Anthony Bourdain, who died on Friday, was a disruptive figure in the hospitality industry when it badly needed disruption. As one of the world’s celebrated chefs, he was a seminal figure in bringing exciting new culinary approaches to a larger audience, and as a constant traveler he made planners and attendees aware of many fascinating, group-friendly places around the globe.
His bold, daring nature was readily apparent in the New York City kitchens he ran, including Supper Club, One Fifth Avenue and Sullivan’s. It also was on full display in his own willingness to try even the most unusual foods, including ant eggs in Mexico, sheep testicles in Morocco and an entire cobra—including its beating heart—in Vietnam.
Bourdain became increasingly fond of the street food sold by hawkers and vendors on streets and in other public places throughout the world, and particularly liked the imaginative creations available in poor countries, with meager resources.
“They’re endearingly prepared by cooks, with passion,” he told me in our profile about him in the February 2017 issue of Smart Meetings magazine. “You can taste it in the food, which is excellent.”
During the past few years, he devoted much of his energy to creating Bourdain’s Market, which was to contain as many as 100 different stalls featuring street food from around the world, at Pier 57 in New York City. It was also to include a sit-down restaurant and food counters, but Bourdain was unable to obtain a lease, struggled to obtain visas for vendors and CEO Stephen Werther left to pursue a new business. It became uncertain if Bourdain’s Market would ever become a reality.
He remained busy with other pursuits, including his award-winning CNN series, Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown, which he had been filming in France when close friend and celebrated French chef Eric Ripert found him dead, apparently from suicide, in his hotel room in Kayersberg, a village in eastern France. Bourdain also hosted two other successful shows, No Reservations and The Layover, both for the Travel Channel.
Initially, his shows focused on culinary offerings in places ranging from the world’s most famous cities to remote villages, but later episodes became much broader in their focus, providing a lens into each area and its culture. Food was still central—episodes typically showed him discussing the politics, history and customs of the location over local food and drinks.
“Very long ago, my shows stopped being just about the food,” he told me. “Food is the vehicle for me to tell stories and make little movies.”
He also wrote several books, including crime novels as well as nonfiction works detailing the underbelly of the New York City culinary scene, his own global adventures and his favorite recipes.
He also became one of the most visible male supporters of the #MeToo movement. In 2017, he began dating actress Asia Argento, who alleges that film producer Harvey Weinstein sexually assaulted her in a hotel room in the 1990s. And when several women recently said that chef and longtime friend Mario Batali sexually assaulted them, Bourdain boldly and openly criticized him.
Bourdain’s blossoming relationship with Argento and his deep love for his daughter, Ariane, 11, seemed to have provided another step on Bourdain’s quest for stability. Though he still had an edge, he was not the culinary bad boy of his youth. He overcame addictions to heroin and cocaine in the 1980s, and gave up cigarette smoking for the sake of his daughter in 2007.
“She’s the joy of my life,” he told me, referring to his daughter. “It’s incredible that she has turned out the way she has. I’ve managed to raise a healthy, smart, self-assured little girl. That gives me peace and satisfaction.”
Bourdain seemed to me to be very much at peace, and noted chef Andrew Zimmern, his close friend, thought so as recently as a month ago, telling The New York Times, “He told me he’d never been happier. He felt that he finally found his true soul mate in Asia.”
Even in his death, Bourdain’s expansive contributions will continue to touch the lives of meeting professionals and others around the globe.
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