Anthony Bourdain: gone and missed
“Anthony Bourdain had the greatest job show biz has ever produced. The man flew around the world and ate delicious meals with outstanding people.
That man, with that job hung himself in a luxury suite in France.” Dave Chappelle
I am still pissed-off at Anthony Bourdain. He has deprived us of his truthful perspective on an eternally important subject: food. I feel as if a friend and ally, someone on my side of the food/fuel equation, purposefully took himself out of the game when he was at the top of his game and when we needed him the most. He had one hell of a soapbox. On our behalf, Bourdain railed against the “evildoers,” the corporate food industry and their duplicitous allies in the governmental bureaucracies…
The evil axis powers of Health Nazis, the Vegetarian Taliban, European Union bureaucrats, anti-smoking crystal worshipers, PETA fundamentalists, fast-food theme restaurant moguls and their sympathizers are consolidating their fearful hold on popular dining habits…The European Union wants to ban unpasteurized cheese, artisanal anything, shellfish, beef, anything that carries the most infinitesimal possibility of risk – or the slightest potential for pleasure.
We lost that powerful pen. Bourdain saw the future. And that future was run by clerks, legislators, inspectors, and all the Nanny State overseers, telling us why we cannot eat artisanal cheese, or drink raw milk, yet condoning the consumption of artificial “foods” that are neutering us as a species. Bourdain told it true.
Spend an hour in a food court in the Midwest; watch the pale, doughy, masses of pasty-faced, Pringle-fattened, morbidly obese teenagers. These are the end products of the Masterminds of Safety and Ethics, bulked up cheese that contains no cheese, chips fried in oil that isn’t really oil, overcooked gray discs of ‘meat,’ a steady diet of Ho-Hos and muffins, butter-less popcorn, sugarless soda, flavorless lite beer. It creates a docile, uncomprehending herd.
That powerful voice stilled itself. No one could state it better: at his writing best, he hurled thunderbolts.
Bourdain was a Culinary Institute of America graduate, the Harvard of American cook schools. For a decade Bourdain was a heroin druggie and had a resultant checkered, start-stop career. He eventually straightened out, got some help from Big Foot, and had a long tenure as a high-level chef ramrodding an elite NYC bistro, Les Halles. Bourdain had 27 years in the cooking trenches. He cooked at a level that garnered him respect by his betters, the superstar Michelin-starred chefs.
Bourdain was a real writer. He wrote fictional crime novels and had real writing chops. When he turned his attention towards food, chefs, cooks, and the restaurant subculture, he wrote with unrivaled depth of perspective. He was no effete food critic offering up cutesy turns of phrases, his 27 years in the pits provided him with a bullshit meter that was invariably accurate. He made his bones with the book Kitchen Confidential.
Kitchen Confidential was a high-level insider sharing the alternate universe realities of big-league cooking. A Cook’s Tour was a travelogue, the precursor to the cable TV show of the same name. The Nasty Bits, and Medium Raw are a series of essays, ruminations on related topics, plus chef and restaurant profiles – he introduced us to a cavalcade of incredible chefs on a worldwide basis. Tony was, along with the late Jim Harrison, the most inciteful food writer on the face of the planet. His writing style was chock full of fire and brimstone, amplified by his deep knowledge of the subject. He had a heavy Hunter Thompson influence.
Fyodor Dostoyevsky once noted, “We all crawled out from under Gogol’s ‘Overcoat.’” His point being that Tolstoy, Turgenev, Lermontov, and all the great Russian writers that followed Gogol were influenced by the style, verve, and realism of Nikolai Gogol’s short story, The Overcoat. So too young writers like Bourdain (and myself) were liberated by the outrageousness of Thompson’s Gonzo style. Hunter was the first rock and roll writer. Thompson embraced the rock star lifestyle and frittered away his talent in a haze of dope and Wild Turkey. He killed himself, a nasty burnout, hateful and withered.
Bourdain was not a burnout. He seemed at the top of his game. He was a superstar of the culinary world and did so without selling out. He attained celebrity on his terms. He broke from the book world into the TV world with his A Cook’s Tour cable show. He later attained superstardom with his No Reservations travelogue show. I was a fanboy: I salivated as he ate beef ribs at Mueller’s BBQ in Austin, or when he would tear into a chunk of perfectly roasted whole pig in the Philippines. I moaned watching him moan as he took his first bite of roast goose in Peking and declared it the greatest single bite of fowl he had ever eaten.
Bourdain introduced us to Gordon Ramsey, who, at the time, was still behind the stove in his first restaurant. Ramsey remarked when feeding him, “My God! He eats like a horse! Like three people!” Only when its sublime. Tony introduced us to other culinary Gods: Fergus Henderson, Marco Pierre White, Thomas Keller, Ferran Adria, and Eric Ripert.
I felt kinship with him: Bourdain was not a culinary God, he was a demi-God, a lesser God. His demi-god status allowed him access to, and he was given respect by the Gods. In my world, strength and athletics, I too was a demi-God, a lesser – but I too had status enough to be given access to the athletic Gods. Tony wrote about elite chefs and food preparation while I wrote about elite strength athletes and resistance training. I had done my 27 years in the trenches twice over actually.
Anthony Bourdain’s TV persona was a tad exaggerated. He played the New York hard-ass role that got snide at times. Factually, he was a beta boy that morphed himself into an alpha as circumstance demanded. He had big appetites that got him in trouble. Relatively speaking, he curbed his deadlier habits in his later years, but this was not to say he didn’t smoke and drink, he just no longer shot and snorted.
I loved his excess. He had large capacities and partied till he dropped. On one episode of No Reservations, he famously fell out of chair at a chic winery, mid-conversation, unconscious before he hit the floor. “I went to brush something off my cheek, it was the floor.” Keep filming!
Bourdain made statements that backed up my own contention that there is zero excuse for not having rudimentary kitchen skills. All self-respecting alpha males should be able to roast a perfect whole chicken, grill or pan fry a perfect burger, know how to prepare salmon, steam or sauté shrimp, how to make an omelet. Can you make a salad, cook asparagus, deal with green beans, dice onions, prepare rice and potatoes with ease, some variety and consistency? Food shopping is an art. Obtaining quality proteins and produce makes creating excellent dishes and meals easier and more potent.
As I have pointed out in the past, elite chefs and elite athletes seek the same quality foodstuffs for entirely different reasons. Chefs seek the freshest proteins and produce for the potency of flavor. Athletes seek the freshest proteins and produce for their maximum nutritional potency. Potency and flavor are synonymous, two sides of the same coin. The most flavorful ingredients are the most potent. Guys like Bourdain show kitchen neophytes how to succeed.
In another episode Tony somehow ended up duck hunting with a bunch of Arkansas hillbillies. These men had gunned down mallards for decades – yet were mystified when Bourdain patiently sauteed a giant, fresh duck breast in bacon grease. He presented them with a crispy-skinned, medium rare chunk of duck that changed those men’s life from that point forward. They were incredulous at the deliciousness of the duck and the simplicity of the preparation. The mortals thanked the demigod profusely as he headed back to his luxury condo on the Upper West Side.
I found it sadly ironic that, upon rereading The Nasty Bits, I came across a reference to an elite French chef, Francois Vatel, who, in 1671 killed himself because a critical fish delivery came late for a banquet for the King of France. In his essay Viva Mexico! Tony touts the resilient nature of his Mexican coworkers. They would not have killed themselves if the fish were late, they would have improvised and made it happen…
Vatel punked out over a late fish delivery like a bad poet. Someone had to cover his station the next day. Manual would not have killed himself, he would have shrugged and soldiered on. No shrieking and wailing and rending of garments for Manual. He is a professional, not some flighty artist who can’t handle a little pressure.
No one has showed up to cover Anthony Bourdain’s station. It might be a while before someone has the gravitas and chops to fill those shoes.
About the Author
As an athlete Marty Gallagher is a national and world champion in Olympic lifting and powerlifting. He was a world champion team coach in 1991 and coached Black's Gym to five national team titles. He's also coached some of the strongest men on the planet including Kirk Karwoski when he completed his world record 1,003 lb. squat. Today he teaches the US Secret Service and Tier 1 Spec Ops on how to maximize their strength in minimal time. As a writer since 1978 he’s written for Powerlifting USA, Milo, Flex Magazine, Muscle & Fitness, Prime Fitness, Washington Post, Dragon Door and now IRON COMPANY. He’s also the author of multiple books including Purposeful Primitive, Strong Medicine, Ed Coan’s book “Coan, The Man, the Myth, the Method" and numerous others. Read the Marty Gallagher biography here.