by Natalie Finn | Mon., Jun. 25, 2018 3:00 AM
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Anthony Bourdain was nothing if not self-aware.
Painfully so, at times.
The journeyman cook turned executive chef turned best-selling author and TV's preeminent culinary ambassador was known—and often revered—for his unflinching honesty and his way with the human microscope, whether it was turned up on the restaurant industry or, more often than not, cranked to 1,000x on himself.
Devotees of his expeditions chronicled on Food Network's A Cook's Tour, Travel Channel's The Layover and Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations and then on CNN's Parts Unknown—as well as his one-on-one sit-downs on PBS' Mind of a Chef—knew that Bourdain couldn't fully be defined by the tellin'-it-like-it-is swagger on display in his star-making 2000 book Kitchen Confidential. Over the years, he was revealed to be a much more introspective, compassionate, curious and, eventually, increasingly remorseful soul, as he peppered regrets for his mistakes through subsequent books, interviews and episodes of his award-winning series.
In the eight months before Bourdain committed suicide in a hotel room in Kaysersberg, France, his body discovered on June 8 by one of his best friends, chef Éric Ripert, after he didn't show up for breakfast that morning, the 61-year-old, twice-divorced father of one had become a prominent supporter of the #MeToo movement—a not shocking turn of events, but one that could still seem a little at odds with the former drug addict who regularly referenced the fact that he was "getting laid" as one of the signifiers of his contentment in his wild days on the line, unceremoniously laced his prose with mentions of sex acts—both actual and, to describe his culinary ecstasies, metaphorical—and who called the rise of food-centric programming in pop culture "the new pornography."
Bourdain, who would have celebrated his 62nd birthday Monday, first indicated what was to come several days before his girlfriend Asia Argento's allegation of sexual assault against Harvey Weinstein went public in Ronan Farrow's Oct. 10 article for The New Yorker, which detailed multiple allegations of rape and other misconduct by the prolific producer. (Weinstein has since been charged with rape in New York; he pleaded not guilty and is currently free on bail.)
On Oct. 6 Bourdain tweeted, "@rosemcgowan has been way out in front of this thing . Took a lot of courage," referring to her alleged experience with Weinstein, which was broached in the New York Times' initial Oct. 5 exposé that broke what now can loosely be termed as "everything" wide open.
And the blunt, liberally tattooed, jujitsu-practicing star never stopped, determinedly throwing his support behind Argento, whom he met in 2016 when she appeared on the Rome episode of Parts Unknown—".@AsiaArgento I am proud and honored to know you. You just did the hardest thing in the world"—and the #MeToo cause for what turned out to be the rest of his life.
When Weinstein showed up at court to turn himself in, Bourdain tweeted, "When you went on record, @AsiaArgento you were sure this day would never come, that you would be crushed, that you were alone. And yet you did it anyway. #perpwalk." (Weinstein isn't charged in relation to Argento's allegations against him.)
"Anthony gave all of himself in everything that he did," Argento wrote on social media after he died. "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." Rose McGowan, too, mourned him online and lamented his "permanent solution to a temporary problem," adding, "Oh, Bourdain. Please come back. Asia. My Asia. Who has been through more than most could bear. I wrap my arms around you."
But it wasn't just his current relationship that drew him into the #MeToo movement. As one of the most famous faces of the celebrity chef world he both moved in and mocked, many eyes turned to him in the days following Mario Batali's resignation from his own restaurant group after he was accused by multiple women of sexual misconduct.
Bourdain, knowing he wasn't exactly an advocate for women in the kitchen back in the day, readily spoke up with the same candor he applied to anything he was serious about.
"I will not waste anybody's time with expressions of shock, surprise, or personal upset, beyond saying that I am ashamed that I was clearly not the kind of person that women friends who knew — and had stories to tell — felt comfortable confiding in," Bourdain wrote on Medium in December in response to the Batali allegations.
"In these current circumstances, one must pick a side. I stand unhesitatingly and unwaveringly with the women. Not out of virtue, or integrity, or high moral outrage — as much as I'd like to say so — but because late in life, I met one extraordinary woman with a particularly awful story to tell, who introduced me to other extraordinary women with equally awful stories. I am grateful to them for their courage, and inspired by them. That doesn't make me any more enlightened than any other man who has begun listening and paying attention. It does makes me, I hope, slightly less stupid."
Bourdain concluded, "To the extent which my work in Kitchen Confidential celebrated or prolonged a culture that allowed the kind of grotesque behaviors we're hearing about all too frequently is something I think about daily, with real remorse."
There is no reason not to believe he did exactly that.
His personal involvement and characteristic mode of expression—pointed, and often off the cuff—meant he would inevitably end up trading jabs with assorted questioners, trolls and smart-asses over the ensuing months, as those who hadn't been keeping up insisted upon asking him when he was going to say something.
"I have been out of that industry for nearly 20 years. And I have addressed this subject -and this person— publicly, frequently , specifically and at length . Easily googlable," he replied on May 22 to someone on Twitter who inquired when he was going to speak up after he applauded Argento's pointed, raw speech at the Cannes Film festival in which she recalled Weinstein's abhorrent behavior.
"I have been anything BUT silent. Worth googling," he tweeted May 27 when he was quizzed once again.
No one is going to know what was in this deeply empathetic man's head at the moment he resolved to end his life, while he was on location, no less, shooting another episode of his Emmy- and Peabody Award-winning Parts Unknown. Circumstances prompted authorities "to suspect that not much preparation and premeditation went into the act, and leads us more in the direction of an impulsive act," local prosecutor Christian de Rocquigny, who led the investigation, told the New York Times.
At this point we're more compelled to ask, what wasn't on Anthony Bourdain's mind? For years he seemed to be simultaneously relishing what had become his life's work—marveling over his good fortune with disbelief—and apologizing for it.
In his 2010 book Medium Raw: A Bloody Valentine: A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food and the People Who Cook, he acknowledged that his marriage of 20 years to Nancy Putkoski started to fall apart because his priorities changed. He was already a workaholic as a chef, but after Kitchen Confidential he was a full-on celebrity—and one who spent most of his time traveling. He was "seduced by the world," "drunk on a new and exciting power to manipulate images and sound in order to tell stories, to make audiences feel about places I'd been the way I wanted them to feel." (Of course, the lack of manipulation, Bourdain's eagerness to get lost amid the food and culture of wherever he visited was the actual selling point.)
"I have a rampaging curiosity about things, and [Nancy] was content, I think, to be with me," Bourdain told The New Yorker in 2016 about his first marriage. "To go to the Caribbean once a year. There were things that I wanted, and I was willing to really hurt somebody to have them."
In Medium Raw he recounted being "aimless and regularly suicidal" when he retreated to the Caribbean after his 2005 divorce, sleeping till 1 p.m. every day, going on benders every night and driving back to his beach cottage fully under the influence.
A crazy few days with an unstable girlfriend in St Barts sent him fleeing, first back to his own island refuge, and then back to New York, where not long afterward Ripert introduced him to Ottavia Busia, who worked for Ripert at his famed Le Bernadin. They welcomed daughter Ariane in 2007 and got married 11 days later.
Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images
Bourdain had found domestic happiness again but never lightened his workload. He only added to it, starting a publishing imprint, producing and, as always, traveling for 200 days a year. Talking to the Miami New Times in 2010, Busia admitted her husband's "insane schedule" was her biggest challenge.
"When I first met my husband he wasn't particularly famous, he was recognized in certain circles but people wouldn't stop him in the street," Busia shared with Married To a Chef when their daughter was 4.
"His level of popularity has now definitely increased, he has written more books, he does speaking engagements, and his shows are broadcast all over the world. I have to admit at first, when people started asking for pictures or autographs pretty much everywhere, it was a little unsettling, now I'm the one who offers to take the picture if someone approaches him. I completely support everything he wants to do, whether it's traveling to Libya, bungee jumping or writing a comic book."
Asked if life got crazier around the holidays (as it would for some chefs), she replied, "For me it's actually the opposite, the holidays are the only times when he's home. Which is strange to deal with when you are used to be alone. True story, I remember once waking up in the middle of the night terrified because someone was in my bed. That someone was my husband, I had just forgotten that he was home. Good thing I didn't beat him up." (Busia also became a serious practitioner of jujitsu.)
"If I have leisure time, I start thinking bad thoughts," Bourdain told Toronto's Globe & Mail in 2010. "I doubt myself. I get paralyzed."
Despite their initial compatibility and continued support for each other, Bourdain and Busia separated in 2016.
"It's not much of a change of life style, as we have lived separate lives for many years," he told the New Yorker. "More of a change of address."
Two days after the news of his death, Busia captioned a photo of their now 11-year-old daughter, Ariane, with a message to her late ex-husband. "She was amazing. So strong and brave. She wore the boots you bought her. I hope you are having a good trip, wherever you are."
In February, Bourdain told People that being a father imbued him with "some responsibility" to not be so self-destructive. "I also do feel I have things to live for," he said. "There have been times, honestly, in my life that I figured, 'I've had a good run—why not just do this stupid thing, this selfish thing… jump off a cliff into water of indeterminate depth.'"
He continued, "In retrospect, I don't know that I would do that today—now that I'm a dad or reasonably happy."
The New Yorker profile, published in February 2017, detailed what Bourdain treated as a near-death experience during a trip to France the previous year. Suffering from a headache and a rash, he went to a doctor, who gave the onetime heroin and cocaine addict some painkillers and anti-inflammatories. He took a week's worth of pills at once, went to a café to eat and blacked out halfway through his wine.
He woke up with his feet on the sidewalk and his head in the street, he recalled, went back to his villa and wrote his first ex-wife, Nancy, an email. "The sort of thing you write if you, you know, thought you were going to die," Bourdain explained. '"I'm f--king sorry. I'm sure I've acted like I wasn't.' We've had very little contact—you know, civil, but very, very little. 'I'm sorry. I know that doesn't help. It won't fix it, there's no making amends. But it's not like I don't remember. It's not like I don't know what I've done.'"
At least recently, however, his moral compass was pointed in the right direction. His empathy, both innate and that which he acquired in restaurant kitchens and traveling the world, screwing up and living to fight another day, made him a natural advocate for those who had suffered injustice. He ended up providing great solace and comfort to Asia Argento, and his stalwart support for her cause further endeared him to numerous others, even while he himself was adrift.
"I wish that were true but in this case, I can assure you, from women talking to me with first hand stories, it's not wonderful at all, " he tweeted back to a food and wine journalist who quibbled when he predicted the day before the Batali story came out that "Monday is going to suck." (To paraphrase, she thought it didn't suck at all and was, in fact, wonderful.)
"I've been sitting on stories that were not mine to tell," Bourdain continued. "And feeling sick and guilty as f--k I hadn't heard them before...And I don't disagree with anything you are saying other than that this is cause for glee for anybody."
And he had been talking about the issue at hand.
On Late Night With Seth Meyers on Oct. 31, Bourdain recalled the "frankly pretty brutal and oppressive" kitchen system he rose through the ranks of, acknowledging he had been proud of lasting 30 years in that environment.
"And when I wrote about it, I tended to glorify—I was proud of having been tough enough," he explained. "...You know, I wrote a book that I stand by. It's an honest representation of what I saw, what I went through, what I—you know, the voices I heard and my own voice at the time. But...people would come up to me after this book at readings, I knew I had a problem within a couple of years because people would come up to me, fans, they'd high-five me with one hand and slide me a packet of cocaine with the other. And I'm like, 'dude, did you not read the book? Drugs did not work out so great for me!'
"So I think in some ways, I kind of, you know, provided...validation for a kind of a meathead mentality," he admitted, "a bro, sort of meathead bro culture that has not been good, particularly for women...I don't want to think I lowered the level of discourse, but I don't think I helped it."
As for the overall restaurant culture, "I think it's going to have to change...You're going to have to account for yourself. 'What did I do when at-that-important moment,' you know? 'What did I say? What kind of person was I?' You're going to have to take responsibility for what you see, not just what you take part in."
But no matter how much he excoriated himself or otherwise sought to atone for his own self-acknowledged sins, in the end it seems as though he could never forgive himself. For anything, including his success. His scathing, often hilarious comments about the towering institutions and personalities of the culinary world made headlines, but his pointed comments directed inward faded to the background.
"Survivor guilt," he described his mentality to the Globe & Mail in 2010.
And that was years before #MeToo as we know it now, and he wasn't lamenting any one bad deed (out loud, anyway). Rather, he felt bad about leaving his people behind, his dishwashers, busboys and cooks on the line, as he got to go almost anywhere his heart desired and get paid for it. All the trappings that looked to the outside as the makings of an ideal existence continued to trouble him. He joked about it, his self-deprecating musings on his dumb luck becoming part of his origin story, and his repeated insistence that he could go back to the line should everyone grow sick of him and his life as he knew it vanish became a reliable addendum.
Asked his advice for those in a dark place who may be trying to rebound from failure, and speaking from experience, Bourdain told Fast Company last August, "Even at my worst, there was a level of vanity, I guess, I looked in the mirror and saw somebody who—somebody deep in there, regardless of how low I was, my circumstances, I had a high enough opinion of myself that I thought, it's worth going forward. I Think a lot of people in a similar situation, for whatever reason, look in the mirror and see something bad. Unworthy of good things. And allow themselves, or excuse, a downward spiral, because they don't really believe in their basic worth. I did. That's vanity."
For the umpteenth time he insisted that his confidence that he had a story to tell, that other people would want to hear, or even pay for, was "not normal."
Bourdain added, with a little laugh, "That's often very much at odds with being a functioning, well-rounded, good person in the conventional sense, that kind of vanity, narcissism, self-regard, self-importance, and cheerful willingness to examine and share your feelings."
It sounds as though he even viewed his "high enough opinion" of himself as another flaw.
His fans certainly didn't care that there were more accomplished chefs than him, or that he'd snorted some coke in the '80s and left a trail of destruction in his wake. They blazed right past his equivocations, gladly declaring that, if they could do anything and be anybody...it would be him.
But living everyone else's dream doesn't help if you can't escape your own nightmare.
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