most powerful people in the world.

In 2010 he told the Globe & Mail, "If I have leisure time, I start thinking bad thoughts. I doubt myself. I get paralyzed." 

While his past drug use became fodder for countless gritty, often humorous, endlessly prosaic, Bright Lights Big City-style anecdotes, his struggle with depression endured—a battle he would talk about with his signature bluntness, biting wit and, in hindsight, heartbreaking honesty.

"I will find myself in an airport, for instance, and I'll order an airport hamburger," he said on a 2016 episode of Parts Unknown in which he traveled to Argentina. "It's an insignificant thing, it's a small thing, it's a hamburger, but it's not a good one. Suddenly I look at the hamburger and I find myself in a spiral of depression that can last for days."

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He told The Guardian in 2006 that writing came far easier to him than cooking, but he did miss the camaraderie he found in kitchens. 

He didn't regret spilling the beans on the industry, but "what I do regret is letting people down. Not being able to be a complete human being. Long before I was even on TV I was always, somehow, seeing myself as if I was in a movie: selfish, narcissistic."

"And in being that selfish I must have disappointed people, and all my regrets are about disappointing people—as a friend, as a lover, being a letdown. Cooks. That explains why a lot of us go into the business in the first place. In there, there was something you could control, a way you could feel good about yourself."

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Bourdain may have had enough regret for the wrongs he felt he had committed that it made sense he spent the better part of the last two decades looking to get lost in plain sight, traveling 200 days out of the year.

He's described the feeling of being an anonymous helmeted head on a scooter in search of a good meal "pure joy."

Travel Channel

"Am I searching, am I seeking, am I always looking for something more?" Bourdain told the Wall Street Journal just months before his death. "Yes! I do this for no other reason."

Asked if he planned to seek more balance, he quipped, "Too late for that. I think about it. I aspire to it. I feel guilty about it. I yearn for it. Balance? I f--king wish."

Yet at the same time, he was crazy about his now-16-year-old daughter, Ariane. His family-friendly 2016 cookbook Appetites, co-written with Laurie Woolever, was inspired by the sort of food he liked to make for his then-9-year-old.

"I guess my whole life, as much as I might have wanted a child for the reason that everybody wants one, I always recognized that at no point until I was 50 was I old enough or up to the job," the told The Takeout. "I thought, you know what, I not only really want a child, but at this point, finally in my life, I think I'm up to the job and I'm the type of person who could do the job well and I'm financially prepared to look after a child."

At the time, Ariane definitely sounded like a chip off the old block. 

"She's a very harsh critic," Bourdain said proudly. "You know, I put a tiny tiny little bit of nutmeg in my macaroni and cheese and she did not enjoy that. She called me on it right away."

He told the New Yorker, "I'm shocked by how happy my daughter is. I don't think I'm deluding myself. I know I'm a loving father...Do I wish sometimes that, in an alternative universe, I could be the patriarch, always there? Tons of kids? Grandkids running around? Yes. And it looks good to me. But I'm pretty sure I'm incapable of it."

This story was originally published on Friday, June 8, 2018 at 11:51 a.m. PT.

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