Authenticity through Struggle: A Reflection on Anthony Bourdain’s Life

This paper was originally written for the “Media Stardom and Celebrity” course within the Film and Media Studies graduate program at Arizona State University, completed July 23, 2020.

Grey-haired on the cover of the book that propelled him to fame, Kitchen Confidential, Anthony Bourdain’s celebrity came relatively late in life. But his appeal was his apparent youth, vigor, curiosity, and insider’s knowledge of how the restaurant industry worked, delivered with his knowing wink. When Kitchen Confidential was released in 2000, Bourdain was 46; certainly not an old man, but no longer the naive kid who embarked on his difficult and strange cooking career in the 1970s that he struggled through (Bourdain 10).

Bourdain, whether consciously or not, cultivated a sense of authenticity with his grounded sense of humor and apparent disdain for the sheen of contemporary food media; his jests at Rachel Ray’s expense have often cropped up in articles propagating celebrity “feuds” (Hunt). Indeed, Bourdain has been mentioned within a pantheon of celebrity chefs, which also includes Paula Deen and Emeril Lagasse. According to Krishnendu Ray, “his [Bourdain’s] act is as much a caricature of masculinity as is Emeril’s” (60). In his 2007 commentary, Krishnendu Ray is more critical of Bourdain’s shtick as an overwrought course correction from the domesticity of someone like Rachael Ray. But it became clear that Bourdain wrestled with serious internal demons, which often manifested in admittedly charming self-deprecation and ultimately deeper reflection in his work. “There is a whole litany in the fan literature surrounding stars in which certain adjectives endlessly recur — sincere, immediate, spontaneous, real, direct, genuine and so on” (Dyer 137). And those words were constantly applied to Bourdain.

But Anthony Bourdain’s fame and celebrity was also defined by struggle, from Kitchen Confidential to when his death by suicide hit the news in June 2018 (Stelter). Whether it was the references to his drug addictions in Kitchen Confidential or his introspective voiceovers for his ultimate personal artistic statement Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown, Bourdain always seemed to present himself as he was. But when he killed himself, many of the common sentiments arose when anyone, especially a wealthy celebrity, removes themselves from the world. “Why would they do such a thing? They had everything!” is a paraphrase that comes to mind. And therein reveals the nature of fame and celebrity: even with material wealth and demonstrable success, celebrities are humans. They can die, of course, but can also be driven to take their own seemingly fulfilling lives. It’s an obvious reality, but not one always taken to heart by the popular culture. Anthony Bourdain’s life — and death — are emblematic of that.

Kitchen Confidential was rightly praised as a witty, inventive tell-all about the restaurant industry, and it generated so much buzz that it belatedly spawned a fictional television series adaptation starring Bradley Cooper in 2005…which was canceled halfway through its first season (Nosowitz). Bourdain himself hosted a more timely show on the heels of the release of Kitchen Confidential, Food Network’s A Cook’s Tour, which ran from 2002 to 2003. At this point, his celebrity was still explicitly tied to food, which of course it would be to some extent for the entirety of his career. But Bourdain himself would eventually point out that he had lost some of his chef cred by the time of Parts Unknown. Through the Travel Channel’s Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations (2005–2012) to Bourdain’s move to CNN in 2013, he had become more singularly identifiable as a television personality. He was a celebrity chef, of sorts, but as he explored beyond the boundaries of cuisine especially with Parts Unknown, Bourdain also became a sort of cultural commentator on a broader humanitarian and political level.

Bourdain was clearly concerned with the sufferings of people, and applied the connection of food and family to global history and contemporary affairs. In fact, No Reservations came to particular attention with a special taped while Bourdain and his crew were trapped in Beirut during the 2006 Israel-Lebanon War. And the first episode of Parts Unknown, which saw Bourdain visit Myanmar, dealt very prominently with the oppression of its people by its government, slightly relaxed by 2013 so as to allow an American show to be filmed within its borders.

Throughout his public life, Bourdain also involved his friends. Most notably, fellow chef, polar opposite, and close friend Éric Ripert would appear many times on No Reservations and Parts Unknown, and was filming an episode with Bourdain when he discovered the host dead in his hotel room in 2018 (Stelter). In any event, Ripert was not the only person from Bourdain’s “private” life to appear on his programming, and the recurring involvement of Bourdain’s personal friends, connections, and crew furthered a sense of intimacy initially fostered by Bourdain’s approach to discussing culture.

It was always personal, but the division between putting a brave face on for the camera and inner turmoil was always a present factor. Some would argue this sense of authenticity was fueled by the very struggle that led Bourdain to take his own life, but in that line of thinking, another familiar trap in celebrity discourse emerges. “The dark artist” is a trope that seems to support creativity with emotional trauma, legitimizing terrible experiences of the artists that lived through them. It’s a tempting and redemptive thought to think Bourdain lived, and ultimately died, as he did to provide profound and informative entertainment, but it just might ignore the dichotomy of the life of someone who lives for the camera. “What the celebrity industry does require of its humans is that they live, whether glamorously or not, for the camera” (Gamson 1063). Anthony Bourdain made his viewers feel like they knew him, and his suicide frayed that connection. His tragedy illustrates the cognitive dissonance surrounding every celebrity and famous figure; the human behind the product is not really a part of our lives.

Works Cited

Dyer, Richard. “A Star Is Born and the Construction of Authenticity.” Stardom: Industry of Desire, edited by Christine Gledhill, Routledge, 1991, pp. 136–144.

Gamson, Joshua. “The Unwatched Life Is Not Worth Living: The Elevation of the Ordinary in Celebrity Culture.” USF Scholarship, 2011.

Hunt, Kristin. “A Brief History of Anthony Bourdain Insulting Other Food Celebrities.” Thrillist, 12 July 2015.

Nosowitz, Dan. “Kitchen Confidential: That Other Sitcom Fox Cancelled Too Soon.” Vulture, 30 March 2011.

Ray, Krishnendu. “Domesticating Cuisine: Food and Aesthetics on American Television.” Gastronomica, vol. 7, no. 1, 2007.

Stelter, Brian. “CNN’s Anthony Bourdain dead at 61.” CNN, 8 June 2018.

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