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Anthony Bourdain biography: Light on subtlety, heavy on grit

Anthony Bourdain biography: Light on subtlety, heavy on grit
Down and Out in Paradise: The Life of Anthony Bourdain.
Anthony Bourdain would have hated that autocorrect turns his name into Boursin, a bland cheese with zero culinary credibility.

It is surprising that predictive text does not suggest his name first. Bourdain: He is hot, he is sexy, and he is dead, as Rolling Stone said about Jim Morrison on a notorious 1981 cover.اضافة اعلان

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

On social media, he is 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, “Down and Out in Paradise: The Life of Anthony Bourdain”, by Charles Leerhsen, is making news. It is grittier than anything we have read about him before.

Here are the prostitutes, a lot of prostitutes, and one-night stands, and rumors 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 coldnes.

A previous book, “Bourdain: The Definitive Oral Biography” (2021), compiled by Laurie Woolever, felt like an official Bourdain-industry product. It was worthy but dull.

“Down and Out in Paradise” reminded me in certain ways of Albert Goldman’s muckraking 1981 biography of Elvis Presley. Leerhsen leans heavily, for example, on unnamed sources.

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

“Down and Out in Paradise” is not the most subtle thing you will ever read. Leerhsen is a former executive editor at Sports Illustrated whose previous books include biographies of Ty Cobb and Butch Cassidy. His Bourdain book goes down like a mass-market rock bio.


(Photo: Twitter) 

I would 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 and 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 scrutinized actors, of a new type of American masculinity. Here was an outdoor, rather than an indoor, cat.

Leerhsen 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, Massachusetts, and later New York, most notably the raffish French restaurant Les Halles, 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 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 bestselling 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.

“Once you’ve been to Cambodia, you’ll never stop wanting to beat Henry Kissinger to death with your bare hands,” Bourdain wrote in his 2002 book, “A Cook’s Tour: Global Adventures in Extreme Cuisines”.

Once you have read “Down and Out in Paradise”, you will never stop wanting to burn Bourdain’s cellphone and laptop. 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. Their text messages are printed in the book.

“You were reckless with my heart,” Bourdain wrote, before he hanged himself. The last website he visited was a prostitution service, Leerhsen writes, although 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 is 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 does not merely light candles but scuffs him up. I doubt it will be the final word.


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