Anthony Bourdain Took Food Media from Proper to Punk
Bourdain saw in food what the Stooges and the Ramones saw in music: that it could be an outlet for misfits.
We at MUNCHIES are devastated by the death of Anthony Bourdain, one of our friends and heroes. In his memory, we're running a series of essays about the ways he changed our lives. If you or someone you know is considering suicide, help is available. Call 1-800-273-8255 to speak with someone now or text START to 741741 to message with the Crisis Text Line.
Man, what a blessing it would be to age like Anthony Bourdain. Famously peripatetic through his 20s, proudly outrunning the IRS through his 30s, untethered from a savings account until his 40s, and blowing the doors off his 50s with a television franchise and a cordial relationship with Barack Obama, he seemed like the ultimate example of getting better with maturity. Yes, he carried the reminders of those hard, bold years on his body, with those sculpted creases in his face and across his brow; and in that cinched, outlaw-chic fashion sense that was part Calvin Klein, part Iggy Pop—exclusively donnable by anyone who subsisted in New York City through its wildest, most dangerous years. But he was never old.
Instead, he was eternally dad-ish and edifying, and equipped with a genuine admiration for young people that served him wonderfully as he scoured the earth with stories and collaborators—all of that is true and righteous, and I suppose that aged him in a spiritual, stately sort of way. But these past few days, all I can think about is how Bourdain lived, and thrived, as a true believer in the ethics he projected: in the transformative power of food and those who make it, and how eating can be the subversive, connective tissue in the great cultural web of politics, art, and beauty, if only you are willing to get your hands dirty. It was this way, that a man born in the Eisenhower administration showed us his world, and told us that dinner could be as punk rock as we were willing to make it.
Today, it is difficult to recall the food media paradigm that Bourdain inherited, before the seismic impact of No Reservations and Parts Unknown, before a career tax-evader would be allowed to shape the tastes and contours of a generation. It was stodgy, grey, unreadable, and bound in a rulebook that was written by the sort of fogeys Bourdain despised. Back then, in the 80s and 90s, mainstream food criticism was apolitical and incurious; composed specifically for a tragically uncool demographic of moneyed debauchees who'd scarcely adventure beyond the white tablecloth. Bourdain made it his life's mission to disrupt those norms; to eat both the foie gras and the pig's ears, and to reveal the real Americans in the kitchen— including the immigrants, the ex-cons, the addicts and recovering addicts.
He was one of them, of course. Bourdain fell in love with the volatile lifestyle of the cook in the brasseries and cafes around his native Manhattan, which he documented beautifully in Kitchen Confidential. He often described a life in food service to be ascetic and maniacal—a true single-minded dedication to the culinary arts that supersedes any concerns over low pay, long hours, mental and physical health, and I think that's where his roguish vigor was most apparent. Bourdain's favorite bands were always the ones that trusted that powerful establishments could be toppled: The Ramones, The New York Dolls, and The Stooges were the sleeper agents who injected themselves into the music industry in order to kill idols and rewrite history. He filmed shows with Iggy Pop and Marky Ramone, recalled the grit and glory of '77 for SPIN in his wistful growl. He was food's first punk rock chef because he lived it; there aren't many people on this earth who came up by trading free meals for CBGB's tickets.
It was his steadfast belief in counterculture that inspired his work as a journalist. Tony submerged himself into every dish with a keenness to digest not just food, but the culture and context that produced it, the same way his rock ‘n’ roll kin would participate in DIY venues, and queer spaces, and outsider galleries. On its best days, punk is inclusive and collectivist, with very little capacity for bullshit. Bourdain realized that those aren't just rules for music—they're rules for living.
It's always depressing to watch punk lifers enter their twilight years. Typically, they get grouchier and stiffer, as they reject the egalitarianism that initially welcomed them into those communities when they were young. But Anthony Bourdain seemed immune to that sickness. In the hours of programming he's recorded, he was always happy to play the student; in the kitchen, on the streets, in the places in between.
When the #MeToo movement went nuclear, he was candid about the way his privilege blinded him, and how unfair it was that it took his own girlfriend, Asia Argento, levying accusations against Harvey Weinstein in order for him to start honestly considering his own role in a toxic and patriarchal system. It was those moments where Bourdain flaunted a categorical refusal to morph into an old, out-of-touch grump—the worst guy at the local dive—not because he was desperately chasing his youth, but because he knew that his everlasting curiosity and open-mindedness was what colored his gorgeous universe.
He knew when to be an elder statesman, a punk rock icon, and a conciliatory force to the quieter voices around you. To be so in love with cooking and eating that it inspires a genuine revolution in food writing. To get a tattoo of a skull on your right shoulder (in your 50s, no less). Anthony Bourdain proved that the fire that ignites you never has to go out.