Anthony Bourdain was food’s first rockstar – and so much more

For him, food – its preparation, and its consumption – was a way to connect to our universal humanity. He will be sorely missed.

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Who would you invite to your fantasy dinner-party? Barack Obama or John F. Kennedy or Abraham Lincoln? Ella Fitzgerald or Charlie Chaplin? Karl Marx or Audrey Hepburn or Noel Coward? John Lennon or Syd Barratt? It’s a well-worn trope, but still good for a lively discussion. I’ve found, though, that only one person is almost universally agreed-upon; only one person who when you suggest him unites the whole room, mmh, yes, definitely.

That was Anthony Bourdain, the food world’s first true rock star. There’s no doubt: you want him at your fantasy dinner-party. You just do.

Bourdain’s tragic death by suicide on Friday, aged 61, has hit everyone hard. Few people, if any at all, could have possibly united such a wide spectrum of society in grief as he did. He was the cook’s cook, the writer’s writer, the traveller’s traveller and the adventurer’s adventurer, and he was extraordinarily influential in all of those worlds, including mine. I’m not ashamed to say that he was my hero; in moments of doubt, I ask myself: what would Anthony Bourdain do? In this, I am not alone.

He had heart, and he loved to eat it too, along with all the other offal and viscera. He plunged his readers, and later his viewers, into his subject matter with the same joy, the same lust, with which he ate.

He loved devilled kidneys and tripe and pig’s head stew, sought out life’s spiciest and crunchiest bits, evangelised them, loved them. He was never content to stick to the beaten path or play it safe – his TV shows carried a content-warning – and largely scorned the fads and scenesters of modern fine dining, instead focusing on the cibus populi, the dishes of the proletariat; peasant stews and offal and street food and “all that good stuff”.

His core philosophy was that people everywhere were people; for him, food, its preparation, the busy hum of the kitchen, its consumption, was universal commonality; that was the thread that connects us all everywhere as human beings. “If I am an advocate for anything, it is to move,” he once said. “As far as you can, as much as you can. Across the ocean, or simply across the river. Walk in someone else’s shoes or at least eat their food. It’s a plus for everybody.”

Bourdain wrote and spoke the way he ate. “Good food, good eating, is all about blood and organs, cruelty and decay,” begins his extraordinary 1999 New Yorker essay, “Don’t Eat Before Reading This”. Sent to the magazine as an unsolicited submission, the piece catapulted him into the public consciousness, later becoming the basis for his bestselling book Kitchen Confidential. “It’s about sodium-loaded pork fat, stinky triple-cream cheeses, the tender thymus glands and distended livers of young animals. It’s about danger – risking the dark, bacterial forces of beef, chicken, cheese, and shellfish.”

His voice was spicy, punchy, creamy and rich, dark and adventurous, just like the food he loved best. “Now this,” he would say to the camera, tucking in to a steaming bowl of noodles at one of his favourite street-side dispensaries in Vietnam or Cambodia or the Bronx. “You want this.”

He held a special caustic scorn for barbarians who take their steak well-done and brunch-time eggs benedict-ordering rubes. “You can dress brunch up with all the focaccia, smoked salmon, and caviar in the world,” he wrote in the New Yorker, “but it’s still breakfast.” The same went for vegetarians or fussy eaters: “To live life without veal or chicken stock, fish cheeks, sausages, cheese, or organ meats is treasonous.”

But he held his most scathing broadsides for tyrants, those who act out man’s inhumanity to man, and when he found a target worthy of his considerable linguistic firepower, the resulting fireworks could be incandescent. “Once you’ve been to Cambodia, you’ll never stop wanting to beat Henry Kissinger to death with your bare hands,” he wrote in his 2001 book A Cook’s Tour: In Search of the Perfect Meal. “You will never again be able to open a newspaper and read about that treacherous, prevaricating, murderous scumbag sitting down for a nice chat with Charlie Rose or attending some black-tie affair for a new glossy magazine without choking… While Henry continues to nibble nori rolls and remaki at A-list parties, Cambodia, the neutral nation he secretly and illegally bombed, invaded, undermined, and then threw to the dogs, is still trying to raise itself up on its one remaining leg.”

Bourdain grew up in Leonia, New Jersey, the son of a music executive and a newspaper editor, and discovered food when he tried his first oyster on a fisherman’s boat on a family holiday in France, he later wrote in Kitchen Confidential. He first worked as a cook in seafood restaurants in the New England seaside town of Provincetown, Massachusetts, where he also developed problems with substance abuse. But he was never secretive about his past.

“As you move through this life and this world you change things slightly, you leave marks behind, however small,” he once said. “And in return, life – and travel – leaves marks on you. Most of the time, those marks – on your body or on your heart – are beautiful. Often though, they hurt.”

He never shied from exploring these marks; he would later recount his experience with addiction in an episode of Parts Unknown where he revisited his old haunts and explored the opiate crisis: “Here was where I took my first hit of dope.” In less capable hands, the episode would be hammy and awkward, but Bourdain approached the issue with such honesty and empathy that it was impossible not to be moved.

Bourdain did for food-writing and travel broadcasting what Tom Wolfe did for features journalism; he tore it down and built it back up in his image, in his voice, experimenting with form and structure and language. His voice and sensibility shone through in his TV travelogues – first for the Food Network, then No Reservations for the Travel Channel, then later Parts Unknown for CNN. Jewel-like, they are near-peerless in the genre, redolent of Michael Palin’s Long Way Round but harder-hitting, unafraid, more political, but always with humanity too.

In losing him, the world has truly lost a giant.

If you've been affected by the issues mentioned in this piece you can call the Samaritans on the free helpline 116 123 in the UK; in the US you can call the Suicide Prevention Hotline on 1-800-273-8255

Nicky Woolf is the editor of New Statesman America. He has formerly written for the Guardian and the New Statesman. He tweets @NickyWoolf.