Anthony Bourdain: the original culinary gangster

Anthony Bourdain was an American chef, writer, and documentary filmmaker who brought forth and popularised “foodie” culture in the early 21st century with his hugely influential books and television shows. Bourdain was a multi-faceted and world-traveled idealist with a strong passion for cuisine, life, and regional cultures — as well as a wide range of strong pet peeves and deep-seated beliefs that he wasn’t afraid to share with the public at large, whenever he had the chance.

Anthony Bourdain endured a lifetime of demons, from drug addiction to depression, before succumbing to mental illness and ending his life on 8 June 2018, at the age of 61. Many would identify Bourdain as one of the world’s first and most famous celebrity chefs. Still, I think this is an inadequate description for such an important individual: he was much more than just a celebrity chef. In the words of Bourdain’s long-time friend Ted Allen, he was “the original culinary gangster”.

Bourdain attended The Culinary Institute of America, graduating in 1978. For the next two decades, he ended up working in the kitchens of some of New York’s most prestigious restaurants. Reflecting on this time, Bourdain claimed he was just a “competent line cook” rather than a chef, and he certainly wasn’t seen as the most respected man in the kitchen. That accomplishment took years of hard work and cultivation, with long hours spent cooking, thinking, and writing.


Bourdain remained addicted to cocaine, heroin, and alcohol for most of this period. He often moved from establishment to establishment with a semi-criminal band of culinary mercenaries and vagabonds. These people perfectly characterised the restaurant scene of the 80s and 90s, before it became seen as a fashionable career path. Bourdain had a passion for writing, something he indulged in during his sparse free time. The exotic characters he met and the stories he cultivated in the hospitality trade made their way into print, when Bourdain started to compose his first biography after successfully writing food columns for the New York Times.

In his breakthrough book, Kitchen Confidential, Anthony Bourdain exposed the harsh reality of the hospitality industry, recounting a wealth of tales he accumulated over twenty-five years in the industry, from the lowly position of dishwasher to executive head chef in some of New York’s most cut-throat restaurants. Bourdain’s abrasively witty writing exposed much of the food industry’s ugly inner workings for the first time to the general public, in the process making him a household name across the culinary world.

Following the success of Bourdain’s memoir Kitchen Confidential, the American Food Network offered him the opportunity to host his own food and travel programme, A Cook’s Tour, which debuted in January 2002. It only lasted one season, but it launched Bourdain’s leading career as a television documentarian, which he pursued until his death in 2018.

His cooking shows would soon prove to be immensely popular, as they deviated from the usual programming found on the Food Network. Bourdain was able to immerse himself in a culture through its cuisine, and the camera was there to capture the moment, hand-held, grainy, and instant. This was the first time something like it had ever existed. Often, his shows appeared more like combat footage when compared to the “stand-and-stir” cooking shows that were a staple of the American Food Network.

The chaotic quality of Bourdain’s early shows followed him throughout his career, resulting in Anthony Bourdain’s: Parts Unknown, his most well-known and critically praised series. The show’s concept was simple: Bourdain journeyed around the world to discover little-known places and celebrate different cultures through cooking and dining traditions.

This show became far more than a simple travel show, with Bourdain occasionally seeking big-name partners to travel alongside him in his adventures, all the while swearing like a stevedore and from time to time overindulging in the vices of life. In Parts Unknown, Bourdain had the pleasure to travel alongside notable figures such as Bill Murray, Sean Penn, and Barack Obama.

After hearing about Anthony Bourdain’s passing, former American president Barack Obama gave a moving tribute to him, saying,

 Low plastic stool, cheap but delicious noodles, cold Hanoi beer. This is how I’ll remember Tony. He taught us about food — but more importantly, about its ability to bring us together. To make us a little less afraid of the unknown. We’ll miss him.”


Bourdain was a true professional, first in the kitchen and later in the mainstream media. He inspired people to think differently about food, travel, and themselves through his television shows and books. Bourdain was a larger-than-life figure — a gifted chef and storyteller who used his books and shows to explore culture, cuisine, and the human condition — and his tragic passing shed more light on The Unseen Perils of the Hospitality Industry and the scars the trade often leaves on its staff.

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Sean Barrett
Sean Barrett

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