‘Parts Unknown’ and Demons, Too, Apparently

Legendary food critic Mimi Sheraton reflects upon Anthony Bourdain’s life, legacy, and revolutionary impact upon multiple facets of American culture.

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Parts Unknown and demons, too, apparently.

And so we may long wonder what prompted the suicide of Anthony Bourdain in a French hotel on Friday at the age of 61. If anyone ever seemed to have it made, he did.

Traveling the world as a culinary superstar, he adventured forth to dabble in the foods and cultures of far off lands as his whims and interests took him, all with expenses paid plus a generous income to boot. What’s not to like?

Lithe and handsome, Bourdain could be courtly when he wanted to be, and as he was the only time we met during an interview I did with him for a story in the Guardian. He was the consummate showman who had savvy insights into what resonates in others, and with firm commitments to liberal and humanistic causes, plus a canny way with words.

While already a successful professional chef, he obviously found the kitchen too confining for his abilities and interests. His first highly successful book, Kitchen Confidential, published in 2000, revealed the seamier, more onerous demands of the restaurant kitchen, often in suitably crude language. It inspired similarly vulgar usages in other food writers, an aspect of his work that I originally deplored—and maybe still do to some extent.

But what matters most now, of course, is his contribution to our daily lives and to the food and travel worlds in general.

At the very least and yet most obvious, he inspired an interest in food diversity and a respect for all cuisines no matter how bizarre they might seem to the uninitiated. Similarly, he extolled the wonders of travel and the rewards of actually seeing and experiencing far off places  and perhaps then applying new criteria in evaluating one’s own home territory.

What always impressed me as I watched his various CNN journeys was the  sincere, deep respect he exhibited for the work of the most menial food craftsmen, making it plain that each task—no matter how grubby—added an essential element to the final result and so was valuable.

Just about a week ago I saw a trailer for one of Anthony Bourdain’s  forthcoming CNN shows—perhaps for Hong Kong or Paris - and I thought he looked unusually drawn, gaunt, and exhausted. To his mother, Gladys Bourdain, who is my friend, and to his daughter, and his last love Asia Argento, I offer sympathy—as do we all.

Perhaps Anthony Bourdain felt that he was on a world-wide treadmill and could only get off in one way.