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According to Anthony Bourdain, he became a chef because it looked cool. “I came into the business when cooks still smoked on the line and wore headbands,” he wrote in the New Yorker essay that began his rise from unknown New York City chef to international star at age 42. “I wanted it all: the cuts and burns on hands and wrists, the ghoulish kitchen humor, the free food, the pilfered booze, the camaraderie that flourished within rigid order and nerve-shattering chaos.”
The description makes his career choice sound like an aesthetic one, and Bourdain indeed was an aesthete, devoted to an art form—food—where intellect follows the tongue. But Bourdain always insisted that surfaces were never just surfaces. As he made clear in his books and interviews and TV shows, beneath the headbands and smoke of the restaurant line lay a cohesive subculture, a means to pride, an outlet for twitchy energy, and a way to serve. When the sexist excesses of that subculture came into new light, he was among the first of his peers to reckon forthrightly with it. To do otherwise would mean he wasn’t being real.
The key ingredient of Bourdain’s career was indeed realness, not as some elemental substance, but as a blend. He played with some of the most tricky aspects of modern life—the obsession with identity, the overawareness of how one’s image moves through the world, and the imperative to indulge one’s hungers—as if they were blades: He knew their dangers, and he knew what they could make. Pop culture and politics may have recently given the concept of authenticity a beating, but Bourdain was able to still make a persuasive case for it because he understood how much appearances really do matter.
You see this clearly in his famous spats with other chefs. When Alice Waters, the evangelist for organic and locally grown cuisine, fried an egg on a spoon for 60 Minutes, Bourdain sniped not at her food, but at her marketing sense. It was “strategically foolish and inappropriate and bad for her argument to be seen cooking a fresh-laid organic egg over an open fire for Lesley Stahl,” he wrote in his book Medium Raw. But, he added, “What’s truly wonderful about Alice is that she is, first and foremost, a sensualist … She’s made greed, lust, hunger, self-gratification, and fetishism look good.”
Bourdain, of course, did the same, though pointedly without the precious egg spoon and quite-so-overt ideology. “I like to eat like a child, in an emotional way,” he once told GQ. “I don’t like to overanalyze.” This was apparent in how, on TV, an “Oh man, that’s good” and what he once called a “just-fucked look” would typically follow the best slurp of soup or bite of sausage. It was apparent in his commitment to not overly script the encounters of his shows. “I’d rather miss the shot than have a bogus shot,” he told The New Yorker.
The no-bullshit edge also glinted in his prose, which he used to nick the pretenses of the food world, high and low. Regarding Chicago’s vaunted gastronomy lab Alinea: “My meal there was one of the longest, least pleasurable meals of my life.” Regarding Paula Deen’s recipe for a burger with donuts for buns: “What was Jesus’s position on gout?” This anti-snobbery was, of course, very rude and certainly a kind of snobbery in itself. But Bourdain chose his targets carefully, often made amends, and rarely thwacked his rhetorical skillet upon the less powerful. When the internet snarked on the North Dakota food critic who’d earnestly praised Olive Garden, Bourdain first joined in but then reconsidered, and he ended up contributing the foreword for a book of her reviews. “This is a straightforward account of what people have been eating—still ARE eating—in much of America,” he wrote.
His rise did help nourish the so-called “foodie” movement and everything dubious that went with it, including the impulse to eat interesting meals so as to photograph them. But while some of his viewers may have cared only for the costume of the authentic—resulting in $14-a-cocktail “dive bars” and the rise of “Brooklyn barbecue”—Bourdain insisted that the best sensory experiences were informed by circumstances, backstories, and a logic that goes beyond market engineering. “The word authentic has become a completely ridiculous, snobbish term,” he told Time. “There are so many first- and second-generation immigrants making wonderful mashups of food they grew up eating. On the other hand, I’m pretty sure that every time Guy Fieri puts barbecue pork inside a nori roll, an angel dies.”
It was through this sense of realness—the sense that a hollow spectacle is no spectacle at all—that he was able to merge entertainment and education so effortlessly. His allergy to airbrushing meant that each trip he took offered not only a chance to feast on a place’s treasures, but to understand the conflicts that had shaped the place and the poverty left unaddressed by tourism. When he went to Mexico City, he dined with a journalist covering the drug war. When he went to Cambodia, he fixated on the lasting toll of genocide. And when he filmed a Massachusetts episode, he focused not only on the charms of Provincetown—the libertine hamlet where he worked as a dishwasher during his teenage years—but also on America’s opioid crisis.
It was a subject close to him, and he discussed his early years of drug addiction like he discussed everything else: prizing the messy truth with a memoirist’s flair, a sense for wider social contexts, and a deep regard for the image. “The first time I shot up, I looked at myself in the mirror with a big grin,” he told an opioid recovery group in that 2014 Massachusetts episode of Parts Unknown. But also, he told Men’s Journal, “Vanity saved me from heroin … I looked in the mirror, and I was very unhappy and embarrassed by the guy I saw there.” Even on as dark a subject as this, Bourdain was consistent: The truth can and should be seen.
If he kicked the habit because of his reflection, he then made a mark by holding a mirror up to the rest of the world—which, in turn, shaped his own image. In David Simon’s remembrance of Bourdain, the TV creator says it was a single image from one of his Travel Channel shows—of Bourdain drinking a mix of red wine and cola as kids played soccer nearby—that drove home what, exactly, explained his appeal. “This guy,” Simon recalls saying, “is so fucking real.”
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