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Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Anthony Bourdain: An unvarnished life


Down and out in paradise: The Life of Anthony Bourdain

Author: Charles Leerhsen

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Pages: 308

Price: $28.99

would have hated that autocorrect turns his name into Boursin, a bland cheese with zero culinary credibility.

It’s surprising that predictive text doesn’t suggest his name first. Bourdain: He’s hot, he’s sexy and he’s dead, as Rolling Stone said about Jim Morrison on a notorious 1981 cover.

Since his death by his own hand in France, in 2018, there’s been a steady drip of and documentaries and television specials and magazine one-offs about his life and career.

On social media, he’s omnipresent in old clips, explaining how to make a Negroni or ripping the phrase “farm to table.” There are a lot of poignant Bourdain tattoos jiggling around out there.

A new biography by Charles Leerhsen is making news. It’s grittier than anything we’ve read about him before.

Here are the prostitutes, a lot of prostitutes, and one-night stands, and rumours of affairs with other food-world personalities.

Here is the use of steroids, human growth hormone and Viagra. Here are exact, disturbing details about his suicide. His heroin habit is recounted. So is his frequent coldness to many who loved and worked with him.

A previous book, Bourdain: The Definitive Oral Biography (2021), compiled by Laurie Woolever, felt like an official Bourdain-industry product. It was heavy on pontificating celebrities, from the food, television and journalism worlds, who tried to puzzle out what made this magnificent, pagan, literate, lantern-jawed beast tick, to put him on the couch.

Leerhsen’s book, on the other hand, has a lot of people trying to join Bourdain on the couch, ideally without his trousers, and thus has more adrenaline and feels truer to life.

He’s not here, though, to discredit or dismiss his subject. His admiration for Bourdain is nearly always apparent. It’s hard to say if Bourdain would have liked this book. Either way, I suspect he would have admired the author’s guts.

Leerhsen is a former executive editor at Sports Illustrated whose previous include biographies of Ty Cobb and Butch Cassidy. His Bourdain book goes down like a mass-market rock bio.

I’d have loved it if I were 17. The author goes all in on Bourdain’s angst, his instinctive distrust of authority, his hero-worship of talented outsiders like Hunter S Thompson, Iggy Pop and William S Burroughs.

The older me, the one who prefers wine to fizz, wishes Leerhsen had more to say about things like: a) the elite and vernacular food worlds pre- and post-Bourdain; b) how Bourdain walked a moral tightrope across the conventions of travel writing and reporting, no mean feat for a wealthy white man in skinny jeans; and c) the sense that he was at the vanguard, more so than even the most scrutinised actors, of a new type of American masculinity.

You can’t have everything. Leerhsen sacrifices weight for speed.

He tracks Bourdain from his suburban New Jersey childhood — his parents had frustrated bohemian inclinations — to Vassar, where he followed the woman who would become his first wife. College did not appeal to him, but cooking did, its piratical side, and he graduated from the Culinary Institute of America, a hidebound place at the time.

He worked in restaurants in Provincetown, Mass., and later New York, earning battle scars. He smoked four packs a day and had a big tank for alcohol, and for drugs.

He was a late bloomer. He published a first novel at 39. He studied unhappily with the editor Gordon Lish before writing the piece that changed his life.

“Don’t Eat Before Reading This: A New York Chef Spills Some Trade Secrets” appeared in The New Yorker in April 1999. The impact, in those mostly pre-internet days, is hard to overstate: There were television news trucks outside Les Halles the next day.

The essay was supposed to run in New York Press, an alternative weekly, but the paper accepted it and never printed it. The New Yorker piece, in which Bourdain sharpened his teeth on lax restaurant practices, led directly to his best-selling memoir, Kitchen Confidential, and to everything that followed, particularly the increasingly well-made television shows.

Bourdain had a million opportunities to sell out and vastly enrich himself. There are no Bourdain knife sets, or airport bistros.

We learn he had a Google alert set to his own name. It gave him real-time, ego-stroking push notifications.

We learn he Googled the name Asia Argento — the Italian actress with whom he had a torrid, messy affair — several hundred times in the last three days of his life, after she rattled him by appearing in public with another man.

“You were reckless with my heart,” Bourdain wrote, before he hanged himself. The last website he visited was a prostitution service, Leerhsen writes, though he seems to have died alone.

“You need to have a lot of things go right in your life before you can become as miserable as Anthony Bourdain, by his late 50s, found himself — that is, before you can work your way to a position where you have so much to lose,” Leerhsen writes.

“In Tony’s case it took decades to reach a height from which falling would matter.”

There’s an old joke in Hollywood that the film Gandhi was popular because Gandhi was everything people there wish they were: Thin, tan and moral.

Bourdain — thin, tan (he was addicted to sunbeds) and mostly moral himself — is approaching secular sainthood. This book doesn’t merely light candles but scuffs him up. I doubt it will be the final word.


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