“God gives us meat, but the devil sends us cooks,” Anthony Bourdain told the Observer two decades ago. He considered the phrase a compliment, and considered kitchens to be second homes for damned souls and “the debased and the debauched”.
By this time, he was already well known in New York, as the author of the scandalous bestseller Kitchen Confidential and as chef and co-owner of Les Halles, a French brasserie on Park Avenue that was for a time a favorite hangout for creatives. worldly women.
His notoriety soon skyrocketed: he reshaped the work of the celebrity chef, piercing the personal importance of the species; he infused the work with sex appeal and intensity. He produced three seasons of globe-trotting food adventures, a run that made him a global star.
However, 17 years later, Bourdain met his end in a provincial hotel in Kaysersberg, France, committing suicide at the end of a failed relationship with Asia Argento, the actress and daughter of an Italian horror film director.
He became someone he hated. By the time he realized that, he was too physically exhausted to fix things.
Bourdain’s charismatic approach to cooking and life, and his downward spiral, will be revived four years after his death with the publication next week of Down and Out in Paradise: The Life of Anthony Bourdain.
The book is already sparking a wave of controversy among Bourdain’s large fan base, as well as his friends and family, who say journalist Charles Leerhsen’s account of Bourdain’s life is a stain on his memory. But it has also been praised as a frank account of the life of a complex man.
Either way, it will keep Bourdain firmly in the spotlight, something he may have once sought but came to hate.
‘I hate being famous. I hate my job’
For some, the anger is very real.
“Everything he [the author] writes about the relationships and interactions within our family as children and adults, he either made it up or he was completely wrong,” Bourdain’s brother Christopher told the New York Times last week.
But neither have explained exactly where the errors lie, suggesting that Leerhsen’s accounting could be more emotionally uncomfortable than factually uncomfortable.
The objections center on the publication of intimate details, text messages and last words that offer a harrowing glimpse of Bourdain’s final days as a collision between conflicting inner and outer lives took place that, at 62, he already I had no strength to board.
“I hate my fans too. I hate being famous. I hate my job, ”Bourdain wrote to his ex-wife Ottavia Busia-Bourdain, with whom he remained close to him, shortly before taking his own life. “I am alone and live in constant uncertainty.”
Although Bourdain amassed a large fan base through his television shows, he expressed his disdain for celebrity. Photo: Naashon Zalk/AP
Some are uproar about the book “as if it is now their job to protect and remember it in an artificial way,” says Leerhsen. “There’s a moral to that, but if you’re curious about Anthony Bourdain, here’s a book for you.”
Leerhsen, a biographer of Butch Cassidy, racehorse Dan Patch, and baseball player Ty Cobb, says he got to his subject by going through a poster for Bourdain’s posthumous Parts Unknown episode, filmed in Hong Kong and directed by his girlfriend Argento. , in circumstances that had alienated the chef from his close-knit film crew.
“I just thought, wow, he looked so cool in his ripped jeans, like the Bourdain we all know. I felt like he hadn’t read the story of what happened to him… this guy with the best job in the world, the best life in the world, that he came to take his own life?
In the prelude to Down and Out, Leerhsen writes that Bourdain knew when he started on television that he did not want to become a child of it. “Here’s my pitch,” she told a cable executive. “I travel all over the world, eat a lot of shit and basically do whatever I want.”
“That turned out to be a winning formula, and it left Tony with the distinct impression that, as he said more than once, ‘not giving a shit is a really fantastic business model for television,’” writes Leerhsen.
At the height of his career, Bourdain traveled 250 days a year, visiting faraway lands, meeting people, and eating all kinds of unusual food. His screen presence was compelling: Bourdain became an offbeat TV star who spanned the globe on a quest for adventure that was, at heart, as old as the Odyssey.
“It’s an age-old story of being careful what you wish for, of dealing with success and love in oceanic proportions,” says Leerhsen.
When success came, he says, Bourdain was thought of. “But he turned into someone he hated. By the time he realized that, he was too physically exhausted to straighten things out. He thought it was easier to look for what is known as ‘a permanent solution to a temporary problem’”.
Bourdain’s life companion was the drink that followed a previous drug addiction.
“Recovery, you could say, was one of the few things he couldn’t go all the way with. If he did anything, he did everything, whether it was comics when he was a kid or fascination with the JFK assassination. But he came up short with the recovery; he never stopped drinking ”.
And that came hand in hand with unstable relationships. Bourdain ended up paying off a former child actor who had accused Argento, a #MeToo leader who was one of the first women in the movie business to publicly accuse Harvey Weinstein of sexual assault, of sexually assaulting him when he was 17.
Leerhsen’s next book on Bourdain examines his relationship with Asia Argento, left, including the texts that led up to Bourdain’s death. Photography: Jason LaVeris/FilmMagic
Their relationship, he says, “was a classic, adolescent-sounding case of the boy wanting the girl more than the girl wants to be wanted,” says Leerhsen. “The more he pushes her, the more she pulls away.” In a traumatic ending, Argento texted Bourdain to “stop busting my balls.” He replied, “Okay.” Hours later she had taken her own life.
There is a question about Bourdain’s legacy. Today, the site of Les Halles is once again a French brasserie with the same swinging doors through which Bourdain magically appeared in a white chef’s robe, by day, or black by night, to blend in with the clientele.
On the menu is a “Tribute to Anthony Bourdain”: fried steak (bavette steak and fries) with watercress and a choice of entrecote, béarnaise or pepper sauce. A fitting tribute, Leerhsen believes, as Bourdain would have “been suspicious of anyone who praised his cooking too extravagantly.”
In a moving tribute after his death, Karen Rinaldi, his editor at Bloomsbury USA, wrote that Bourdain not only crossed borders, he “brought down the divisions we insisted on building between ourselves, those false but persistent barriers that are meant to safeguard but only serve segregate”.
On an episode of Parts Unknown, Bourdain said that “making an omelette for someone the next morning is the best thing in the world.” Bourdain’s genius for comfort food—eggs, steak, hashbrowns, cassoulet—rather than fancy cooking was about satisfying yourself and giving yourself love, Leerhsen believes.
“No one is ever one thing. Those images from the show where she made tortillas for Ottavia and Ariane, her daughter, were wonderful. She had that side but she walked away from it. In the end, something broke. Like when you’re in a car and you look out the back window and realize how far you’ve come. That was shocking to him, but he didn’t have the energy to change.”
This article was modified on October 3, 2022 to clarify the details of the “Tribute to Anthony Bourdain” menu at the French brasserie on the Les Halles site.