“Travel isn’t always pretty,” he said. “It isn’t always comfortable. Sometimes it hurts, it even breaks your heart. But that’s OK. The journey changes you.”
By Christina Ying
It was his iconic voiceover that changed travel television. Anthony Bourdain’s reflections about his travel were poetic, painful, and transcendental.“Travel isn’t always pretty,” he said. “It isn’t always comfortable. Sometimes it hurts, it even breaks your heart. But that’s okay. The journey changes you.” We’ll never know for sure how much the journey changed Anthony Bourdain, but for fifteen years he impacted audiences most remarkably. From floating on the Mekong River to eating fondue on the French Alps, to even escaping an attack in Beirut, there was no one on television that lived with more excitement. As CNN shows the final season to Parts Unknown, the world still remains bewildered by Bourdain’s suicide this past June. For a man who was ostensibly living the American Dream, we cannot imagine what it was that Anthony Bourdain was missing from his life.
Bourdain was hilarious, but punk rock to the bone. Unlike other chefs on television, he wasn’t cheesy and prepackaged. Bourdain was an acerbic, cultured, introspective rebel with great taste in books. Sure, he made more than a few snobbish comments about the Food Network and its stars, but his honesty about food and politics was an essential part of his brand. He wasn’t your grandmother’s favorite chef—Anthony Bourdain was a cultural icon for Gen Xers and Millennials.
He also applied the same transparency about his past in his writing. In interviews, Bourdain was always candid about his issues with addiction. As a youth in New Jersey, he had a problem with heroin and crack, but kicked the habit in the 80’s. When he got sober, he followed his first wife, an older woman named Nancy Putkoski, to New York City. After graduating from culinary school, he slaved away as line cook for twenty years. Those suffering times would be the material to his best-selling book Kitchen Confidential, chronicling a lifestyle filled with aggression, exhaustion, and struggle. Even when became executive chef at Brasserie Les Halles in 1998, Bourdain had not filed or paid his taxes for ten years. If Bourdain was always meant to be a television star, he certain didn’t see it at the start of his career.
A television producer who formerly worked on ER, Lydia Tenaglia, was a fan of Bourdain’s writing. Like Bourdain, she too was eager to leave the repetition of her profession. When she found out he was going to write a second memoir, A Cook’s Tour, she convinced him to film the same concept for a travel show. Together their television credits include A Cook’s Tour, No Reservations, The Layover, Parts Unknown, and PBS’s The Mind of a Chef. Their work on the travel channel platform made Bourdain in a superstar. The Layover and No Reservations remain among the top five highest rated on the Travel Channel.
Bourdain’s popularity carried over at CNN when he started Parts Unknown in 2013. When asked why he would leave his previous network, he told Adweek, “There are a lot of places where me and my team have been wanting to make television for a long time and haven’t been able to.” CNN had the means and the infrastructure to expand his brand even more, which was an effort that gloriously paid off. In 2015 Parts Unknown had the second highest rated season premiere, winning the 25-54 demographic.
The political tone of Parts Unknown transitioned Bourdain from celebrity chef to CNN correspondent. The shift was a deviation from No Reservations that was becoming repetitively formulaic. For him, food was the gateway conversation to understanding the world, even when he was in parts of the world filled with extreme poverty. With CNN he was able to travel to more conflict regions such as Libya, the Congo, and Myanmar, but the new work dramatically transitioned him from TV food chef to sometimes war correspondent.
His experience of awful things was made viscerally clear in a Parts Unknown episode filmed in Haiti, which was still ravaged by the disaster of the earthquake in 2010. As homeless residents watched him eat on an open street, Bourdain wanted to provide a good deed by purchasing food for everyone on the street. When a fight broke out amongst the those who had not received food, Bourdain expressed his regret in his miscalculation on camera. It was a harrowing moment that one cannot forget.
Perhaps in true journalist form, Bourdain ignored the PTSD of being in war-torn countries. Informing the world of its dark places was a way for him to avoid his issues with depression. He often compared his life to David Bowie’s Space Oddity, where he’s “sitting in a tin and orbiting the earth for much of the time.” Fan adoration left Bourdain functioning in a fishbowl. It was an obstacle, especially when filming. The beauty about his food scenes was that they weren’t contrived and staged, but when there’s hundreds of fans outside of a restaurant it takes from the production. In an interview with Bravo, Bourdain said, “I’ll be eating in a restaurant, and there will be 100 people outside, all of them really nice with cameras. And I feel like an utter shit. It just changes the whole dynamic.”
Despite the mania, Bourdain kept going with the grueling film schedule and extending his presence towards activism. When his girlfriend, actress Asia Argento, came out publicly about her sexual assault allegations against Harvey Weinstein, Bourdain became a public advocate of the #MeToo Movement. He spent the last year of his life vocalizing about women’s inequality in the workplace. In the wake of the sexual assault scandals facing chefs Mario Batali and Ken Friedman, Bourdain stood away from his peers on the issue. In an article he wrote for Medium, he took ownership for his part in the problem. “To the extent which my work in Kitchen Confidential celebrated or prolonged a culture that allowed the kind of grotesque behaviors we’re hearing about all too frequently is something I think about daily, with real remorse.”
From the surface, Anthony Bourdain experienced all of the pleasure that world could offer, but for a man with chronic depression and addiction issues, carrying the weight of the worlds’ problems just became too much. Bourdain often indicated that the fame and the success felt undeserved. In an interview for Biography, Bourdain expressed, “I feel like I’ve stolen a car—a really nice car—and I keep looking in the rear-view mirror for flashing lights. But there’s been nothing yet.”
Bourdain dedicated the majority of his midlife to inform a hungry television audience. Bourdain was fiercely aware of his luck and success all the time, but always expressed what he had to give in exchange. “I have the best job in the world and I’m very grateful for that,” he told People magazine in 2016. “ And I don’t plan on walking away from that any time soon, I can assure you—but it comes at a cost.” He sacrificed his marriages, and time as a father, for the best job in the world. Anthony Bourdain’s life has changed everyone who’s followed him. We would love to have him back, even for just one last voiceover. Please tell us Anthony, one last time, what have you learned in this life?