The enduring genius of Anthony Bourdain

In anticipation of Anthony Bourdain Day, Chris Cotonou speaks to the friends and collaborators of the great chef-writer — a man always hungry for more

There was once a tall, hard-drinking, tattooed chef from New York City. After twenty years of rabble-rousing, the chef — a punctual and principled man, despite his troubles and addictions — worked his way to a respectable role at the Manhattan restaurant Les Halles. He was a talented storyteller. And in 2000, he wrote an exposé on his industry called Kitchen Confidential.

To the surprise of the chef, the book was a hit. Everything happened quite quickly. He was on Oprah. He could pay the rent. People asked him for more. So, he proposed the absurd: I travel the world in search of the perfect meal. We film it, I write about it. And A Cook’s Tour was born.

The chef had been given a new chance. After eating and filming his way through Hanoi, Morocco and St Petersburg, he stepped onto a bigger stage with the Travel Channel’s No Reservations. A cult following emerged. Fans made lists from his trips and lived through him, enamoured by his authenticity, his openness to try new foods, and his humility to strangers. The chef, now a TV star, continued writing books and making shows. In 2006, he was stranded in a war in Lebanon. It changed him forever. It changed the kinds of stories he wanted to tell. He decided to use his platform to learn more about the people he ate with.

In 2013, CNN gave him that platform. Parts Unknown was as much about current affairs as what was on his plate. By now, the chef was not only a writer and a TV star, but a father too. He had been softened by the things he had witnessed in Libya, Palestine and Hong Kong. He was widely adored. But his soul still bore the scars of his previous life.

Bourdain in the kitchen of Les Halles, New York

In 2018, Anthony Bourdain died by suicide. It seemed to be the end of a story that had gripped us for nearly two decades. His voice, so relished in the culinary industry for articulating the sublime relationship between emotion and food, felt irreplaceable. It has been much imitated, but never bettered. (See Somebody Feed Phil.) Bourdain’s death happened as his fandom hit a fever pitch — and just before a pandemic where his words on travel, dining, and tolerance would resonate more than ever. 

This month, the Oscar-winning director Morgan Neville announced his new documentary, Roadrunner, a behind-the-scenes look at Bourdain’s life. It comes three years after his passing, and just before his birthday on June 25th — a day now celebrated in the culinary world as Anthony Bourdain Day. Along with the film, new books and documentaries produced by his friends are scheduled for release, each offering retrospectives on a figure we may not have met, but had certainly grown close to. The stories pay tribute to his compelling life. As he transcends into his icon, what is driving the enduring cult of Anthony Bourdain? 

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