“And in that unforgettably sweet moment, that one moment still more alive for me than so many of the other “firsts” that followed – first sex, first joint, first day in high school, first published book – I attained glory.”
So wrote Anthony Bourdain in the first chapter of his best-selling 2000 memoir about what it’s really like to work in New York restaurant kitchens, Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly.
The news yesterday that he had died aged just 61 shocked me. But what shocked me even more was that it he had committed suicide. It seems he had hung himself.
He was found in his hotel room in the village of Kaysersberg in the Alsace region of France by friend and celebrity chef Eric Ripert. The two of them were there to film a TV series.
Bourdain, like Keith Floyd, Marco Pierre White, Rick Stein and others, played a huge part in making cooking attractive and food, to quote Bourdain again, “something other than a substance one stuffed into one’s face when hungry – like filling up at a gas station”.
I must have read Kitchen Confidential a dozen times. It’s not just a fantastic book about what goes on in professional kitchens. It’s also brilliantly written. Indeed, that first chapter, where he travels to France as a child with his parents, is a masterclass in writing the opening to a memoir. He says so much in so few words and provides such sensual and evocative images.
After the phenomenal success of Kitchen Confidential, Bourdain quit working as a chef and embarked on a writing and TV career. He published follow-up books to Kitchen Confidential and also novels and made a string of TV shows, which often saw him in some far flung corner of the world eating sheep’s testicles or ants’ eggs.
I have to confess that I never found his TV programmes as engaging as those of Keith Floyd or Rick Stein. I felt Bourdain lacked their warmth and humour. I don’t think he was a natural in front of the camera. Nevertheless, the programmes were hugely popular.
But it’s Kitchen Confidential I shall always remember him for. I end with another quote. “They were assembling machine guns for sale in the employee bathroom when I arrived. All the line cooks were hunched over Armalites and M-16s, while outside, in the nearly unmanned kitchen, orders spewed out of the chattering printer and were ignored.”
Another of my favourite writers died recently, Tom Wolfe. He was 88 and died of natural causes. The manner of Bourdain’s death is deeply sad. Despite all his success and, as he once said, being paid loads of money to travel around the world and do anything he wanted, away from the TV cameras, he must have been deeply troubled and in lots of emotional pain. Throughout much of his life he had battled with various demons. This demons hadn’t gone away, it seems.
Anthony Bourdain, rest in peace.