Yes, Tony: I wish I could get to do what you do every day. Traversing the globe, knowing new cultures, eating exotic delicacies, and being a borderline alcoholic. I mean, why can’t I get rip roaring drunk with a bunch of Korean businessmen and have people think I’m completely witty and clever? Total career envy.
If Bohemians can be defined as people who “may be wanderers, adventurers, or vagabonds, practicing unconventional lifestyles, involving musical, artistic, or literary pursuits”, then Anthony Bourdain certainly fits that bill. Though like so many, overdoing it in the hedonism department was his downfall for many years…
Equally at home in a 3 Michelin Star Restaurant as he is tucking into stir-fried intestines in a Cambodian street market, I’ve followed Bourdain’s hungover whining like a the hopeless fanboy that I am. Who doesn’t want to drink sake in a snow-covered outdoor hot spring in Japan? And then jaunt off to Rome and eat the best pasta this side of well, Rome. I swear to God, if I ever win the lottery or secure a 100% remote job, this is what I’ll be doing for the rest my days.
And for a guy who gets to do what only most of us could ever dream of for our day jobs, all the while becoming a New York Times bestselling author, Anthony Bourdain still sure is a cranky fellow. Maybe that’s why I find him so amusing. His worldview mirrors my own cynical outlook on the rest of humanity. Still though: there’s exquisite wonder to found in a trash-strewn back alleys somewhere in the Developing World.
However, his path to the top of the cutthroat CNN Travel Host/Foodie hierarchy was not a smooth one by any means.
Here was a guy trapped in the never ending grind of a workaday New York chef: 14 hours on his feet, in his forties, stuck in a disintegrating marriage and, according to his autobiography Medium Raw, only weeks away from being evicted from his rent controlled apartment.
He’d always wanted to travel the world and be successful, but his Punk Rock lifestyle soon got the better of him. Enthralled by the glamour of the nihilistic junkie musicians he idolized, Bourdain quickly descended into a downward spiral of drug addiction and a ruined culinary career.
Slogging it out in low-end, low wage diner jobs, he had to clean up and eventually climb his way back up the ladder again in the fine dining scene. But upon entering middle age, he knew things had to change for him- but wasn’t quite sure how. Something had to change…
His side outlet was writing, and as it turns out he had a real talent for it. Starting off with a small column in the NY Times describing the grueling reality of real working chefs, his prose soon found a loyal audience. That led to his breakout book Kitchen Confidential. The rest, as they say, is history.
Bourdain lays open the doors of a world probably most fine dining patrons will never know. And probably they wouldn’t ever eat there again if they did see who was actually cooking their food. Describing the typical kitchen crew as a bunch of “wacked-out moral degenerates, dope fiends, refugees, a thuggish assortment of drunks, sneak thieves, sluts, and psychopaths”- sounds like my kind of party. I seem to remember an anecdote about him one day opening the door to the staff bathroom to see some of his ex-gangmember cooks assembling AK-47s in there “as a side gig”.
Nor would his descriptions of the cooking world ever encourage any sane person to want to pursue a career as a line chef. It takes a rare breed of workaholic, and someone who truly thrives under intense stress, to ever make it through a few years of this lifestyle. Most ambitious young Celebrity Chef wannabes probably burn out when they realize what the unglamorous reality really entails.
Perhaps what really draws readers and fans to Bourdain is his candor. He makes no bones about the complete and utter cockup he made of himself, all driven by his hedonistic excesses and self-sabotaging persona. All unapologetically his own fault. He doesn’t blame anyone else for his problems, and by his own accounts, he’s probably very lucky to have even made it to adulthood at all.
Luckily, his success in the writing world then led to a string of cooking and travel shows on cable TV. God knows where he’d be if he hadn’t. Probably still slaving away on his feet in a kitchen somewhere, evicted from his apartment, burnt out and unable to see all the countries he’d always dreamed about visiting.
I think we can all relate to struggle, setbacks and bad decisions- you’re a liar if you say you’ve never had your fair share of them in your life (though perhaps some have hit bigger extremes than others). Being open about it all can certainly make you vulnerable and relatable in more ways than one.
Bourdain’s made a name for himself by embracing his scars, getting inebriated on television and at least making you laugh along the way (albeit in his own bitter, sarcastic tone). We’re all flawed human beings, so stop trying to pretend that you’re not.