Anthony Bourdain: A Culinary Legacy

Aoife Hegarty reminisces on legendary chef Anthony Bourdain’s career and the lessons to be learned from his legacy.

Anthony Bourdain’s death in June shocked many around the world. Tributes poured in from all corners of society and street art in his likeness popped up on the walls of many cities. Restaurants served Bourdain’s favourite meals to empty tables and fans everywhere raised a negroni to Tony. The cocktail consisting of gin, vermouth and Campari was, famously, Bourdain’s favourite drink. His death prompted frank conversations about suicide and highlighted its non-discriminatory nature. Aged just 61, Anthony Bourdain was at the height of his career; the news was utterly shocking. Yet here in Ireland, although his death was headline news, it seemed that we had missed the Bourdain boat in the sense that he is not as famous here as he is elsewhere. This can easily be explained as Bourdain’s TV shows aired on American TV channels like CNN and The Travel Channel.

Although available in Ireland, Bourdain’s TV shows are not widely popular. Luckily for us however, CNN have recently made Bourdain’s Parts Unknown available to stream on Netflix.

But before TV shows and treks around the globe, Anthony Bourdain was a regular chef, or a “cook” as he preferred to describe it. He is famously old school and was trained in classical French cooking. He worked his way up through kitchens whilst battling drug addiction and ultimately overcoming it (no drugs were found in his system after his death, contrary to media speculation). He went on to make a respectable name for himself in the New York culinary scene and was head chef of Les Halles in New York. It is during this time that he did something that would change the course of his life. At 42 years old, drowning in debt, Bourdain submitted an article to the New York Times entitled “Don’t Eat Before Reading This”. The article was extremely well received and he was commissioned to turn it into a book. This book was called Kitchen Confidential, a book that is regarded as helping to change the perception of chefs from old men in white hats, to cigarette smoking “bad boys.” Bourdain is credited with injecting some much needed sex appeal into the culinary world.

The book changed Bourdain’s life “literally overnight” by his own admission. At 42 Bourdain was careful with his new-found fame. He admits he did not take the first thing offered to him and when he made the move to television, the show he produced, A Cook’s Tour, was quite a different show to the one the network had wanted. Lack of funding meant the network were stuck with it. The risk paid off and Bourdain was on the path that would have him travelling the globe for 250 days a year for almost two decades.

Bourdain’s television shows can be divided into three categories, A Cook’s Tour; the first show, the teething stage. Far more amateur than later series’, it shows the hallmarks of Bourdain beginning to “figure this TV thing out.” Much of it is available on YouTube. The second series, No Reservations, which premiered in 2005, is where the meat is at. It is the home of some of the most iconic episodes and features an episode on Ireland, a must watch. A few episodes are available on YouTube, including the Ireland episode where Bourdain’s love of Guinness seems to be the focal point. No Reservations ran until 2012, after which Bourdain moved to CNN with a new show; Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown. The first eight seasons are available on Netflix and it is much more stylised than previous series’. It is made beautifully, and is somewhat more serious. Bourdain is a writer and has described episodes of Parts Unknown as personal essays. His unique voice is sometimes hilarious, sometimes sobering. Notable episodes of Parts Unknown include; “Libya”, “Scotland”, “Mississippi” and “Lyon”. Bourdain’s television shows are unique in that they are not really about food, but rather using food as a social tool. Food is a language that Bourdain speaks well and he uses it to find common ground between people of all backgrounds. He stresses the power of sitting around a table with people and sharing a meal. This often is all that’s needed to put divisions to one side. Everyone can appreciate a good meal and if somebody spends time making you food, you better respect that and eat. Even if it is fermented shark or sheep’s stomach. This goes to the heart of what Bourdain is about, respecting people and respecting cultures.

As many of the tributes after his death echoed, he makes you want to go out and see the world. He makes you want to taste it. If his legacy is anything, it is not to fear the parts unknown.