It wasn’t his cooking that made Anthony Bourdain a superstar. The chef-writer-TV star-cultural icon, who was found dead on Friday, considered himself a journeyman at best and hadn’t run a kitchen since shortly after his memoir, “Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly” (2000), became a massive bestseller. What catapulted him beyond restaurant fame into the cultural firmament were his protean gifts for writing and communication.
“Kitchen Confidential” was something entirely new. Rather than the story of a chef who rises from nothing to ascend the heights of his profession (see: “The Apprentice” by Jacques Pépin, “Yes, Chef” by Marcus Samuelsson), it chronicled the squalid, drug-fueled adulthood of a privileged suburban kid who somehow wound up being the executive chef of a reasonably good restaurant, Brasserie Les Halles, on Park Avenue South in Manhattan.
Bourdain’s voice — funny, profane, unapologetic — struck a chord with the public. He was a great storyteller, and the story he told was of a deeply unglamorous profession, a haven for misfits who sometimes bore contempt for the patrons they slaved to feed. Bourdain’s admiration was largely reserved for the legion of immigrant cooks whom he considered the lifeblood of the restaurant industry. The book paved the way for a new genre (call it dirty chef lit) whose subsequent entries include “Blood, Bones & Butter” by Gabrielle Hamilton, “Fresh Off the Boat” by Eddie Huang and “All or Nothing: One Chef’s Appetite for the Extreme” by Jesse Schenker, chef-owner of 2 Spring in Oyster Bay.
Many chefs were not impressed. Guy Reuge, the French-trained executive chef at Mirabelle in Stony Brook and Sandbar in Cold Spring Harbor, recalled, “I was not a fan of the book. . . . I didn’t think it was a good representation of what we do. But my opinion...changed a lot over the years. He traveled to some of the weirdest places in the world...then he would head to Lyon and sit down with [Michelin-star-covered French chef] Paul Bocuse. He helped chefs to be exposed in a good way. I became a big fan.”
Indeed, Bourdain used his platform to highlight the work of other chefs, whether they were internationally lauded like Bocuse, or toiling anonymously in a Mexican taqueria or Vietnamese market stall. It was over bowls of bun cha (rice noodles and pork patties) in Hanoi that Bourdain interviewed then-President Barack Obama in 2016.
By then, he had transcended food. In 2013 he launched a CNN show, “Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown,” which explored food, culture and politics. During the show’s 11 seasons, he visited Myanmar, Libya, Congo and Iran, among scores of other destinations. The title alluded not only to the far-flung locations, but to the various animal parts he was obliged to consume, lest he insult his hosts.
Bourdain treated the people he met on his travels with utmost respect. Not so other members of the culinary elite. He famously called TV chef Paula Deen the “most dangerous person in America”: “She revels in unholy connections with evil corporations, and she’s proud of the fact that her food is . . . bad for you.” (But, typical of Bourdain, he included an unprintable epithet.) In the same 2011 interview with TV Guide, he said, “I look at Guy Fieri and I just think, ‘Jesus, I’m glad that’s not me.’”
Nor did he mind alienating large swaths of the public. “Vegetarians, and their Hezbollah-like splinter faction, the vegans, are a persistent irritant to any chef worth a damn,” he wrote in “Kitchen Confidential.”
Yet his outspokenness earned him respect and affection from the readers, viewers and the people he interviewed. Obama tweeted, “He taught us about food — but more importantly, about its ability to bring us together. To make us a little less afraid of the unknown.”
To working chefs, he was a hero. “’Kitchen Confidential’ changed the entire dining scene in America,” said Adam Kopels, chef-owner of 18 Bay on Shelter Island. “All of a sudden, everyone was interested in what happened in the kitchen. It was the Big Bang.”
There’s a quote from Anthony Bourdain that always stayed with me,” recalled Ralph Perrazzo, chef-owner of BBD’s in Rocky Point. “Skills can be taught. Character you either have or you don’t have.”