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The adventurous life and sad times of Anthony Bourdain

By THERESE JAMORA-GARCEAU, The Philippine STAR Published Aug 15, 2021 6:00 am

I had the privilege of interviewing Anthony Bourdain when he first came to the Philippines in 2008.

Back then he was at the peak of his success with No Reservations, the second of a string of food shows where he would travel the world — ostensibly to learn about different cultures by eating their food — but Bourdain was so smart, socially conscious and empathetic that his shows were about much more than eating exotic food: they were socio-political examinations of the human condition.

So when Bourdain died in 2018, the shock and sorrow reverberated around the world. Tributes poured in. His fans mourned. The restaurant he used to work at, Brasserie Les Halles in New York City, became a shrine to its late executive chef. 

 With one of his best friends, chef Eric Ripert

Designer Kate Spade had died of suicide just three days earlier, so the main questions on everybody’s minds were: Was suicide contagious? And why among successful people like them, who seemingly had everything?

For Anthony Bourdain, the possible answers lie in Roadrunner: A Film about Anthony Bourdain, a documentary recently released by CNN Films, HBO Max, and Focus Features.

In it, director Morgan Neville (who won an Oscar for his film 20 Feet from Stardom) interviews the people who were nearest and dearest to Bourdain, like his second wife Ottavia Busia, A Cook’s Tour producers Lydia Tenaglia and Christopher Collins (who launched Bourdain’s career as a TV host), chefs Éric Ripert and David Chang, and artists David Choe and John Lurie.

 Bourdain, according to author Therese Garceau (left), was “the most quotable man on the planet."

When I met Bourdain in 2008, he was married to Busia and his daughter Ariane had been born the year before, so I was surprised to find out that, prior to his second family, Bourdain had been married to his high school sweetheart Nancy Putkoski for 20 years.

He also had a younger brother, Chris, with whom he shared a seemingly idyllic childhood in New Jersey, raised by parents Pierre and Gladys, “who committed the unpardonable sin of loving me,” Anthony says in the film.

With his second wife, Ottavia Busia, and daughter Ariane

A Cook’s Tour producer Tenaglia reveals that, prior to filming their first episode in Japan, Bourdain hadn’t traveled much at all, so when the chef found himself in completely alien surroundings accompanied by a couple of producers he didn’t know very well, he turned inward, becoming shy and quiet — a complete 180 from the confident, renegade, pirate-like persona he had created for himself in his book Kitchen Confidential.

I could tell he was freaked out by how nice Filipinos were being to him; perhaps the cynical New Yorker in him was suspicious of people’s motives. He was also freaked out by how everyone knew who he was.

I saw a bit of that side of Bourdain when he first came to Manila. I could tell he was freaked out by how nice Filipinos were being to him; perhaps the cynical New Yorker in him was suspicious of people’s motives. He was also freaked out by how everyone knew who he was and tracked his every movement, which, for all you attention seekers out there, is the real downside of fame.

 As a child with younger brother Chris (left)

In Kitchen Confidential, Bourdain confessed to being a heroin addict who became clean. In Roadrunner, artist Choe, who was an addict himself, says he doesn’t know any heroin addicts who ever beat the addiction completely.

We find out that Bourdain shifted his addictive tendencies to other things: to smoking (though he quit for a while), to travel (hence the docu title Roadrunner), and to women, though he appeared to be a serial monogamist.

He was in a happy relationship with first wife Nancy for 30 years before he wrote Kitchen Confidential and his life got so complicated their marriage broke apart. 

His second wife Ottavia was a mixed martial arts fighter and her obsessions became his: he took up jiu-jitsu, quit smoking, and even won medals in competition. 

With last girlfriend Asia Argento, her advocacies became his: when she dropped a bombshell at the Cannes Film Festival, announcing that Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein had raped her at Cannes previously, Bourdain became a staunch supporter and male voice of the #MeToo movement.

Roadrunner is a thoroughly researched and extremely affecting tribute to the man and his incomparable legacy of showing how you could cross cultures and connect with fellow human beings simply by asking questions, listening, and sharing a meal with them.

But, like many addictive personalities, he could go overboard. He would talk incessantly about a current obsession, like jiu-jitsu, or how Argento was such an amazing parallel parker, to bemused friends.

A lifelong film nerd, Bourdain seemed to have met the woman of his dreams in Asia, daughter of legendary Italian horror film director Dario Argento. 

 A portrait taken by Melanie Dunea for her book,.My Last Supper

Which is why Roadrunner’s theory of why he might have died of suicide rings heartbreakingly true. In the docu’s recap of Bourdain’s final days, a tabloid published photos of Argento canoodling with another man.

When Michael Steed, producer of Parts Unknown — for which Bourdain was in France with Ripert shooting an episode — went into the chef’s room, he found him alone, smoking, looking out over a balcony. When Steed offered his sympathy about the tabloid article, Bourdain reportedly retorted, “A little ****ing discretion, please.”

The next day they found him dead in his hotel bathroom.

Though Bourdain had his self-described manic phases (hinting that he might have been bipolar), and is actually caught on camera wondering aloud if a boat mast was strong enough to support his weight if he hung himself from it — in front of Ripert, no less — of course none of his friends realized at the time that these red flags and cries for help were deadly serious.

Since the chef known for his rapier wit and noir-style writing didn’t leave a note, we’ll never know for sure why he did it, but Roadrunner is a thoroughly researched and extremely affecting tribute to the man and his incomparable legacy of showing how you could cross cultures and connect with fellow human beings simply by asking questions, listening, and sharing a meal with them.

Photo courtesy of CNN / Focus Features