The first time I met Anthony Bourdain, he told me a joke. I was an enterprising host and producer of a fledgling food-and-culture podcast and radio show, and word had spread that he was in the building, recording an interview. I waited outside the studio like a nerdy paparazzo, with my headphones, microphone, and recording kit cocked and ready to go. When he emerged, I quickly slipped between him and his publicist, introduced myself, and asked him if he knew any jokes I could share with my audience. He smiled and said, “Sure. Ready?”
“Yeah,” I replied.
“So why did Jesus cross the road?”
“I don’t know.”
“Someone nailed him to a chicken.”
We shook hands, and he was off. His joke was too off-color to use on my public radio show. People often described Anthony Bourdain as a rock star, but I don’t think that’s accurate. Anthony Bourdain was a punk.
The next time I met Anthony Bourdain, he came by our show to promote his cookbook Appetites. He’d agreed in advance to answer our listener’s etiquette questions. Once again, he was kind and game. I asked him the following listener-submitted question: “All right. This next question comes all the way from New Zealand. It’s from Sophie. And Sophie writes: ‘If someone serves me challenging offal without warning at a dinner party, is it okay for me to say I would rather poke my eyes out with a pen than have one mouthful of your tripe à la mode. I mean, it’s a recipe from the Middle Ages, so okay, well done, you. But I’m not bringing back the Black Death for a revamp at my next soiree.’ ”
He responded quickly and unequivocally. “You will die friendless and alone. You have disrespected your host, okay? Rejected a beloved dish that’s reflective of probably personal history. That tripe à la mode could be a beloved family dish. You just basically spat in the milk of their mother. You rejected any possibility of trying something new. You revealed yourself to be an inward-looking buffoon and no one I would want to be friends with.”
The answer was exactly the Bourdain we, his fans, had come to love: severe and to the point. Many people describe Bourdain as tough because he could be gruff and wasn’t afraid to share his opinion, but his testiness and judgment were usually reserved for people acting like jerks. Anthony Bourdain wasn’t so much a tough guy as he was an extremely tender guy with a mean left hook.
The third and last time I met Bourdain was, once again, in our studio. After my cohost, Rico Gagliano, and I had concluded the official interview, we kept talking to Bourdain and asked him some questions of our own. It was rare for us to indulge in personal conversations with guests, but we felt like we knew him, and we identified with him. We were all food-and-travel journalists who were curious, opinionated, and at times gluttonous. Our chat turned to the famed illustrator Ralph Steadman, who had drawn the cover of Bourdain’s cookbook. Steadman is best known for his collaborations with Hunter S. Thompson. Rico asked Bourdain if he thought he could have hung out with the notoriously hard-living Hunter S. Thompson or if it would have been too much even for him. Bourdain responded quickly:
To me, Hunter S. Thompson was a hero. His early books were great, but in many ways, his life and career post–Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail is a cautionary tale for authors. People expected him to be high and drunk all the time and play that persona, and he stuck with that to the end, and I don’t think it was good for him. I always sort of feel mixed emotions when I hear that people went and hung out with Hunter and how great it was to get high with Hunter. The fact is the guy was having difficulty doing any sustained writing at all for years probably because so many quote, unquote, “friends” wanted to get high with him … There was a badly disappointed romantic there. I mean, that great line, “This is where the wave broke, the tide rolled back … ” This was a guy that was hurt and disappointed and very bitter about things, and it made his writing beautiful, and also with that came a lot of pain.
People thought Bourdain was a lot of things. To many, he was a hero. But all we can know for sure is that he was beautiful, and that it must have come with a lot of pain.
Brendan Francis Newnam is a food-and-culture journalist and an executive producer of The Paris Review Podcast. He cocreated and cohosted The Dinner Party Download, a national public radio show and podcast about culture and food, from 2010 to 2017.