Escapism has come in strange forms over the past 18 months. Hell, it’s become its own currency. Joe Wicks-ing it, getting into sourdough, reading more than you have in your entire lifetime. You could say we’ve become a nation of polymaths. Ish.
At the top of the lockdown-comfort food chain, though, sat Anthony Bourdain, the bad boy chef hopping around the world in Parts Unknown – a show which offered a window into his culinary discoveries and blindingly illustrious career.
Premiering in 2013, the series went above the standard of world-food parapet and took us to, well, parts unknown. Warthog rectum in Namibia, fermented shark in Iceland and ant eggs in Puebla, Mexico were all on the menu. And no frontier was too far for the late, great Bourdain to cross, whether he spent a day in the life of a South African taxi driver, explored Tokyo’s kinky underbelly or discovered Brazil’s hidden fishing neighbourhoods. He sought to understand the food and culture of these countries beyond traditional travel guides, and told their local stories through a typically sardonic, erudite lens.
Each episode of Parts Unknown was an exercise in open-mindedness and saw Bourdain search for something bigger than himself. Although his life came to an untimely, tragic end in 2018, his relevance and legacy endures. Roadrunner, a commemorative documentary about the rebel chef’s life, was released across the US today. Directed by Oscar-winning filmmaker Morgan Neville, it intimately portrays Bourdain’s trajectory from anonymous cook to renowned cultural icon and everything in between, flaws and all.
Gabriel Pryce, fellow chef and co-founder of London deli restaurant Rita’s Dining, sees Bourdain as a true cross-generational hero. “He means more to me than any chef, restaurateur, food writer, TV cook or critic,” he says. “By exploring the how and where, he was really exposing the why. It hurts me deeply that he can’t be here doing that anymore. I wish I’d met him, just to shake his hand.”
Bourdain’s career skyrocketed in 1999, after his essay Don’t Eat Before Reading This was published by The New Yorker. The essay took readers through the highs and lows of being a young chef in Manhattan, and was later expanded into Bourdain’s bestselling novel, Kitchen Confidential.
“He cut through all the pretence and showmanship,” says George McCallum, a creative director and baker. McCallum listened to the audiobook – all eight hours of it – in one sitting when he was at university. “[Bourdain] took it back to what eating should be: fascinating, exciting, sometimes scary, messy and visceral. He never pretended to know it all, like a lot of food broadcasters do. He was open to everything.”
Bourdain’s insatiable appetite for adventure – and the odd curse word, rock n’ roll past and liberal attitude to sex – earned him the enfant terrible crown of the culinary world. But he was also acutely aware that food was inherently political. “Bourdain showed me a way to write about food culture [in a way] that includes the labour and workers who make it possible,” says food writer Alicia Kennedy.
“While he hated vegetarians and vegans, and I wish I’d had the opportunity to discuss why he was wrong on that, he modelled an engaged hospitality that always went both ways. He showed that it’s OK to change, that you can believe in your luck and not take a moment for granted. He wasn’t perfect, and that’s the greatest lesson in an increasingly homogenised landscape.”
It seems unfair that someone so full of life, who inspired such joy and redemption, is no longer with us. Sound designer and Bourdain obsessive Izaak Buffin points out that he was the type of person who painted life how it truly felt, capturing a perfect balance between beauty and sadness. “He was a realist.”
“I felt such guttural sadness when I heard he died,” says Ailie Robertson, head of sales at a London production house and self-confessed Bourdain superfan. “He was human in every sense of the word, in life and death. Despite his booming voice and huge, kitchen-scarred hands, he had such a fragility to him. I always thought there was a glassiness in his eyes, almost like he was on the verge of weeping.
“You knew he’d felt so many deep, sorrowful lows, but ultimately his warmth and openness formed his legacy. He was humble, always inquisitive and always kind. In a world of ultra-masculine, elitist cook bros, Anthony Bourdain showed you can exist with acceptance and curiosity. I think his popularity endures because of his heart. He had a lust for life, and he reminds me to try and keep that same lust in mine.”
There’s no doubt that Roadrunner will make for a bittersweet watch, but in keeping with Bourdain’s life, it’ll be a hell of a ride, too.