Bthere is time Anthony Bourdain hanged himself in a French hotel room on June 8, 2018, he was the envy of food-obsessed travelers everywhere. Twenty years earlier, he had been a competent but unknown leader with frustrated literary ambitions and a sleazy, drug-filled past. Then “Kitchen Confidential”, his 2000 book, became a surprise bestseller, and launched a series of increasingly ambitious television shows built around a simple concept: “I travel the world, I eat a lot of shit and I do whatever I want”. want to.”
It turned out that a lot of people liked to see him do just that: between 2002 and his death, he did hundreds of episodes. Off-screen, he had two failed marriages, a rocky relationship with Italian actor Asia Argento, and a harrowing schedule that kept him on the road for most of the year. As Charles Leerhsen’s gritty and well-researched new biography “Down and Out in Paradise” makes clear, Bourdain carried with him an array of compulsions, addictions, and insecurities. Mr. Leerhsen tries to explain why a man with legions of adoring fans and the best job in the world would end his life and why, years later, so many people still care about him.
Bourdain left no notes, making Mr. Leerhsen’s first task speculative. He drank heavily, took steroids and human growth hormone, and on some level was deeply unhappy. “I hate my fans,” he texted his second wife months before his death. “I hate being famous. I hate my job. I’m alone and I live in constant uncertainty. But after filming the last night of his life, he went to a beer garden in Germany, where “he is lit up like the Tony I knew,” a companion said. “Everything was normal.” The only person who knew what was going through Bourdain’s mind that night was Bourdain himself.
But biographers and friends searched for clues. Of course, he put a lot of pressure on himself. He worked way more than he needed to. Before his cinematographic and literary careers took off, he distinguished himself more by his sense of organization than by his culinary imagination. He could oversee a kitchen preparing hundreds of meals per shift, but did not devise new techniques or recipes. He never lost that line cook mentality.
His TV the shows, which started as a kind of lark (“scary and amateurish”, one of his early colleagues called his approach), had become a business. And he had become what he had once laughed at: a TV personality. He did it on his terms, with a kind of punk-rock soul – curious, fearless and warm, but also a bit shy and shy. But he was still a mark. As Mr. Leerhsen explains, “authenticity, in the sense of being the real thing and not a sham, was [a] concern of a lifetime” for Bourdain. The pretentiousness involved in brand building may have ultimately been intolerable.
It made him rich and famous, but tragedy, as Oscar Wilde knew, can sometimes come from getting everything you want, rather than not having it. “What do you do,” Bourdain asked his viewers, near the end of a show shot in Sardinia, “when all your dreams come true?” ■