Anthony Bourdain was our rock star chef. But he was more than that - strip away the bravado and you had a creative soul who sought to encourage an appreciation of food, demonstrating how a great meal binds everyone together.
Bourdain lived a life that celebrated a drug-fuelled, punk rock day-to-day existence until he decided to give it up and pursue a cleaner lifestyle. The Bourdain that we knew, through his TV series and books, was a guy who had come out at the other end of that lifestyle. He had lived life and experienced its highs and lows. He was honest, thoughtful, and had a complete no-bullshit attitude.
Kitchen Confidential was never part of the plan. What plan?
Bourdain first entered the public eye with the New York Times bestselling book Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in The Culinary Underbelly. But Bourdain never set out to write a book. Wanting to flex some creative muscles that he wasn't using in the kitchen, Bourdain penned an article for a street press newspaper Don't Eat Before Reading This. The article was then picked up by the New Yorker, which in turn led to publisher interest in expanding the idea of the article into a book.
A simple desire to amuse his friends and colleagues with an opinion piece in the local paper led to a new life-long career in the public consciousness with multiple TV shows, books, and an ill-advised scripted comedy series starring Bradley Cooper based on Kitchen Confidential.
Snooty food isn't what brings us together
Regular viewers of Bourdain's shows would be familiar with hearing Bourdain talk about the pleasure of 'peasant foods'. Bourdain made his career exposing viewers to a broad range of restaurants, from high end dining experiences, to simple street food and beyond. It was when Bourdain was exploring street foods and foods coming from earthy, honest market places that Bourdain seemed alive and in his element.
Through his TV series, the overall message was incredibly clear - Bourdain was showing us how the pleasure of food binds us all together, regardless of culture and status.
It's more than a TV show - it's making a weekly mini movie
Very early on, viewers of Bourdain's best known series No Reservations will have noticed the constant visual references to movies. Bourdain and the production team delighted in producing episodes with strong visual homages to their favourite movies, from both the framing and style in which segments were filmed, through to aping the originating movies colour schemes and editing patterns. Referencing movies from the well-known like Apocalypse Now and The Limey to lesser-seen films like City of Ghosts, the show used these to give the series a distinct flavour and personality. The result was a distinctive series that not only enlivened the food travelogue genre, subverting expectation at every turn.
The future Sushi warrior chef
In recent years Bourdain embraced his lifelong love of alternative and literary comic books to add his own creation to the mix with Get Jiro, a series set "in a not-too-distant future LA, where master chefs rule the town like crime lords, and a bloody culinary war is raging. On one side are the Internationalists, blending food from all over the world; on the other, the 'Vertical Farm', adept of organic, vegetarian, macrobiotic dishes. And both sides want Jiro, a renegade sushi chef."
The books are a lot of fun and are a wonderful blend of Bourdain's passions and creative impulses. There's a great quote he gave to the website CBR in which he explained why he wanted a sushi chef as the focus of his book:
It’s probably the very apex. There is no other area of food where people are willing to spend more money on ingredients, where you will find a master dedicating 50 years of their life to making the same 20 or 30 cuts of classic, very austere forms of sushi. There is perfectionism, a fetishism of respect for tradition and ingredients that a lot of chefs admire.
That kind of dedication to excellence, especially when most people — the mass majority of people — really probably couldn’t tell at first exposure the difference between good sushi and totally great sushi is remarkable. It’s a perfectionism and a dedication to craft that is fascinating — especially to cooks and chefs. French chefs, Italian chefs, chefs from all over the world, we all look to Japan with fascination and awe.
And Jiro is also an ex-Yakuza, so we wanted him physically fit enough to be able to kill large numbers of people in a short period of time. [Laughs]
* * * *
Bourdain was a TV celebrity chef. But he brought to us all so much more than that. With a down-to-earth attitude and every-man approach, he gave us all a position to find a common understanding through creative work that went beyond what anyone expected. Throughout his TV career he was very open with journalists about his limitations as a professional chef, but that was never the case with his creative work. He always found a way to make his work, and the world around him, far more interesting.
You can go back and enjoy some of Anthony Bourdain's work with No Reservations, streaming now at SBS On Demand:
Readers seeking support and information about suicide prevention can contact Lifeline on 13 11 14.