WHEN interviewers dug to the essence of him, Anthony Bourdain said he was a simple man. He knew his life didn’t give that impression. Much of it was set in roaring, steamy, yelling kitchens, from his first job as a dishwasher at the Dreadnaught in Provincetown, Massachusetts, through the slow climb as prep drone, line cook or sous chef at various eateries round New York, to head chef at Les Halles in Manhattan. He weathered the hazards of pots, knives and fire, the dread of scorching the demi-glace or spilling a plate, under the half-friendly hail of colleagues denouncing him as a pédé, a maricón, a puta and a motherfucker, the international language of cuisine everywhere.
At Les Halles, he got through by crunching aspirins like sweets. Before that he was high all the time. From his teens he dropped acid, furiously miserable that he was too young and too suburban to have experienced the 1967 Summer of Love. In New York he moved on to heroin, just because it was the most dangerous drug in the room. He would always try anything once, but he used heroin for seven years. Should have died. He quit cold turkey, then stuffed his nose with cocaine. On drugs he was a self-destructive lout. Aggressive, depressive, almost unemployable. A mess.
And when all that changed in the 1990s, most definitively in 1999 when the New Yorker published a piece by him and he became a storyteller, life got no simpler. The piece was called “Don’t Eat Before Reading This”. It reminded finnicky New Yorkers that fine cookery was all about cruelty, blood, engorged livers, rot and decay. People liked it, so he wrote a book, “Kitchen Confidential”, mostly at 5am between kitchen shifts, in which all the dirty secrets of restaurants came out. Uneaten bread sent out to the next table. Leftover butter strained of cigarette ash and used for hollandaise. Long-stored fish served up on Mondays. He praised offal and foie gras, cursed fascist vegetarians. People devoured it, and out of that came TV series on three networks. He just floated the idea of going to cool places, eating great food, while they paid. And they bought it.
From that point he travelled seven months a year, to almost every country on Earth. There he’d hop on a boat, a train or motorbike. He rode like a rocker with his gristly, tendony, jujitsu-honed body lean in jeans and T-shirt. He would seek out dim, hidden dives known only to locals. (Once, in deepest Tokyo, he ate the best seafood of his life in such a place. Twenty courses, a saké shot between each one). As well as eating, he would have adventures. Go sky-diving. Swim in a frozen lake. Hack through leech-filled jungle. Deliberately get lost. For he was famous now. Not as a chef, for he’d never been a really great chef, and he loathed the commercialism of the celebrity-chef crowd; he would rather write “serial wanker” in his passport. But just as his own curious, restless self. His motto was to keep moving, as far as he could. Keep moving. Try everything.
In all this buzzing around, however, one thing was certain. Food had power. He recognised no god, was hostile to any kind of devotion. But “the food thing” ordered his life. That first taste of a glistening, vaguely sexual, seawatery oyster on a fishing boat in France, at 12, was an initiation. It determined his future. As for that nerve-shattering kitchen chaos, it masked the mechanical precision of a submarine crew. Endurance. Achievement. Three hundred eggs Benedict, not one returned. Food imposed absolutes: the things you must do (use a sharp knife) and things you must not do (eat unopened mussels, use a garlic press). And food conferred a place in a hierarchy of the scarred. Even if you entered as a miserable puta, hard work got you respect.
The power of food was also extraordinarily simple. His aim in his first TV series, “A Cook’s Tour”, was to find the perfect meal. And he knew it wouldn’t be in some five-star restaurant. Food made him happiest if he experienced it in a purely emotional way. It might be the company, the moment, or some memory it evoked: of his mother’s grilled-cheese sandwiches, or his mother-in-law’s meatloaf. A plate of piss-poor peasant food could become something sublime, like feijoada in Brazil. His perfect meal was the street-stall pho of his favourite country, Vietnam. In “Kitchen Confidential” he warned readers to beware of restaurant dirt. He learned to relish many unwashed hands delving in one pot.
So much globe-trotting frayed him. And it destroyed his marriages, though few knew better how food could bring people close. In his TV series perfect strangers opened up to him, telling him their stories over meals in their homes. He didn’t go in as a journalist, but as a guest, asking “What do you like to cook? What makes you happy?” In reply they would offer him food steeped in culture, history and memory. It could be vile—fermented shark in Iceland, warthog rectum in Namibia. But he would always eat it. It wasn’t worse (he said) than a Chicken McNugget. And he wanted to return the kindness. On one trip to the Middle East he wondered aloud—as similar feasts were served up by both Jews and Arabs—whether the world’s problems couldn’t all be solved if people just sat down, without fear, and ate together. For good food was made with love, just as good sex was. To share it was to love one another.