Anthony Bourdain’s love for travel was contagious, showcased through the food he ate and the people he shared it with. After decades of watching his successes and failures, his growth and explorations, it was hard not to become enamored with his life.
Bourdain made a name for himself quickly. His television career began with his first show, A Cook's Tour in 2002 and ended with him hosting CNN’s Parts Unknown. Over the 16 years that he would stay in the public eye until his death in 2018, fans watched him not only travel around the world but also grow up. His trademark style of crude and strange comments and experiences made him an acquired taste, but those who fell for him did so hard. It wasn’t just his readers and series viewers, but the friendships he had formed all over the world.
Mostly, what made him so special, was his raw exposure to both his guests’ humanity and his own. As Parts Unknown remembers him, when asked about his show, he had responded in kind. “We ask very simple questions: What makes you happy? What do you eat? What do you like to cook? And everywhere in the world we go and ask these very simple questions,” he said, “we tend to get some really astonishing answers.”
Over the years, the camera’s caught much of Bourdain’s life, but not all of it. What did they miss, and what was captured?
Much of Anthony Bourdain’s life was public. In pursuing an “authentic” film series where he was the sole host, there was no real way to avoid this. He spent most of his time on the road, and most of that time was spent on camera. One thing he was fairly private about, however, was his daughter. Born 11 years ago to his second wife, he spoke of her from time to time, only in a glowing way and as a reference to his experience in this journey through fatherhood. There was the occasional post on his Instagram about her, but mostly, he left her out of the spotlight.
It’s hard to imagine that Anthony Bourdain spent any time not eating. His episodes are a string of meal after meal centered around him eating huge amounts of food in a very short timeframe. He was not overweight, nor did he seem to hesitate whenever he was offered a second plate. How did he pull it off? In a People article, Bourdain spills the truth. In order to offset the constant eating on film, he fasted while he was off. The balance helped him to stay hungry while shooting but still giving his body a much-needed rest from when he wasn’t.
After Bourdain’s book, Kitchen Confidential, rocked the culinary world, award-winning Chef Eric Ripert reached out to him to meet. They were both rising stars in the New York City restaurant scene in the 1990s and throughout his book, Bourdain had spoken quite highly of Ripert. After the initial meeting, the two maintained a friendship both on and off screen, filming many episodes traveling and eating all over the world.
Anthony Bourdain has eaten at some of the world’s most famous and renowned restaurants, but that does not make him a food snob. In fact, while he tends to rub shoulders frequently with the chefs who manage those prestigious kitchens, he has made a career out of seeking out the quintessential hole-in-the-wall spots that serve up cheap and delicious food. These little local spots tend to appear to the traveler in everyone, often featuring a family run establishment with grandma in the kitchen. Bourdain took his non-discriminatory love for food a bit further still. He has shamelessly touted his affection for the fried chicken from Popeyes and spoke lovingly of the Southern breakfast joints, the Waffle House.
Every year, for as many years, as he was filming, Bourdain spent roughly 2/3 of his time traveling. This time was broken up in different ways, but one thing remained consistent. Throughout his entire television career of about sixteen years, Bourdain worked with mostly the exact same people. His staff, which was kept quite small, remained loyal and dedicated to the work that they were all producing. Due to their intense travel schedule, they spent more of their time together than with just about anyone else, forming what Bourdain had referred to as a family.
Of the more than fifty countries that Bourdain visited over the course of his four shows, one remained off the list. And not just off the list, but was openly and vehemently discarded. Switzerland was never visited, nor was it ever planned to. Bourdain relayed during an interview on The Conan O'Brien Show that not only did he have no intention of visiting the country, be he was actually afraid of it, for reasons, he admitted, that were completely unknown to him.
Anthony Bourdain worked in a restaurant before he even knew he wanted to be a chef. At the time, it was a way to spend the summer with his friends in the vacation lovers spot, Provincetown. Bourdain took a job at a seafood restaurant as a dishwasher and slowly fell in love with the work as he climbed the professional ladder. Much later, he returns with Parts Unknown in a sentimental scene of remembering what this time in his life was like.
Bourdain made a point to graciously accept any and all food offerings during his years of filming. In an effort to not be offensive, and also to continue to surprise his audience, he would delve deeper and deeper into the world’s lesser-known foods. Notable moments where the food he ate went well beyond most viewers imaginations were when he munched on warthog anus in Namibia and Harkal, fermented shark, in Iceland.
Bourdain often came off as a bit of a tough-guy, with little regard to how he was perceived. However, this was not the complete truth. He felt deeply the remorse of offending cultures or misrepresenting them. In fact, one of the things he was constantly striving for ways to rectify what he felt were mistakes made in previous seasons. He learned much throughout his career and remained dedicated to righting his wrongs, speaking from time to time about his regrets and hopes to do better.
Bourdain specifically denied claims that he was a travel journalist, referring to himself instead as an essayist when pressed to answer, stating that he would always speak from his opinion. His work would always be subjective, but this did not stop him from investing in travel journalism. When the co-founder of Roads & Kingdoms, a now award-winning travel journalism site, initially e-mailed him after a night out drinking, Bourdain responded and agreed to invest. Roads & Kingdoms continued to work closely with both Bourdain and his show, Parts Unknown, in the following years. Now, it has expanded into an award-winning site.
Switzerland aside, Bourdain's next great fear is of mimes. Captured candidly when his crew surprises him on an episode of The Layover in Paris, he reacts with obvious terror at the performer. Bourdain is lounging in a park when a mime approaches. His discomfort, and his crew’s enjoyment of it continues to escalate. It is eventually dispelled and the show moves on, but while it may have made for some funny filming, Bourdain’s fear of mimesis very real, one he brings up repeatedly both on camera and in print.
Somehow, during his entire time of production, Bourdain managed to maintain a real sense of authenticity in his shows. There were mistakes, sure, but he was honest, at times painfully so. His introductions and good-byes, for example, were never staged. He did not want his first impression when bringing someone new onto the show to be fake, he wanted to have that moment to genuinely introduce himself. This spilled over into other aspects of the show, leaving the viewer with a real connection to Bourdain.
No matter where he was in the world, Bourdain made it a point to exercise every day. As his interest in the Brazilian martial arts world increased, he made it a priority. When he was home, he trained in the jiu-jitsu facility. Even when he was traveling, he continued to train for the sport. When discussing his fitness routine in a Nuvo article, he says “I train every day, wherever I am in the world.”
Bourdain is funny. He has a dry wit that is both charming and engaging, connecting to the audience on a personal level that leaves most chuckling throughout an episode. But what was intended to spark laughter in the viewers was not always funny to Bourdain. Taking the episode of Parks Unknown in Sicily, which has been described as his worst ever, Bourdain says that what was happening was not funny to him. In an interview for Forbes, he explains “This is sort of a dangerous paradox about the shows over the years where the producers understand that when things go really, really badly, its comedy gold sometimes, but its not fun for me.”
Bourdain visited all seven continents during his filming, but not all countries were created equal in his eyes. Seven of the more than fifty they stopped at were repeated time and time again. Japan and Italy caught the most limelight boasting ten episodes each. Part of what Bourdain filmed was for his viewers, but he acknowledged many times his greater love for specific places.
Bourdain’s second wife was a trained jiu-jitsu practitioner when they met and married. However, Bourdain was initially resistant to getting involved. Much to his surprise, he eventually became interested and then enthralled by the sport, even taking home a championship at the Jiu-Jitsu New York International Open in 2016. In a Parts Unknown episode, Bourdain opens up about this hobby, taking the cameras to follow a training session and later, dinner with a fighter.
Bourdain climbed into fame through his first book, Kitchen Confidential. The book is often cited as the beginning of his career in television, allowing him an entryway to fame. What is little known to the public eye is that Bourdain continued to write, authoring quite a few more books including cookbooks, perhaps unsurprising. What is surprising, however, is that Bourdain also wrote a fictional crime series and comic books that are seldom mentioned.
Anthony Bourdain’s history of depression simply did not seem to line up with the man that fans had watched and read about over the years, a man who seemed to be hardened to life’s extremes. His fame, notoriety, and appearance of having a career that many have only dreamt of made it hard to reconcile that he would give it all up. He also left behind friends and family that loved him. The depression that eventually overcame Bourdain was somehow unseen by the cameras that followed him everywhere.
Squatting on the short, plastic stools that are recognizable in just about any of Vietnam’s noodle shops, Bourdain sat across from the President Barack Obama. They talked about politics and food over cheap beers and steaming bowls of homemade soup from one of Bourdain’s favorite spots in the city of Hanoi. The scene is mostly them amicably chatting, backs hunched over as two tall men who are attempting to adjust the much too small table set in front of them, enjoying a meal together.
While he did actually snorkel, it was what was in the water that turned out not to be real. Arguably one of Bourdain’s most famous episodes did not become that way intentionally. In fact, it was just how bad the episode was that made it an instant fan favorite. The show features a segment where he goes snorkeling only to have the fisherman on board the boat throwing dead sea creatures out as stand-in marine life. Instead of seeing Sicilian fish, Bourdain is face to face with the fisherman’s most recent catch. After swimming around an empty ocean showcasing this strange performance, Bourdain angrily leaves the water. The show is often brought up as his least favorite filming experience and was rather painful to watch for the audience.