A renegade chef

Words by Kim Severson, Matthew Haag and Julia Moskin, New York Times News Service


Anthony Bourdain, whose darkly funny memoir about life in New York City restaurant kitchens made him a celebrity chef and touched off his second career as a journalist, food expert, and social activist, was found dead Friday in his hotel room in France. He was 61.


Christian de Rocquigny du Fayel, the prosecutor for the city of Colmar, in the Alsace region near where Bourdain was found, said the death was by hanging. “At this stage, we have no reason to suspect foul play,” he said.


Bourdain’s lasting work was not in U.S. kitchens; it was on television, where he ate noodles in Hanoi with President Barack Obama, sucked on soft-boiled turtle eggs at a market stall in Colombia, and stopped to appreciate handmade spring rolls in Cambodia en route to interview a member of the opposition government.


In his 2000 memoir, “Kitchen Confidential,” Bourdain introduced a thrillingly profane, aggressively truthful voice that translated effortlessly to the screen, where he proved he would eat anything, go anywhere and say anything on camera. His early public persona — the macho, unrepentant, drug-loving chef — evolved into that of a clear-eyed crusader for global food justice.


 Anthony Bourdain prepared a meal in the kitchen of his New York apartment in 1997. Bourdain, a travel host whose memoir “Kitchen Confidential” about the dark corners of New York’s restaurants. Image: (Jack Manning/The New York Times)


Recently, Bourdain had emerged as a leading male voice in support of the #MeToo movement, in the wake of rape and abuse allegations against film producer Harvey Weinstein, notably in support of his girlfriend, Italian actress Asia Argento.


Bourdain had traveled to the Alsace region, near France’s border with Germany, with a television production crew to record an episode of his show “Parts Unknown” on CNN, the network said. “It is with extraordinary sadness we can confirm the death of our friend and colleague,” the network said in a statement.


His mother, Gladys Bourdain, who was a longtime editor at The New York Times, said she had no indication that Bourdain might have been thinking of suicide. “He is absolutely the last person in the world I would have ever dreamed would do something like this,” she said.


Eric Ripert, a celebrity chef, and restaurateur who appeared with Bourdain on several of his shows, found him “unresponsive,” CNN reported. Bourdain was staying at Le Chambard, a luxury hotel in the village of Kaysersberg.


“Anthony was a dear friend,” Ripert said in a statement. “He was an exceptional human being, so inspiring and generous. One of the great storytellers of our time who connected with so many. I wish him peace. My love and prayers are with his family, friends and loved ones.”


Gladys Bourdain said Ripert had told her that “Tony had been in a dark mood these past couple of days, but she had no idea why he might have decided to kill himself. “He had everything,” she said. “Success beyond his wildest dreams. Money beyond his wildest dreams.”



Anthony Bourdain on Pier 57 in New York where he was planning to open Bourdain Market. Image: (Alex Welsh/The New York Times)


Bourdain spent more than two decades in professional kitchens, first shucking oysters and washing dishes in a Cape Cod seafood shack and later cooking in high-end Manhattan kitchens, before accepting a friend’s offer to fly him to Mexico if he agreed to write a novel. It was the start of his second act.


He wrote two novels while working as an executive chef at Brasserie Les Halles before sending an unsolicited article to The New Yorker about the dark side of the restaurant world and its deceptions.


To his surprise, the magazine accepted it and ran it. The article eventually became “Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly,” a memoir that elevated Bourdain to a celebrity chef and brought him a new career on TV.


“Do we really want to travel in hermetically sealed popemobiles through the rural provinces of France, Mexico and the Far East, eating only in Hard Rock Cafes and McDonalds?” Bourdain wrote in the memoir. “Or do we want to eat without fear, tearing into the local stew, the humble taqueria’s mystery meat, the sincerely offered gift of a lightly grilled fish head? I know what I want. I want it all. I want to try everything once.”


Bourdain became an instant hero to a certain breed of professional cook and restaurantgoer when “Kitchen Confidential” hit the best-seller lists. He is largely credited with defining an era of line cooks as warriors, exposing a kitchen culture in which drugs, drinking and long, brutal hours on the line in professional kitchens were both a badge of honor and a curse. Bourdain was open in his writing about his past addictions to heroin and cocaine.


“Kitchen Confidential” has sold more than 1 million copies in paperback and remains the defining memoir in the field. “His prose voice was instant and unmistakable,” said Daniel Halpern, the HarperCollins editor who became Bourdain’s friend, fellow eater and literary collaborator. “You can read out any sentence and know instantly who wrote it.”



(Alex Welsh/The New York Times)


On Friday, people placed flowers and letters on the front door of the long-shuttered Les Halles on Park Avenue South, and celebrities in the food and entertainment worlds expressed shock and disbelief.


Nigella Lawson, the British cookbook author, and television personality, wrote on Twitter, “Heartbroken to hear about Tony Bourdain’s death. Unbearable for his family and girlfriend.”


Andrew Zimmern, the TV personality, and chef, had much in common with Bourdain. The two met 13 years ago and became friends. They often spoke of the pressures that come with fame, and both worked to overcome addiction. “We shared a very, very deep feeling of wanting to get off this crazy roller coaster, but at the same time knowing that this was our work,” Zimmern said. “The world has lost a brilliant human being and I’ve lost one of the few people I could talk to about some of this stuff. When I did see him, he and I would walk off into a corner or have dinner together and share our deepest, darkest stuff.”


Bourdain never stopped marveling at the unlikeliness of his own success. “I should’ve died in my 20s. I became successful in my 40s. I became a dad in my 50s,” he said in a 2016 interview. “I feel like I’ve stolen a car — a really nice car — and I keep looking in the rearview mirror for flashing lights.”


Feature image: Alex Welsh/The New York Times