A reflection on Anthony Bourdain, by Leslie Williams

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A light went out in the food world on Friday.  I had the enormous privilege of interviewing the late great Anthony Bourdain on two occasions for this site and his sad passing has left me rather bereft, I’m feeling a little like I did when I heard Joe Stummer died having barely reached 50 – I think Bourdain would approve of the comparison.  He was a dream interviewee – opinionated, precise in his thoughts, witty, focused and often profound and he had so much more to give the world.

In 1999 Bourdain was a jobbing chef working at Brasserie Les Halles in the Downtown Manhattan, he’d published a couple of novels that were barely noticed but he shot to fame following a piece he wrote for the New Yorker entitled Don’t Eat Before Reading This.

The piece is as fresh and relevant today as when it was first published - I’ll quote the first line: ‘Good food, good eating, is all about blood, organs, cruelty and decay.’  Within hours of that New Yorker piece hitting the news stands Bourdain had a publishing deal and within months his memoir Kitchen Confidential was published and he had his first TV travel programme.

I interviewed him first in 2001 or 2002 on the re-issue of his novel A Bone in the Throat, a fun crime caper set in the restaurant world of Manhattan – it is easy to spot the bad guys, they harass the waitresses, order their steak well-done and ask to switch sauces on the menu from the meat to the fish.  I remember we talked about the Ramones and the Dead Boys - his favourite music to cook to – and how if he was stranded on a desert island he would just need some sushi fixings and he’d be fine.

In between TV work, travel books and the re-issuing of his novels he was still technically employed by Les Halles and in 2004 I interviewed him on the publication of the Les Halles Cookbook.  The smoking ban had just come in and Boudain was furious about it, considering it an affront to civility and decency – qualities he felt were exemplified by the traditional Irish pub where a man or woman should be allowed have a pint and a smoke in peace.  

The cookbook is excellent by the way, they were not his recipes but the French classics he cooked daily in Les Halles - Bourdain never claimed to be anything other than a talented line cook with a lot of opinions, he certainly wasn’t a ‘celebrity chef’.  ‘A field manual for cooking French food’ was how he described it and it brims over with intelligence, wit and charm and and I still use it for its country pâté, its pot au feu and the frites recipe is faultless.  There is also excellent advice for dinner parties – e.g.: prep properly and don’t spend all evening in the kitchen as guests left unattended for long periods are liable to steal your drugs and booze and seduce your girlfriend….

So go re-read the memoirs and the travel books, read his excellent humane Urban Historical on Typhoid Mary, the tragic tale of the Irish Chef blamed for various New York Typhoid outbreaks (sometimes unfairly in Bourdain’s view).  Watch his TV programmes which are all over Netflix and will open your mind to the glorious diversity that is humanity and keep an eye out for the Hanoi episode of Parts Unknown when he is joined in a noodle bar to eat Bun Cha by Barack Obama.

Bourdain is survived by his partner the actress Asia Argento and a young daughter.  We won’t see his likes again.

In 2010 Leslie Williams wrote this piece on Anthony Bourdain Les Halles, and the correct way to approach steak frites.