Chef, television host, and bestselling author Anthony Bourdain was found dead this morning in a hotel room in France. The cause of death was suicide. He was 61.
Bourdain was open about his prior drug use, his struggle with heroin. The details surrounding his death are still unclear. Sadly, it was his good friend Eric Ripert, the legendary chef of Le Bernardin, who found him unresponsive earlier this morning. The two were in the midst of filming for the next season of Parts Unknown.
Bourdain was not a celebrity chef per se. He was a cook who toiled in dives (the "Dreadnaught" in Provincetown) and high-end establishments (the Rainbow Room), then rose to prominence at Les Halles in New York. In 1999, he penned an essay for the New Yorker, "Don't Eat Before Reading This," which turned into his mega-bestseller Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly. Just read the chapter entitled "From Our Kitchen to Your Table" about the perils of "discount sushi." You won't be able to put the book down.
Here's how it works: The chef of this fine restaurant orders his fish on Thursday for delivery Friday morning. He's ordering a pretty good amount of it, too, as he's not getting another delivery until Monday morning. All right, some seafood purveyors make Saturday deliveries, but the market is closed Friday night. It's the same fish from Thursday! The chef is hoping to sell the bulk of that fish—your tuna—on Friday and Saturday nights, when he assumes it will be busy. He's assuming also that if he has a little left on Sunday, he can unload the rest of it then, as seafood salad for brunch, or a special. Monday? It's merchandizing night, when whatever is left over from the weekend is used up, and hopefully sold for money.
I've always maintained that Bourdain was not a chef who became an author but the reverse. He was a born writer who happened to attend cooking school.
In 2007, I wrote a feature for the Weekly Standard on the celebrity chef phenomenon and called up Anthony Bourdain. He was generous with his time and his opinions—absolutely nothing was off the record:
"I don't think what Rachael Ray is selling is really food or cooking. I think she is closer to Paris Hilton than to Julia Child as someone who is famous for just being there and who is sending a kind of reassuring message that Gee, someone as dumb as me is on TV and that my life is quite good enough. I think cooking shows should be aspirational, and she inspires nothing but laziness, sloth, and a smug reassurance that everything's okay."
"And Sandra Lee—that is just pure evil. I put her right up there with Ted Bundy."
"Listen, the Food Network knows they suck. They know what they do…. I understand why they do what they do, and it's good business for them and their shareholders and frankly it's good business for me. I just don't have to like it."
Needless to say, Bourdain has never hosted a cooking show on the Food Network. And he wasn't a fan of Hell's Kitchen either. When I asked him about the quality of contestants on the Fox reality show hosted by Gordon Ramsay, Bourdain said, "They couldn't run a popsickle stand. And it is immediately apparent to anyone that they … picked them for purposes of drama. It's so juiced for conflict and drama. You don't see the food. I kind of feel bad for Gordon, who is extremely cool."
Bourdain did end up with his own show, No Reservations on the Travel Channel. It ended when a dispute erupted over commercial endorsements, namely Cadillac. He then went on to host the popular Parts Unknown on CNN. He traveled the world with the appeal of a common man. You wanted to be eating and drinking with him, even if it's at a strange Manila fast-food joint.
"He's really a brilliant guy," said Jacques Pépin. "Someone like that in the food world for me is really a plus. Some other people, I don't know what they're doing there, but him, he's good. And he's genuine. And he tells you what he thinks."
"He's a star," the late Michel Richard once told me. "He's a really nice guy, great writer. He's wonderful, he's charming. This guy has everything. Asshole." Richard laughed after saying that last bit, but who didn't envy Anthony Bourdain? This guy had everything.