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Bourdain used food as a quasi-journalistic tool to tell human stories

Celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain dies in French hotel room while filming coming segment for his series 'Parts Unknown'

Keach Hagey Melanie Grayce West | WSJ 

On Friday, June 8, 2018, Bourdain was found dead in his hotel room in France, while working on his CNN series on culinary traditions around the world. (Photo: AP/PTI)
On Friday, June 8, 2018, Bourdain was found dead in his hotel room in France, while working on his CNN series on culinary traditions around the world. (Photo: AP/PTI)

Anthony Bourdain, the chef and author who parlayed his love of food, taste for adventure and gifts as a raconteur into television stardom, was found dead Friday in a hotel room in France of an apparent suicide, CNN said. He was 61.

CNN said in a statement he was found unresponsive Friday morning by Eric Ripert, a friend and chef. Mr. Bourdain was in Strasbourg filming a coming segment for his series “Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown,” CNN said.

“His love of great adventure, new friends, fine food and drink and the remarkable stories of the world made him a unique storyteller,” CNN said. “His talents never ceased to amaze us and we will miss him very much.” Mr. Bourdain’s knack for using food as a quasi-journalistic tool to explore other cultures and tell emotionally affecting—and often politically probing—human stories created a new form of television and in the process made him a global celebrity.

His Emmy-winning CNN show, on the air since 2013, helped reshape the network’s prime-time programming strategy away from a reliance on the volatility of the daily news cycle and inspired many imitators.

Mr. Ripert, one of Mr. Bourdain’s closest friends and a frequent partner on his travels, said in a statement that Mr. Bourdain “was an exceptional human being, so inspiring and generous. One of the great storytellers of our time who connected with so many. I wish him peace.”

News of Mr. Bourdain’s death prompted an outpouring of reaction from a host of celebrities on social media.

Jose Andrés, a friend of Mr. Bourdain who appeared on his shows, wrote on Twitter: “You still had so many places to show us, whispering to our souls the great possibilities beyond what we could see with our own eyes….You only saw beauty in all people. You will always travel with me.”

Mr. Bourdain’s death comes three days after fashion designer Kate Spade died from suicide in her Park Avenue apartment in New York City. Her husband and business partner said the 55-year-old Ms. Spade had suffered from depression and anxiety for many years.

A U.S. government report released Thursday found suicide rates inched up in nearly every U.S. state from 1999 through 2016. More than half of suicides in 2015 in a subgroup of 27 states were among people with no known mental-health condition, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found.

Mr. Bourdain was born in New York City and grew up in Leonia, N.J. His father was a classical-music record executive, and his mother was a copy editor for the New York Times. He dropped out of Vassar College after two years, began working in restaurants and later attended the Culinary Institute of America.

After graduating, he spent two decades working in New York’s restaurant industry, a world he painted as alternately brutal and romantic in his breakthrough memoir, “Kitchen Confidential,” published in 2000.

His second book, “A Cook’s Tour,” which rounded up his food-related travels around the world, helped catapult him onto television screens with a Food Network show of the same name, starting in 2002. In 2005, he moved to the Food Network’s sister channel, the Travel Channel, with the show “No Reservations” from 2005 to 2012 and “The Layover” from 2011 to 2013.

In 2013, he moved to CNN and launched “Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown,” which mixed food, travel and politics in a successful formula that won awards and became a prominent platform. In 2016, then-President Barack Obama appeared on an episode of the show shot in Vietnam.

Mark Whitaker, a former CNN executive, wooed Mr. Bourdain to the network in part by promising that the news network’s resources would help him get to some of the more challenging places he wanted to go, like Myanmar and Syria. It was a big risk for CNN, Mr. Whitaker said, which hadn’t worked much with outside documentary teams before. He sold it internally by saying, “it’s not a food show; it’s journalism.” His bet paid off.

“You learn more about the politics of Lebanon from than from almost anyplace else on television,” Mr. Whitaker said.

Food wasn’t the only thing for which Mr. Bourdain had a famous appetite. He reflected frankly on his use of heroin and cocaine during his years working in restaurants, writing in “Kitchen Confidential” that “hardly a decision was made without drugs.” Later, he shook these addictions, but maintained a lifelong enthusiasm for drinking and smoking.

“I knew Tony through all his addictions and everything, and strangely, he was always someone who was under control,” said Joel Rose, his longtime friend and collaborator.

Mr. Rose said he was left searching through his latest interactions for some sign of distress he might have missed. “The only thing I can come up with—it’s just so remote—is that the last few times we corresponded, because he traveled so much, they were very terse replies, just one or two words. That was something different,” he said.

In his 2010 book “Medium Raw,” Mr. Bourdain wrote that after his first marriage ended, he was holed up in the Caribbean at loose ends. “By loose ends I mean aimless and regularly suicidal,” he wrote.

He described drinking heavily, smoking lots of pot and driving drunk when he faced the decision “to either jerk the wheel at the appropriate moment, continuing, however recklessly, to careen homeward—or simply straighten the f—r out and shoot over the edge and into the sea.”

Mr. Bourdain was twice divorced and had one daughter. In recent years, he had been seeing the film actress Asia Argento, one of Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein’s accusers. Mr. Bourdain had been outspoken in supporting her. When asked during a recent interview with the Journal whether he ever thought about stepping back from the breakneck pace of a job that kept him on the road 250 days a year, he said, “Too late for that. I think about it. I aspired to it. I feel guilty about it. I yearn for it. Balance? I f—ing wish.”

Daniel Halpern, president and publisher of Ecco, which published the paperback edition of “Kitchen Confidential,” said he came to admire Mr. Bourdain so much that he created a publishing imprint for him called Books.

“The thing about Tony is that he was always the same, on and off air,” said Mr. Halpern in an interview. “There was not an ounce of arrogance, nothing privileged. You’d go in a bar, and all the staff wanted selfies because he stood up for the people who never get acknowledged. And he was very moral. He went against the bad guys in the food industry over the #MeToo movement who were at one time friends of his.”


Allison Prang, Jeffrey A. Trachtenberg and Katy McLaughlin contributed to this article.

First Published: Sat, June 09 2018. 12:50 IST
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