Anthony Bourdain Lived and Died Around the World

Anthony Bourdain Lived and Died Around the World (revised)

*I published a version of this essay about four years ago. This is an updated version to commemorate the fourth anniversary of his death.

“There’s something very strange about you, because you look normal,
but it’s all going on inside. Yes, you have got a slight pleading look in your eyes.”
– Nigella Lawson to Anthony Bourdain, “London”

When Anthony Bourdain killed himself, a lot of people on news outlets and social media expressed astonishment that someone so successful would die by suicide. I was stunned that they were stunned. For my part, I’d long been surprised and impressed by the fact that he chose and was able to maintain, for years, a functional life after heroin and crack addiction. To me, that was the unlikelihood.

Yet on some level, I understood other people’s reactions. It wasn’t just because Bourdain had received accolades, amassed wealth, and scored what seemed to many of us the perfect job. We know enough about suicide, or should, to grasp that it is usually not a reaction to one specific event, and even objectively good circumstances may not preclude it. I think the shock was compounded by the fact that Bourdain was always chasing and articulating something so elemental to the human spirit. As a companion in the “Spain” episode of Parts Unknown puts it while they down tripe-spiked tapas: “Sun. Plaza. Guts.” If Bourdain couldn’t be happy with regular dosages of all three, then it seems like we’re all kind of fucked.

I was a fan of Bourdain’s No Reservations series years back but had never watched his more recent Parts Unknown episodes. Shortly after his suicide in 2018, I watched all 64 segments that were on Netflix at the time; this chunk represents two-thirds of the series. I viewed them to enjoy them and to mourn, and also to try to comprehend why Bourdain ended his life—which is, of course, impossible. But it is so tempting to wonder, to treat death as if it has an answer. If it has an answer, maybe there’s a solution too.

Maybe, just maybe, his suicide was sleight of hand, laying the ground for a major television event. Perhaps, in the most peregrine Parts Unknown episode ever, Tony will gorge on street food in the afterlife’s rapidly gentrifying neighborhood. After all, his momentum and access were crucial to his allure. As a fellow drug addict, I always felt that while I knew where he was coming from, Bourdain was going to places I might never see. Even if I eventually reached them, he would forever outpace me, living more lustfully in the same slot of time. Now, he’d gotten to the farthest destination first.
Strange for someone who epitomized earthly pleasures—Tony’s death almost convinces me that heaven is a better party.

After his death, many of Bourdain’s offhand remarks in Parts Unknown harrow. In “Rome,” where he is guided by his girlfriend Asia Argento, he inhales a prosciutto dish and declares, “I want to die here . . .I may yet.” (Eating was always a petite mort for Tony.) In “Paraguay,” he searches for an ancestor who vanished there in the mid-nineteenth century. During that episode, he admits he’s lonely because, at 58, he has already lived a year longer than his father and is perhaps the longest-living male Bourdain ever; he died about four years later, just shy of 62. In the first-season episode, “Quebec,” he surveys a hipster restaurant in which young chefs cook on a simple four-range stove and remarks, “I couldn’t have cooked on that without wanting to kill everyone in sight and then hang myself from the nearest beam.”

That one hurts the most.

As these asides show, mental illness wasn’t always handled gracefully in the series. In “Tangier”, Tony dramatizes William S. Burroughs’ heroin addiction, tapping on a typewriter and voicing Burroughs’ words as we’re treated to a montage of drug-related paraphernalia. Throughout most of this episode, Bourdain acts like someone who’s never been high on anything pretending to be high, even though we know he was once high for years. Similarly, I bristled at the tongue-in-cheek montage in “Buenos Aires” in which he visits a local psychotherapist. Given his struggles with addiction and mental health—about which he was very open—this sequence comes off as condescending and insincere.

This condescension is belied by his profound understanding of pain, evidenced again and again in other segments. For instance, in “Detroit,” Bourdain elegizes its loss of grandeur, the collapse of its dream. Through his eyes, I was finally able to see how rapturously beautiful that city once was. He understood urban disaster because he was so familiar with its emotional variety.

Bourdain was a bon vivant. I would contrast the bon vivant with the figure of the flâneur made famous by Walter Benjamin. The flâneur symbolizes detachment, strolling through and ironically surveying the urban wonderland. The bon vivant instead digs right in—and shares with others. This is what Bourdain did throughout his travels. You feel like you are sitting down at each and every table with him, no matter where in the world he goes.

Yet he was far more vulnerable than we might expect such a bon vivant to be. I often felt a stab of protectiveness watching his Karloffian gait, his legs too long and thin for his body. He was the wounded poet-chef, wearing his heart on his rolled-up sleeves. I sensed that Bourdain was someone for whom sanity became a vocation, but that’s different than it being a predisposition. Instability simmered in his kitchen.

You can tell he thought he was okay. Or at least he pretended to be, either for himself or the cameras, or both. In “Massachusetts,” he examines the opioid crisis in a rural town in the western part of the state, visibly appalled by how drugs have swallowed up huge swaths of middle-class America. Sitting in a group meeting of recovering opioid addicts, he says that he hopes to one day tell his daughter the truth: that her father screwed up but made it. I wonder if he knew that his contract with sanity was starting to fray even then. Or maybe it disintegrated much later, all at once.

Still, there are many moments of pure joy in the series, which Tony imparts to the viewer with little mediation. Witnessing the bounty of familial love and cover bands during the wet Christmas season in “Manila.” Listening to the sublime singer Youssou N’Dour, a frequent Peter Gabriel collaborator, at a Dakar restaurant in “Senegal.” Eating moss and fresh flowers at Noma in “Copenhagen.” Riding a toy-like train up into the Himalayas with adorably squealing schoolchildren in “Punjab.” And as a lifelong lover of dance, I can assure you that the belly dance in “Istanbul” is like nothing you’ve ever seen.

In “Hanoi,” when Barack Obama tells him, hesitating just a bit, that yeah, things will turn out okay, you wish to God he’d been right. That they did turn out okay—for the United States as a country, and for Tony.

The more segments I devoured, the more I grieved that Bourdain couldn’t know what we all felt watching him. How he reminded us that an embrace of life and a fascination with death often trip along each other’s edges.

In “Marseille,” he ribbed his best friend, the lovable chef Éric Ripert, by predicting that his next life would be a nightmare. This sequence is all the more poignant since Ripert was destined to bear witness to Tony’s death; he was traveling with Bourdain and grew concerned when he didn’t show up for breakfast on that fateful morning. Ripert, who is a practicing Buddhist, replies to Tony that he’s living the good life because of the karma he’s built up. Bourdain’s skeptical. He should have been. His existence attests to the fact that extremely privileged external circumstances, however attained, do not exempt us from suffering. In other words, there’s no such thing as good karma.

Over the course of many hours with him, I decided that what was most heartbreaking was that he died alone. On the coast of Grenada, he tells a friend who joins him in an outdoor spread of food and wine, “When my time comes, I pretty much want to die at a table like this.” In “Lyon,” the death wish tunnels further inward: He expresses the longing to die like the chicken he just ate, surrounded by foie gras, truffles, and fine wine. Unlike Ripert, Tony didn’t believe in reincarnation. He seemed to feel that this lifetime is the only one we can be sure of, so we should enjoy it right up to the end.

Maybe he did. The night before his suicide, he savored a fine meal with his friend in a charming French town. Maybe that is as close to a death with truffles and foie gras as any of us will get. Still, it feels like he got cheated. And because we survivors don’t know why he left us so abruptly, we feel cheated too.

But great cuisine is a cheat in itself. Michelin-starred meals are taut acts of control that try to mask the rawness of life. Three times a day, we descend on food, charged with desperation. When we slow down for a special meal, we consume it, but what we are really trying to internalize is a sense of order. A stroke of the clock, a closed passage of this life, in the form of satisfied hunger. If we can master this need as art, we can pretend that we have mastered life. But we never, ever can. Bourdain proved this by dying amidst the art of food and the pretense of design. He showed us beyond doubt that food—and by extension, all culture— punctuates rather than transmutes our coarse humanity.

His body of work also suggests that we can never understand anything completely, whether it is a country, a culture, or another human being. The “Tokyo” episode sums up this truth best. Tokyo is notoriously tricky to navigate; I got lost there so many times. I’m not sure I was ever found there. That’s what makes it unique among cities: it is not a closed circuit. Critics in both Japanese and English have commented on the city’s lack of a center, but what I’m saying is that is has no narrative. One neighborhood bleeds into the next, the past into the present, the sacred into the playful. You can get lost in Tokyo and leave it without ever finding closure, or even sense. It might be better understood as simultaneity than defined space.

Bourdain got it. He says of Tokyo, “Every chef I know wants to die here . . .because we, all of us, understand that we don’t understand anything about Japan.” Throughout Parts Unknown, he revealed and reveled in the numinous power not just of great cuisine, but of not knowing. Of wandering confused through the BDSM-fueled underside of Tokyo. Of landing in a country like South Africa and being floored by how little you grasp of its history and its now.

Above all, he demonstrated that the darkest continent is the one inside us. In “Thailand,” he makes an offhand remark, during a well-earned hangover, about how his doctor says everything he loves is killing him. But the graver truth is that none of us knows what will kill us. And if we attempt to die by our own hand, the reason we do it is not obvious to ourselves, much less to others.

A table companion in “Brazil,” over poisonous blowfish, assures him, “We were not born to die.” But Tony, like all of us, was by nature born to perish. It’s just that he was also born to publicly express the tension between an acceptance of (and even a yearning for) death and a love for life. His epitaph could be drawn from the words he speaks at the end of “Mexico”: “As I have come to know from my own life, drugs, even drug addiction, can be a survivable event. Death is not.”

In “Minas Gerais,” set in interior Brazil, Bourdain remarks that he doesn’t believe in a legacy. But whether he believed or not, he has one. Tony taught all of us that mental illness is not predicated on nor eased forever by career success or anything else that can be controlled. Like the spines in Brazilian fruit that cut the tongue to shreds, it’s the demon within. Yet maybe, like Tokyo, mental illness is something senseless that we can make peace with. For a time.

In interviews, Bourdain tended to clock his globetrotting by the number of days per year he traveled rather than the number of countries visited. For instance, in a 2017 profile in The New Yorker, he said in defense of his ephemeral friendships, “For fifteen years, more or less, I’ve been travelling two hundred days a year.” This metric—temporal, not spatial—is telling. According to those who knew him, Tony was preoccupied with being on time. It was as if he were running around the world to outrun the clock. He was delightfully vulgar, at least in his public persona, but nothing’s more vulgar than time.

It’s not what happened to cut short Bourdain’s life that we should want to learn more about. It’s the ports of call that moored him for a spell, and the carnal pleasures he grabbed at and swallowed whole. But Tony’s life screams out how one definition of “carnal” is “temporal.” Time he tried to temper by endless migration, making a home out of fleeting shelters, finding succor in food and drink’s profane grace. Over 200 days a year.

Still, I don’t think the question of his death can be broached with “when,” and certainly not with “why.” When thinking of him, the question should be Where? Where did life inspire him to go, and where might we follow?

And this one: Where are you now, Tony?