Anthony Bourdain's appetites

When Anthony Bourdain committed suicide in 2018, the news was met with shock, sadness, and a kind of existential unease. A chef whose memoir of restaurant life launched him into overnight fame and a career hosting travel documentary TV shows, Bourdain was loved and envied by millions. He was a writer of preternatural talent and a voice who reveled in the human experience and hungered for the sensual and sensuous, which he captured, in print and on screen, in enthusiastic and evocative, sometimes outrageous, language. He was handsome, charismatic, and had, in the words of the comedian Dave Chappelle, “the greatest job that show business ever produced” — traveling to exotic places and eating great food in the company of interesting people. When his body was discovered in a hotel room in Strasbourg, where he was filming a television episode, it felt like a rebuke to the idea that happiness was even achievable. If Anthony Bourdain, of all people, couldn’t find contentment, what hope was there for the rest of us?

A new documentary, Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain, probes that paradox. The film’s director, Morgan Neville, is interested in exceptional people: what drives them and what sometimes brings about their undoing. His 2015 documentary Best of Enemies (co-directed with Robert Gordon) took a minor incident in news television, a 1968 on-air feud between Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley, and treated it like a championship boxing match. His other documentaries have looked at Fred Rogers of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, numerous musicians and music executives, and the 48-year development of Orson Welles’s final film.

It’s not hard to see the appeal to Neville of Bourdain, whose life had an arc more commonly associated with rock stars than food celebrities: an iconoclastic talent, nurtured in a cauldron of drug addiction and bad behavior, intense romantic entanglements, a seemingly serene second life as a recovered addict and proud father, and an untimely death causing grief to countless fans who never met him but felt deeply that they knew him. That is the arc that Roadrunner follows. Oddly, for a biographical film, we learn almost nothing about Bourdain’s parents or childhood, though his brother makes a few appearances as a talking head. That omission may be because Bourdain’s early life, like that of more than a few rock stars, was mostly mundane: He grew up middle-class in New Jersey, attending a private prep school, then did two years at Vassar College before switching to the Culinary Institute of America.

The story skips most of that and begins, in media res, at the moment of Bourdain’s discovery. He’s been working as the chef of Les Halles, an upscale but admirably louche brasserie in New York. While on a business trip to Tokyo, where Les Halles has a satellite restaurant, he writes a long email to a friend describing his experience, Lost in Translation-style, of eating and drinking his way through an alien city. A literary agent sees the email and commissions Bourdain to write a tell-all food memoir. The result, Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly, is a perfect storm, combining an incredibly assured voice, outrageous stories of restaurant work, which Bourdain likens to life in a pirate crew, and word-to-the-wise insider details (“Never order fish on Monday”). The cover depicts Bourdain in a chef’s white jacket with the sleeves rolled up and a pair of Asian swords tucked into his apron strings. It is bestseller-list rocket fuel.

Roadrunner, though mostly as fond of Bourdain as everyone else, gently complicates his public image. Lydia Tenaglia and Christopher Collins, the husband-and-wife TV team who first persuaded Bourdain to try television, describe an early Bourdain who is hardly the gregarious, swaggering raconteur we expect. Starting out, they say, he was shy, intense, and not great with people. He was also, notwithstanding two childhood trips to France, not particularly well traveled, which may be why his eventual TV persona was so winning: His joie de vivre and openness to experience were completely genuine, and he was eager to see places he knew only from films and novels.

The initial shoots of Bourdain’s first show, A Cook’s Tour, boded poorly. The crew found Bourdain alarmingly stiff, awkward, and unsociable, both on- and off-camera. But in Vietnam, with which he seemed to have a kind of metaphysical affinity, he warmed up and began to develop a screen corollary to his voice on the page: warm, enthusiastic, sardonic yet empathetic. He was obsessed with authenticity, and as his television shows progressed, from A Cook’s Tour to No Reservations, The Layover, and Parts Unknown, he pushed to film in gritty, less loved parts of the world, including Congo and Gaza.

But a darkness in Bourdain also emerged. His fame bothered him, and he resented that his work — he traveled some 200 days a year — kept him from being the father he wished to be. He was brooding and withdrawn and abruptly fired his cinematographer of many years in the middle of a shoot. Roadrunner suggests that Bourdain displaced his former substance addictions on to new, totalizing preoccupations: jiujitsu, relationships. He was a romantic at heart and impulsive, and the combination could be volatile.

After his second marriage ended, Bourdain began dating the Italian actress Asia Argento; their relationship was intense and perhaps unhealthy. Infatuated with Argento to the point of stifling her, he regaled anyone who would listen with a story about her excellent parallel parking skills that even Argento seemed to find embarrassing. After Argento, who accused Harvey Weinstein of raping her at Cannes, became a public face of the #MeToo movement, Bourdain obsessively adopted her cause as his own. In the documentary, his friends complain that his #MeToo advocacy brought out a moralizing streak in him. Bourdain may have been partly motivated by guilt; he admitted, a year before his death, that his own persona and writing may have “celebrated or prolonged a culture that allowed the kind of grotesque behaviors we’re hearing about all too frequently.”

Shortly before Bourdain killed himself, tabloids had photographed Argento with another man. The documentary acknowledges that this may have been a factor in his distress. There is also, though Roadrunner does not go into this, the fact that, in 2018, Argento was herself accused of sexual misconduct and that Bourdain reportedly paid off her accuser. (Argento has denied the misconduct allegation.) The documentary does not directly demonize Argento, but some of Bourdain’s friends, speaking on screen, clearly view her the way John Lennon’s Beatles bandmates regarded Yoko Ono, which makes it troubling that she does not appear in the film.

Neville has said that he felt her presence would be a distraction and create “narrative quicksand.” That’s probably true, but it doesn’t mitigate the moral question of whether she should have been offered the opportunity to give her point of view. In fact, Argento’s absence is one of several ethical controversies that have erupted around Roadrunner. Using machine learning, Neville artificially simulated Bourdain’s voice to narrate, in the film, some passages Bourdain wrote but did not say aloud. Neville has also admitted that the film’s ending, in which the artist David Choe vandalizes a public mural of Bourdain, was staged using a painting commissioned for the purpose. Neither the use of AI nor the staged ending are disclosed to viewers.

Roadrunner is emotionally intense. In the cinema where I watched it, I heard occasional gasps and exhalations. A man seated near me seemed, at times, a bit overcome. It’s not hard to understand why. When I first read Kitchen Confidential, I raced through it in a kind of elation. I found it engrossing, hilarious, exuberant, and life-affirming; Bourdain’s stories made me happy at a time in my life when very few things did. For that, I’ll always be thankful.

J. Oliver Conroy's writing has been published in the Guardian, New York magazine, the Spectator, the New Criterion, and other publications.

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Tags: Film, documentary, Food, Travel, Anthony Bourdain

Original Author: J. Oliver Conroy

Original Location: Anthony Bourdain's appetites