The late television host, traveler, author, publisher, producer, and chef Anthony Bourdain seemed rarely to be at a loss for words. Over the past two decades, Bourdain and his distinctive insights became ubiquitous—found everywhere from a string of TV programs that aired on various channels (Food Network, Bravo, and CNN), to more than a dozen fiction and nonfiction books (including his seminal work, Kitchen Confidential), to social media and beyond.
But Bourdain’s suicide four years ago brought a sudden, tragic, and confusing end to his life and voice. Many fans still seeking closure will find Bourdain: The Definitive Oral Biography (Ecco, 2021), by Bourdain’s longtime co-author and assistant Laurie Woolever, to be a welcome and fulfilling addition to the Bourdainia collection. Those fans, along with others new to Bourdain, will find in Bourdain countless noteworthy insights from dozens of people Bourdain came to know during his six decades of life.
Readers learn early on that Bourdain was—like many people—a series of contradictions. He was, by most accounts, a generous boss, colleague, mentor, and father. He was funny, sincere, and a great storyteller and top-rate intellect. He expected much from those in his orbit, but also—at least until the last year or so of his life—nearly always gave back to those same people more than he took.
“He demanded ultimately loyalty, and he gave it back in return,” says editor Mustafa Bhagat.
“You know, working in a kitchen with a bunch of guys, like—Tony was always really respectful of the girls,” says Patti Jackson, who cooked alongside Bourdain. “He never had that—I don’t know whether it’s an insecurity thing, or an ego thing, or whatever makes men be absolute pigs—he didn’t have that.”
But Bourdain could also be cruel to those he knew best. Friends Josh Homme and Alison Mosshart, each a well-known rock musician, first delve into the depths of their friendships with Bourdain before revealing their shock and disappointment when Bourdain very publicly lashed out at Homme—who kicked a photographer during a concert performance—without contacting Homme first to hear the rocker’s side of the story. While Homme admitted to kicking the photographer, Bourdain’s public dressing down of his friend, months before his suicide, did not escape notice.
“He was alienating the people who loved him the most, who cared about him, his family, his friends,” Mosshart details. “You know, when you go that far, you don’t feel like you can come back, and that is really, ultimately, what I think happened.”
“That same vengeful Tony who was on your side when protecting you, he would turn it around on you, particularly to those he had known forever,” recalls famed chef David Chang.
Ultimately, the first half of Bourdain is much stronger than its latter parts. Some of that is due to the strength of the early subject matter. The book grips the reader immediately by recounting Bourdain’s struggles to find himself and beat a path—from his childhood through college and his earliest stints as a chef, writer, and television host. The book’s latter parts, conversely, center on Bourdain’s stardom and personal unraveling.
For years, we learn, Bourdain had thrived in chaos. “He loved—I wouldn’t say conflict, but energy,” cinematographer Todd Liebler recounts. “He was attracted to chaos.” But that chaos took a toll. “As his celebrity grew, he was pulled in so many different directions,” producer Diane Schutz recalls. Over time, says fellow producer Lydia Tenaglia, Bourdain went from marveling at his good fortune as “somebody coming into his own” to “someone who was just getting really tired, just kind of weary, not just about traveling and things he saw and was exposed to.”
Just as Bourdain grew tired over time, some of Bourdain’s gradually declining energy can be blamed on the fact many people Bourdain knew later in his life were far more famous than interesting. Indeed, as the names of those speaking to Woolever about Bourdain become more and more familiar, the insights they offer on Bourdain generally suffer. CNN veteran Anderson Cooper is perhaps the most accomplished and awkward example of this phenomenon.
“I was always left with this feeling of, I really wish I knew him more, and I really hope I can be like him one day,” Cooper says of Bourdain. Later, Cooper reiterates his mawkish longings: “Every time I was with him, I wanted it to go longer. And I wanted to be friends with him. I wanted him to really like me.”
Thankfully for Bourdain fans, Bourdain is largely full of deeper and more meaningful commentary. But the book couldn’t be a definitive oral biography of Anthony Bourdain without including a sampling of hilarious anecdotes that flesh out just who Tony was. In one of the book’s more compelling visuals, for example, Bourdain’s daughter Ariane Busia-Bourdain recalls her dad “struggling to put my Barbie DreamHouse together.”
Phillipe LaJaunie, who owned Les Halles Brasserie, where Bourdain was chef, recounts Bourdain was “a tall guy with a huge head.” Famed chef Jose Andres recalls Bourdain “looked like the Marlboro Man.”
Readers learn that dogs and their bodily fluids had something of a love-hate relationship with Bourdain. “He cooked for me only three times,” recounts writer Paula Froelich. “Twice he gave my dog the runs, and once he gave me the runs. But, to his credit, he always said he was never a great chef.” Alex Lowry, a director on Bourdain’s show No Reservations, recounts that while filming in Prague, a huge dog jumped up and sat on Bourdain. “And the dog looks at him, and gets up off of him, and then there was a huge bloodstain on his pants,” Lowry details. “The dog was not spayed, and she had her period.”
Recollections of Bourdain’s obsession with watching and practicing mixed martial arts (MMA) fighting are also rich with amusing imagery. For example, chef and restaurateur Fred Morin recalls Bourdain rousting him to watch an MMA fight at “a lesbian cheeseburger restaurant.” Producer Nari Kye says when Bourdain was deeply involved in jiu-jitsu training, “he would tell us about all kinds of gruesome injuries. Like, his penis turned black.”
While Bourdain’s own late mother Gladys comes across in the book as petty and entitled, only one person depicted in Bourdain truly fills the role of villain: Italian actress Asia Argento, Bourdain’s girlfriend at the time of his death. Those who bother to speak of Argento share their harsh feelings for her with great economy, referring to her invariably as “that woman,” a “very toxic person,” or “fucking what’s-her-name.”
Bourdain is an honest, expansive, funny, tragic, heartfelt, and meaningful account of the life of a man who changed forever what Americans think about food, and the diverse people around the world who cook and sell it to us. Unlike many culinary legends who are known best for their innovations in and contributions inside restaurant kitchens, Bourdain’s greatest impact was visual—in books and on television. Lucky for those who admired Bourdain and his work, that visual impact will remain to be discovered and enjoyed—read, streamed, and binged—for generations to come.