The Other Columbus: The meaning of Anthony Bourdain

In the wake of a new documentary, our columnist reckons with his relationship with the iconic chef, author and TV host

Scott Woods
Anthony Bourdain in a scene from Morgan Neville's new documentary "Roadrunner."

Anthony Bourdain is rightly celebrated for crafting the most appealing and earnest version to date of experiencing the world not as a series of destinations, but in a way that makes the journey the point. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and good food can be found anywhere if you look hard enough. He was not the god of sweating chefs or food or bad boys made good. Bourdain was the god of wanderlust. In my house — the house of a writer, foodie and intellectual vagabond — he is The God Bourdain.

Break out your church fans because here comes a testimony. Here is the best way I can express what Bourdain means to me: 

Three years ago I was sitting on my couch in a serious funk, two days before the Fourth of July. At some point I decided, on a whim and with no preparation, to drive 10 hours to get a pulled pork sandwich at the oldest Black-owned restaurant in America: Jones Bar-B-Q Diner in Marianna, Arkansas. Here is a snippet I wrote about the experience (from “How the Oldest Black-Owned Restaurant in America Saved My Soul”):

The pit room reminds you how brutal barbecue is. It is a dark space, with screens for walls that have been smoked into a rust that is likely edible. The doorway is short and Jones warns me multiple times to watch my head coming in. Unless you’re five feet tall you have to bow a little at the neck to enter this room. Not enough to blaspheme any gods you may have brought with you, but enough deference to acknowledge that you are crossing into a space that comes with its own rules and physics. It houses two enormous cinder block sarcophagi with metal lids that fanned open on a chain pulley. To the right of the entrance are cutting tables, browned and scarred with years of bloody knife fights with meat that thought its job over. The pit room is a hell one can stand in. Wants to, in fact, and whose choking sweet smell belies the charnel violence of the cuisine. It is a room of death if not actual killing. All things going in have already met their respective makers, all things removed made beautiful once more. The pits are for worship, the table for burial rites, and the darkness is for remembering what awaits us all: heat and night.

A lot of people like that essay, and I receive that ministry. It’s a top 10 favorite paragraph by my own hand. But more important here is that it is a piece of writing I would not have been able to create without the many things I learned from Anthony Bourdain. Learning how to mine the darker corners of myself, the ones I will never write about, and flood them with the light of adventurous and irrepressible unknowing to see what scurries out from underneath the carefully placed furniture is Bourdain. Sliding off the couch and driving away with little more than an appetite and a Moleskin journal — not for the food, but the story — is straight Bourdain. Risking all of the bored highway patrol officers in the middle of the night right before a holiday driving while Black is not Bourdain, but has strands of his self-destructive curiosity in its DNA. When I refer to him as The God Bourdain, I am not being clever. Hyperbolic, perhaps, but not funny. 

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I believe it safe to say that had Bourdain lived to experience a pandemic life, it would have been complicated. Like any other reasonable human being, he would have been horrified by all of the death. He would have missed going to restaurants and bars. He would have bemoaned not being able to travel or being able to look into the faces of new acquaintances. In effect, he would have been like most people during the pandemic, except — and this was true of his life before the pandemic — he would have been consumed with considering what those losses meant. 

But he also wouldn’t have been able to record any television shows. Such a furlough may very well have offered the kind of peace he was looking for, or a way to discover it. It is a thought that the recently released documentary “Roadrunner” suggests, but in its hit or miss pretense at objectivity, it doesn’t drill into very deeply. No surprise there: doing so would make director Morgan Neville’s production complicit. 

Bourdain was on camera all of the time: traveling to locations, on locations, leaving locations, checking into hotel rooms, sitting on a sidewalk between shots. Any instance of Bourdain seeming to find a modicum of peace in a sunset is marred by the fact that it was captured on film at all, to the tune of thousands of hours of such footage, over perhaps hundreds of sunsets. “Roadrunner” is composed from an endless pile of footage of him trying to disappear, his every intimacy laid bare knowing the overwhelming majority of it would never get used, which ultimately makes intimacy itself disposable.

If you do not see what Bourdain did as art — if for you his work is travelogue or cuisine safari — then you can miss the very distinct torture between the lines that every serious artist will tell you is part of creation. Society has made a lot of hay about how artists navigate that torture, romanticizing the drunken wrestling of Hemingway and his ilk. “Roadrunner” strikes almost entirely at the heart of that relationship, occasionally digging out those buried moments when, say, a shocked producer was forced to watch the proceedings of a failed episode, paralyzed by confusion and professional betrayal. “Roadrunner” bills itself as a document of what happens in a sausage factory, but falls back too often on recreating the Bourdain Show Experience, leaving us with a pile of links filled with mystery meat.

I am writing this paragraph sitting at the clean-enough counter of an ancient diner, the kind whose menu has at least 12 items it shouldn’t because everybody in the joint knows that everything after the Cajun Grilled is asking the cook to punch too far above his weight class. It’s like a Waffle House that’s let itself go, a restaurant you introduce a friend to in person so they can’t turn around and drive away because you have the keys. It is the kind of unassuming place Bourdain’s shows would sometimes seek out in an attempt to capture cultural authenticity or to just seem hip. 

As season after season of road trips rolled off the assembly line, Bourdain was having a noticeable effect everywhere he went. He remarked several times on air about how a location would become inundated with Ugly Americans in the wake of an appearance, a recipient of the Bourdain Bump. Bourdain possessed the Midas Touch, complete with its attendant curse. Starving when even the very food he attempted to eat would turn to gold, Midas came to hate his gift. For someone like Bourdain, who abhorred the kind of material and political disparities baked into both his Americanness and fame, it was as if he were carrying the virus of empire. 

All writers are intellectually suicidal, which is a morbid way of saying there is a part of every writer obsessed with their legacy. We ponder what will become of our unfinished manuscripts, fantasize about who might take up the pen when we’re gone and finish that novel, and how they might capture our voice. Ask writers why they write and most of them will tell you that they just wanted to tell their story, and that’s what it’s really all about, man. Precious few of them will actually mean it. If it were as simple as having our work read, a girlfriend’s review would suffice. No, we want our work to be seen, because then we are seen. And if we are seen then we can be remembered. And if someone cares enough about our work/us to remember it/us, then perhaps we can be loved. And who doesn’t want that? No writer I can think of, and certainly not Bourdain.

In as much as anyone can speak upon how another should live and not be considered rude, I stand firm in the belief that the best version of Bourdain’s life is the one in which he never did a television show. Not even the good ones. Not even the one that changed your life or the one that made you call your mother for a family recipe before it was too late or the one that put you on a plane to go see the world for yourself. He would have been better off mentally and physically if he could still travel to all of the places he did, meeting all of the people he did, and never had it broadcast or produced any other way beyond his pen. 

That said, Bourdain is not dead because he had a television show. He is dead because he had demons he could not exorcise, and no amount of writing, travel or riches could stem their late night whispering. As a writer, I see those demons. As a person who cares about things like cultural spaces enough to fight for them, I smell the lingering scent of those demons whenever I sit at the keyboard. As a person with addictive traits, I see those demons in my many distractions. It is extremely difficult to gather the strength to talk about such things with even people you know care for you. There is a great deal of navigation that must be accounted for, and any perceived slight can send you spiraling further away from a desire to communicate. It is one of the reasons why I was drawn to Bourdain in the first place: with him, I didn’t have to explain anything. Everyone else could have their TV moments ogling over Vietnamese street food; I was all about that struggle just beneath the veneer of running toward and away from one’s demons at once. The haunted know their kind, I suppose.

While “Roadrunner” comes close to painting a motive conveniently short of slander, it is in fact impossible to know for certain why Bourdain took his own life. Even if it could be known, such knowledge would only change the ways in which those who care suffer. Nothing about that mystery appeals to me, and so for three years I have instead attempted to nail down why I was so affected by Bourdain’s death. I don’t feel this way about Prince, and I have loved Prince since I was 8 years old. I was struck hard by Prince’s death; crying in a public restroom struck.

I didn’t have the same initial reaction to Bourdain’s death, but the loss has stewed in my soul. I have several theories, none of them definitive. Like the documentary, there is this hole where an answer should be. My main beef with this movie is that it could have done more to interrogate how Bourdain arrived at such a decision, not at its end, but through a deeper look at how he lived his entire life. Not surprisingly, we are left with yet another Serial-lite riff that only serves to open more wounds on both sides of the screen. 

It took me several days to muster the courage to go see this film. I did not know what narrative Neville might try to craft, but I also wasn’t ready to see any new footage of my idol. If he were happy, it would make me sad. If he were sad, it would be worse. I did not know what the film might conjure, and I hated recognizing that weakness in myself, as well. Finally, I just wanted to get the viewing over with and let the chips fall where they may. I would let myself feel whatever I needed to feel, talk out whatever I needed to talk out, and to round things out, find a way to celebrate The God Bourdain.

Leaving the theater I was struck with an unshakeable blues, but there was also a clearing of the fog. Trying to process my emotions, I was reminded of the scene in “Jodorowsky’s Dune” where director Alejandro Jodorowsky recounts having the rug pulled out from under his efforts to make a film based on Frank Herbert’s science fiction classic Dune. Jodorowsky explains that, upon learning that David Lynch would go on to direct the film, he was cast into a great depression. He respected Lynch and feared that the movie would be good, maybe even better than what he had conceived. Jodorowsky’s depression apparently broke while watching Lynch’s version, stating “I was happy because the picture was so awful.”

I felt a similar way after “Roadrunner,” not because it is bad, but because it did not serve up a Bourdain I did not already know. Sure, I was still very sad watching the film — and remain so; it’s a hell of a Band-Aid rip — but I need not have dreaded it. He isn’t anymore in “Roadrunner” than he is on the least effective episodes of “No Reservations.” The effort is more remix than exposė. 

Contrary to what social media suggests as a platform for engagement, I don’t care what you think about the movie. To make matters even more antagonistic, contrary to how this article will be framed, I don’t think any of you should care what I think of it. I get that a review suggests that an artistic social contract has been agreed to here, but this isn’t a review. This is a reckoning with the experience of having seen the film in light of how I feel about the subject, and I have opted to do so with the door open for once. (Cracked, but open nonetheless.) When it comes to these moments, I am only interested for longer than 10 seconds in the things that interacting with the world around us call forth and compel us to care about. And movies are so rarely a good avatar for that kind of living.