It’s difficult to explain what Anthony Bourdain did. He was a cook, explorer, producer, TV personality, writer, documentarian – whatever he did, it was the best job in the world. He also used his career as a platform to speak not only on food, but on society as a whole and the experiences of people we may never even think about, much less meet.
Throughout his career, Bourdain did so many things and went to so many places that it’s daunting to even approach his massive body of work. Below, we’ve compiled some of the most important aspects of his career and personality to give you a good idea of who he was and what he stood for. Ranging from some of his most influential writings to some of his favorite places to visit, this list covers everything that made Anthony Bourdain such a beloved and influential figure.
“Good food, good eating, is all about blood and organs, cruelty and decay.”
With that sentence, Anthony Bourdain kicked off the career that would span the rest of his life. Serving as something of a thesis statement for his future book, Kitchen Confidential, this piece offered up a lens into the underbelly of the NY restaurant industry. In doing so, he also provides some great, unexpected advice.
For example, if you’re ordering your steak well-done, chances are you’re ordering the worst cut the kitchen has because they know the kind of person who would order their steak well-done wouldn’t know the difference.
His voice, writing style, and general attitude were clear right off the bat.
Not one to mince words about his opinions, Anthony Bourdain makes it very clear when he loves something, especially food. To him, the oyster is what truly opened his eyes to the pleasure of eating.
Hearing him describe how the briny, fleshy meat simultaneously tastes of the future is a joy – something you get every time he sits down in front of a plate of oysters on ice. It’s an image of a man truly happy.
At one point during Bourdain's travels through Vietnam, he sat across from Obama on a small table with even smaller plastic stools, knocking back a couple of cheap, Vietnamese beers.
In what was one of the major highlights of his entire career, the interview with Obama was a simple, but thoroughly engaging and emotional moment.
Hearing the two men bonding over a mutual love for this country, with all of the inherent experiences of both pain and admiration is perhaps the moment that best encapsulates who Bourdain was as a traveler.
Eric Ripert is one of the most famous chefs in the world and also happens to be Anthony Bourdain’s most frequent traveling companion. The two have ventured to France, Switzerland, and, most entertainingly, Szechuan. Watching Bourdain slowly torture Ripert with increasingly slimy, slippery, spicy food in this region of China is perhaps the funniest moment in Parts Unknown. Eric Ripert was there until the very end.
His time in the Japanese countryside with friend and NY sushi chef Masa is perhaps Bourdain’s best episode of Parts Unknown. In this episode, he takes the backseat and lets Masa lead the way, reconnecting with his old home, high school, and friends he hadn’t seen in decades.
This is one of the moments that best encapsulates Bourdain as a surrogate for those of us who don’t have the access to other places and cultures we want to experience. In this episode, he is seeing the beauty and grace of Masa’s world for the first time, just as we are.
If his New Yorker essay made any waves, they were just in preparation for the massive splash this book would make the next year. Kitchen Confidential more or less just extended the concepts, ideas, and stories that the essay hinted at, but the book blew up.
Bourdain immediately became a celebrity, quickly receiving offers to host TV shows, kicking off his public career. The book was intended to simply entertain those in the New York restaurant business so the major success of the book came as a huge surprise to Bourdain himself.
Throughout his career, Anthony Bourdain frequented just about every part of France. His extremely complex relationship with the country started from an extremely young age. Spending summers in France as a child, Bourdain was raised in both America and France. The complexities came to fruition when he returned to the country with cameras behind him.
His whole career was spent promoting the undervalued, underrepresented, and generally ignored, frequently meaning he would antagonize the way things were, i.e. the chokehold French food had on the culinary authority of the world.
Parts Unknown doesn't hold back in communicating its main idea in its name: to explore and celebrate the places that are unknown. Bourdain always pushed to explore the underappreciated, which largely meant going to places that are impoverished and dangerous. From zones of conflict to jungles, Bourdain seemed to thrive and be most comfortable when he could get down and dirty.
The most interesting stories to him came from the people fighting in the areas of conflict and the most beautiful adventures were deep in the jungles, where you would least expect.
Anthony Bourdain has never been shy about voicing his opinions and one of his clearest passions lies in music. When he gets a chance to include a musician as a guest, he’ll take it, having dined with the likes of Alice Cooper, Questlove, Jack White, Youssou N’Dour, and Iggy Pop.
In these sequences, viewers get to see a side of Bourdain that rarely comes out—he’s just a giggling fangirl, trying to contain the overwhelming awe he feels standing next to his heroes. Some are deeply important to the locale he is visiting, some are just punk legends he was clearly looking for some excuse just to meet.
Bourdain and I share a deep love of the Singaporean Hawker center. These clusters of cheap restaurants – each one specializing in one highly specific dish that they have been doing exclusively, sometimes for generations – are testament to the beauty of the human condition.
Bourdain was so enamored with them and so confused as to why they weren’t a phenomenon across the world that he decided to pursue the project of building one in New York City. While it didn’t work out (and probably won’t see future development due to his passing), the noble cause is highly representative of who he was.
It’s far more common to see Bourdain in a dirty back-alley bar or at a small plastic table downing a bowl of cheap, spicy noodles street-side than it is in a tuxedo or at a 3-Michelin star restaurant. While he has expressed his love and deep knowledge of the fine dining scene, it’s very clear that his heart lies elsewhere.
He’d rather interview the construction workers, servers, young wannabe rock stars over a beer. He would always try and feel out the experience of the underdogs and the natives.
It’s impossible to even capture the spectrum of people that Bourdain interviewed and traveled with through his time as a host, even just Parts Unknown. Every single episode features a half dozen or so unique peoples and perspectives in his attempts to truly explore what it means to be in or of whatever place is on the agenda for the week.
Frequently, he would bring travel companions with him like Eric Ripert, Darren Aronofsky, or Asia Argento. Each one gives any given episode a unique flavor and if there’s ever a featured guest, you’re certainly in for a treat.
Not all of the man’s projects worked out as he had hoped. This is largely because he was such an ambitious person and had a perfectionist hold over the art he produced. In one of the most impactful episodes of Parts Unknown, he explored Detroit and showed that this part of the country that we’ve pretty much left to wither away actually has far more than just a heartbeat.
He was clearly affected deeply in his time here since he had been working on a documentary highlighting the golden days of the city. The current status of the project is unknown.
Another career highlight was Bourdain’s episode in Scotland, spent largely with the also recently deceased author and essayist A.A. Gill. The man who passed away of cancer in 2016 was very much the British version of Bourdain himself. Highly opinionated, clever, deeply skilled and interested in the world around him, A.A. Gill fits in the literary world that Bourdain was always in awe of. He will frequently reference diverse works of literature throughout his art, usually to a deeply profound end.
Many, many words have been used to describe Bourdain by those who love him and who hate him in equal measure. ‘Soft-spoken’ has never come up.
When asked about his opinion of vegetarians, he responded that “[they] are the enemy of everything good and decent in the human spirit, an affront to all I stand for, the pure enjoyment of food.” Very little angers Bourdain more than denying someone’s love and culture on the basis of choosing not to eat meat.
Perhaps the most annoying aspect of the contemporary foodie trend is the pompousness and elitism around food. Anthony Bourdain whole-heartedly rejects this. He would eat anything, given to him by just about anyone and judge It purely.
This means that he has soft spots for fast-food joints such as In-N-Out Burger or Jollibee. This also partly explains his love of the off-cuts and the weirder, lesser-known ingredients.
The price tag doesn’t cook the food, and Bourdain understood that better than just about anybody.
Anthony Bourdain’s love of literature was so extreme that he even took a trip to The Congo, simply because of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. He let the book guide his curiosity and, in return, he found himself in middle of the night on a jungle raft, spoke with fishermen who risked their lives jumping across mid-river scaffolding, and was gifted by a Congolese King on the riverbank.
It’s this child-like curiosity that made him such a pleasure to watch, in part because it takes him to some truly wild places.
With a career full of surprises, one of the biggest came when CNN offered him an hour a week for a show of his own design. Fitting somewhat awkwardly in with the rest of the network’s line-up, Parts Unknown was a game changer for food television, travel television, and adventure television.
This multi-faceted beast of a show was truly one-of-a-kind and had the production value, story arcs, strong narrative writing, and budget to push the ambitious documentarian to his fullest.
“You learn a lot about someone when you share a meal together.” Anthony Bourdain understood and advocated for the power of a plate of food more than anyone. And he knew that denying the food of someone who put not only their own love and time into it, but possibly generations of experience and expertise, is simply not an option.
Sure, you aren’t going to like everything. Some dishes might even be hard to swallow. But trying to understand and trying to be a part of that experience, even if it involves eating a partially fertilized chicken egg, is invaluable.
Anthony Bourdain rarely hung out with people that were like him. He visited every continent on Earth, interviewed people from nearly every profession, every societal and economic background, to the end goal of letting them tell their stories and share their experiences. Rarely does Bourdain take over in an interview. He generally asks simple questions to get to the reasons why we should care about this person that is nothing like us and he took every opportunity he could to support the people who needed it most.
While Bourdain would travel to the ends of the Earth for a bowl of noodles and a good conversation, he was also obsessed with exploring the diversity of America in all of its beauty and deliciousness.
From Montana to Detroit to the Mississippi Delta, Bourdain tackles plenty of places that you wouldn’t really even think of. He does also venture to some more predictable places like Seattle, Miami, or New York, but when he does that, he tends to venture to the parts you wouldn’t expect.
It has been clear that Anthony Bourdain had his fair share of struggles. He never really felt like he had a clear of idea of who he was, always at war with his past self, taking shots at the works of his he wasn’t proud of.
It seemed as if the places he loved most in the world were the places that he didn’t really fit in and he had complicated memories of the places he did belong.
Bourdain shows no fear for the war zone. His visit to Jerusalem stands as the most memorable and perhaps the most tense, as he explores the situation in the span of just an hour of television. And somehow, he does it without speaking out of both sides of his mouth.
He didn’t approach it taking sides, rather he went to listen and to see. His ventures to Vietnam and Sri Lanka also heavily feature the remnants of wars that still remain contentious and complex.
No one would claim that Bourdain was perfect. He was perfectly open about his past struggles with drug use especially. He uses these vices in as positive a way as he can, giving us an insight into what it’s like to have someone else’s vices.
Many segments of Parts Unknown focus on these vices – when he goes to Argentina, he frames the episode as a therapy session, in Indonesia he openly admits he was in a bad place last time he was there and did a disservice to the people. Through his journey of redemption, we were able to take the ride with him.
Most importantly, Anthony Bourdain was as human as it gets. He always tried to get to the truth of people’s experiences, regardless of how difficult or painful the journey was.
While he loved food and made it a major part of his life, it was clear that the table dinner table was just a forum for people to speak their mind and to share their world.
References: CNN, Parts Unknown, Eater.com