far back as the 1970s, Bourdain had tried his hand at both writing and illustrating graphic novels, but the publishers he approached told him he just wasn’t good enough as an artist. He didn’t give up, though, and ultimately gave the world some seriously sinister, brilliant work.
Fans have seen Bourdain in some of the most dangerous places in the world, filming through war and conflict while still standing on the front lines to get the story. He’s been all over, but there’s one place he admitted he was so terrified of, he refused to film there. It’s the last country anyone would ever guess, too: Switzerland.
Bourdain talked to Conan O’Brien about the fear he said was really pretty inexplicable, but no less real.
FEAR of THINGS SWISS
“I have a morbid fear of everything Swiss,” he said, going on to specify that it was even the most beautiful, seemingly harmless things about Switzerland — Alpine vistas, hats with feathers, Lake Geneva, cuckoo clocks , and Swiss Cheese — that terrified him. Why? He said he supposed he had a repressed memory involving The Sound of Music, but honestly had no idea why he was so very afraid of all things Swiss.
Bourdain did not emerge from the womb with a charcuterie platter in his right hand and a dirty martini in the left. He actually came from relatively humble origins in New Jersey, where he was raised on standard American cuisine like meatloaf and burgers. But he was intrigued by the smells that would drift upstairs to his room when the adults were hosting dinner parties downstairs. And when his family traveled abroad, his curiosity only grew. He told The Guardian that he responded to being left out of adult dinners by his parents with a culinary rebellion of sorts. “I reacted by requesting oysters and dishes they found repulsive and becoming increasingly adventurous in my tastes. It wasn’t about the food but about getting a reaction.” So his sophisticated, adult palate had its origins in the angsty cravings of a cranky kid.
Bourdain cut his teeth in the restaurant business as many people do, standing in front of a sink full of dirty dishes and hot water. And whereas that kind of backbreaking work isn’t for everyone, Bourdain found a real sense of purpose in it, and subsequently stuck with it. At the time, he was a self-professed “shy, goofy, awkward teenager” as he told The Guardian, and this was the first instance in which he was given a job that made total, objective sense to him. And the ability to perform the job well, accomplishing any tasks given to him within the job description, allowed him to flourish under the tutelage of people he both respected and admired. It makes sense that he stuck around after that.
It’s hard to look at videos of Bourdain noshing at Noma and imagine him struggling to pay his bills or scrounging for rent money. But he spent years busting his hump in the kitchen, worrying if he’d be able to get by. He told Biography that at age 44, he was “standing in kitchens, not knowing what it was like to go to sleep without being in mortal terror. I was in horrible, endless, irrevocable debt. I had no health insurance. I didn’t pay my taxes. I couldn’t pay my rent.” But that did change for him. He continued, “It was a nightmare, but it’s all been different for about 15 years. If it looks like my life is comfortable, well, that’s a very new thing for me.” Clearly those long, uncertain years left their mark on him.
If you’ve watched Anthony Bourdain drink his way around the world on Parts Unknown, you might be inclined to think that he hit the bottle on a regular basis. But surprisingly, he didn’t guzzle cases of beers on Friday nights, or even have wine with dinner. Rather, he just didn’t drink at home. He told Men’s Journal, “You see me drink myself stupid on my show all the time. And I have a lot of fun doing that. But I’m not sitting at home having a cocktail. Never, ever. I don’t ever drink in my house.” Instead, he prefered to keep his home life separate from his carousing, professional life. He continued, “When I indulge, I indulge. But I don’t let it bleed over into the rest of my life.”
Bourdain sampled cuisines and dishes from all over the world, but according to what he admitted in his IAmA Reddit, there was one thing that kept him coming back.
“I have an unholy and guilty attraction to fast-food macaroni and cheese… There, I admit it.”
What else did he love? He told SBNation he was a devoted fan of Shake Shack, would always choose In-N-Out over McDonald’s (which he never went to), said he hated Iceland’s rotten shark dish (but still ranked it alongside a McNugget when it came to disgustingness), and would always find a KFC if he needed some good old American comfort food while he was travelling.
They also asked him if he would be opposed to trying human flesh. His answer? “Not knowingly. I mean, I’d really like to avoid that, but look, if we’re in a lifeboat… we’re three weeks at sea, I’ve got no problem.”
Bourdain had a reputation saying exactly what he was thinking, and that was definitely true when it came to the world’s food trends.
When he did an IAmA Reddit and someone asked him what food trends he thought needed to end, he said, “I would like to see the pumpkin spice craze drowned in its own blood. Quickly.”
He also took aim at juice cleanses, overuse of the word “artisanal,” gluten-free foods for people who didn’t have a legitimate medical issue with gluten, and overly judgmental beer snobs and baristas. “I mean, I like a good craft, but don’t make me feel bad about my beer choices.”
Given Bourdain’s stance on equality, it’s not surprising he told SBNation he wasn’t a fan of the so-called “bro-food.” “I don’t even know what it is, but I’d like to stop it. I hate that whole idea that there’s male food and female food. … that doesn’t reflect well on the male species.”
Everything changed for Bourdain when his first cookbook Kitchen Confidential was published, catapulting him out of the world of kitchen obscurity and into the world of celebrity. The book, which was credited with revolutionizing the entire genre of food writing, was so well-received that he no longer had to slave in a kitchen for 12 or more hours every day.
So how did the book come to be? It started when he wrote a short piece inspired in part by George Orwell, and in part by his chef lifestyle. He told Fresh Air, “I just wanted to write about my life from the point of view of a working journeyman chef of no particular distinction, honestly.” And that writing caught the attention of the New Yorker, who published the piece a short time later, which set everything in motion. He continued, “I had a book contract — a book deal within days. And when the book came out, it very quickly transformed my life — I mean, changed everything.”
Bourdain’s long-time wife, MMA fighter Ottavia Busia, wrote a piece for Vice’s Fightland describing just how important MMA and UFC was to the family. According to her, Bourdain had started his obsession with the fight world back in the 1970s, first with boxing. It wasn’t until she took him to an MMA fight that he really got into it, and perhaps unsurprisingly, he went pretty hardcore.
She went on to interview him on the subject, and he revealed some pretty epic feelings. He loved the idea that she fought, and that she could settle absolutely any conflict herself. He refused to spar with her because she was “overly aggressive,” and was banned from watching her compete not because he didn’t want to see someone hit her, but because there was a chance she would lose — and that, he couldn’t deal with.
If you watch Parts Unknown on a regular basis, you’re privy to the fact that Anthony Bourdain was in good shape — you have to be in order weather antarctic temps, for example. And in some episodes, you can see him in action as a practitioner of the martial arts, specifically the Brazilian form of jiu-jitsu. And that wasn’t just for television, either, as he really did practice on a regular basis. As he told Nuvo, “I train every day, wherever I am in the world. When I’m in New York, I train at the Renzo Gracie Academy, an hour private and then an hour and a half general population. That’s basically Fight Club.” That shows just how committed to the practice he was — well, that and his abs.
Tony takes a Picture showing his Rddit account to Prove it was He
Bourdain had an undeniable love for the passion of the artisan and for the hand-crafted, and focused on those sorts of unsung artisans during his Raw Craft series. It wasn’t just about the kitchen, either — he spoke with people from blacksmiths and cobblers to typographers (via QZ), and wanted his foodie followers to embrace other kinds of artistry.
Not surprisingly, when he did his IAmA Reddit, someone asked him if he got to keep the knife Bob Kramer made in the first series. He didn’t take that one home with him, even though he did bid on it when it went up for auction. After saying it went for well beyond his price range — more than $22,000 — he was determined to get one of his own. After waiting more than a year, he did finally get to buy one he could actually take home. “It is easily my most valued physical object that I own. It is a thing of beauty, and I’m just waiting for… food worthy of it, to use it.”
As a rule, Bourdain said he wasn’t prone to advocacy, but when it came to food waste, he threw his full weight into raising awareness about it. That’s because every year, one-third of all food produced for human consumption never gets eaten. That alarming statistic was the impetus that inspired Bourdain to join the team behind the documentary Wasted as an executive producer. In an interview on Here & Now, he noted that, “this is an issue, that goes fundamentally against my instincts as a longtime working cook and chef, where we were taught from the very beginning that one just does not and cannot and must not waste food.”
And he believed that everyone can do something to combat food waste. He continued, “It begins in a sense with, how do we value the things we eat? It begins with just starting to pay attention to how much food you’re buying, how much you are actually using, what you are doing with it.” That awareness can go a long way.
There are a few choice things Anthony Bourdain was known for, and feuding with other celebrity chefs was one of them. He threw down on everyone from Bobby Flay to Rachel Ray, leveling his peers with colorful and profane barbs. But in recent years it seemed that Bourdain might be calming down a bit, spending less time trash talking and more time focusing on his own work. For one, some of his more recent insults of his number one foe, Guy Fieri, were tamer than those of years past. And he’d been mum about Paula Deen for some years now, which is a huge change in tack from his previous, soul-eviscerating critiques of her. He even headlined a festival with Emeril Lagasse in January of 2017, showing that he had calmed in that regard too.
Men everywhere are having a diversity of reactions to the Harvey Weinstein scandal, and Anthony Bourdain was one of them. His girlfriend, Asia Argento, is among the many women who have said they were assaulted by Weinstein, and Bourdain said that brought it home for him. He told Slate, “I’ve been seeing up close—due to a personal relationship—the difficulty of speaking out about these things, and… that certainly brought it home in a personal way that, to my discredit, it might not have before.” So he did some soul-searching regarding how he could have done more for women in his own industry. He continued, “What have I, how have I presented myself in such a way as to not give confidence, or why was I not the sort of person people would see as a natural ally here? So I started looking at that.” Clearly, then, he acknowledged the role he played in perpetuating “meathead culture,” and was visibly trying to be better in the future.
ANTHONY BOURDAIN was a VOICE For MIORITIES and The MARGINALIZED
It wasn’t just foodies and chefs who admired Bourdain. When he passed, there were particularly moving tributes from minorities and marginalized communities.
NPR says Bourdain gave not just a voice but respect to communities who frequently found themselves on the edges of mainstream society, and they loved him for it. He highlighted what food writer Andrea Nguyen called “overlooked causes and cuisines,” and against the backdrop of food he gave faces and names to the people who cooked it, telling their stories in a way that humanized the people struggling through some of the most dire situations in the world. University of Detroit law professor Khaled Beydoun lauded him for “…humanizing Muslims and Arabs as regular, everyday people-without politicizing their lives or stories.” Bourdain reminded the world of the people behind the news stories, and they loved him for it.
Bourdain dined with everyone from Libyan rebels to celebrity chefs in Ethiopia, and was always pretty open-minded about what was palatable. And while he remained unfazed when it came to everything from bull penis to live snakes, there was some cuisine that intimidated him. He told Fresh Air that he got concerned when “freshness and hygiene is a question.” Additionally, he identified “rotten food, food that’s clearly not clean, water that’s clearly not good” as his major culinary challenges. Other than that, he was “pretty much good with just about everything.” But his most reviled food was a bit surprising. He continued, “for sheer, soul-destroying misery, like the — you know, if you’re talking about a bite of food that just makes me question the future of the human race and just sends me into a spiral of depression, I think eating at an airport Johnny Rockets pretty much would be the nadir.” Coming from a man who’s eaten pig bung, that’s saying something.
TONY DISDAINED BRUNCH
Although brunch is more popular in America today than it’s ever been, especially in Bourdain’s home state of New York, he just wasn’t into it. That was due mostly to the many years he spent slinging brunch in restaurant kitchens, sometimes at his lowest points. He told Fresh Air that at times, “it was the only work I could get. And I came to hate the — you know, when you’re cooking 300 omelets a day and, you know, scraping waffles out of the waffle iron and making French toast and pancakes and, you know, cooking hundreds of pounds of home fries, those smells, those associations, those were very painful times — you know, addiction, post-addiction.” Clearly he did not cherish those memories. He continued, “You know, I was a desperate man, often working under a pseudonym when I was cooking brunch. So I really hated it. And I also hated the whole concept of brunch.”
Bourdain always had his own way of doing things in the kitchen, and that was true even with the simplest of tasks. Unless you’ve picked up a copy of Anthony Bourdain’s newest cookbook Appetites, you might be surprised to learn that he didn’t prepare bacon by frying it. Rather, in an unorthodox move, he preferred to roast it in the oven. This came as a surprise to Dave Davies during a Fresh Air interview, when Bourdain said that frying is, “just not the best way to evenly cook bacon. We all like — most of us like crispy bacon or at least evenly cooked. And the best way to do it in my experience and the way we always did it in restaurants was to lay it out on a baking parchment and put in the oven and cook patiently but evenly, turning occasionally because there are hotspots in ovens.” Always quick with a joke, Bourdain warned of the perils of frying bacon, which can be dangerous “particularly if you’re naked, never fry bacon while naked.”
The list of countries that Bourdain travelled to is impressive, covering all seven continents. But he did do a bit of travel before he became a famous chef who globetrots for a living. So what was it that made him want to do more in life and see more of the world? Bourdain told Men’s Journal that his “first trip to Japan — a couple of years before Kitchen Confidential — was absolutely life changing. It was like my first acid trip. It was that mind-expanding and climcatic [sic].” That’s because he was able to see the world in an entirely new way. He continued, “I went there thinking there were a certain amount of primary colors. I came back knowing, in fact, there were 10 or 12 more. It made me want to do things. It showed me there was so much more in the world than I had any idea about — there was so much to learn and there was so much stuff out there.” That’s proof that travel can indeed be transformative.
Bourdain headed to Lebanon in 2006, at the same time then-BBC reporter Kim Ghattas was there covering the conflict (via The Atlantic). Instead of filming what he thought was a city emerging as the “party capital of the Middle East,” he found himself on the front lines of war. There were bombs, military jets, and a lot of terror, ultimately ending in the crew’s emergency evacuation.
He was nominated for an Emmy for the piece, which focused on the people caught in the conflict. Later, he would cite that as a defining moment in his career. It was the trip when he saw a city and a people torn by conflict, while still managing to hold onto the possibilities they would be something more. That was the moment that made him want to tell the stories of the people behind the headlines, and ultimately make Parts Unknown. “Hopefully,” he noted in one interview, “you will come back smarter about the world.”
If you or anyone you know is having suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255)