My brief viewer-host relationship with Anthony Bourdain took a nosedive in May 2013, a month after his CNN travel-food show, “Parts Unknown,” premiered.
I loved his first and second episodes on Myanmar and Koreatown in Los Angeles. The show brought to life the sights and sounds, the people, of these disparate places, which otherwise would have gone unnoticed by most mainstream American media. Bourdain, who I knew relatively little about then, connected with average folks, despite his sardonic wit. He was urbane, yet earthy; friendly, but not overly so. I liked him.
Then, in Episode Five, he visited Tangier, Morocco, and after that, I’d had enough.
Tangier is a port city of nearly 950,000 in northwest Africa, on the Strait of Gibraltar, known for the manufacture of hashish, a cannabis plant extract that is equal parts hallucinogen, stimulant and depressant. The drug, Bourdain told viewers, is full of “psychotropic goodies.” With a sarcastic lilt to his voice, he claimed not to condone the use of hash (it’s illegal in Morocco), but demonstrated how to mix it with chocolate and honey and roll it into a giant ball to eat.
I was shocked. This was CNN, right?
Bourdain also spoke admiringly of American postmodernist writer William S. Burroughs, a founder of the Beat Generation literary movement. Burroughs, an unabashed heroin addict, lived in Tangier from 1953 to 1957. This was after he killed his second wife during a drinking game in Mexico City in 1951. Bourdain left that part out, which bugged me to no end.
So ended my fascination with “Parts Unknown” and Bourdain. In 2010, I had spent a year covering Long Island’s heroin trade, interviewing police, addicts and pushers. America was up to its ears in opioids then (and still is). As far as I was concerned, we didn’t need a popular sophisticate like Bourdain touting the Burroughs lifestyle, or at least appearing to do so. I only occasionally tuned in after that.
Like so many CNN viewers, I wanted to know more about Bourdain after his recent suicide at age 61. I knew he had done a lot of drugs in his younger days, but I was unaware that he was a recovering heroin addict. He started abusing this most insidious of opioids in 1980, at 24. Seven years later, he got clean with methadone. A crack-cocaine addiction followed, before he went cold turkey in the early 1990s. Many, if not most, recovering addicts give up all drugs. Not Bourdain. He kept drinking and smoking, and perhaps, he implied, occasionally consuming hash.
I was angry when I learned of his death, but I couldn’t understand why. Then I was out cycling, and the answer suddenly struck me.
For starters, I felt like I knew the man, as strange as that might sound. Then there was the enormous loss of potential. Bourdain, maddeningly facile with the English language, was brilliant, talented and creative. Drugs stole so much of his promise. Suicide ended his life at a point when he seemed to have turned himself around.
He could, by his own admission, be harsh and callous. He “hurt, disappointed and offended many, many, many” people during his drug-addled days, he said. “Parts Unknown” seemed to redeem him. Through the shared experience of food, he reached out to others, particularly those without a voice, and tried, in the small way that any one person can, to bridge divides between cultures. He was repentant.
Bourdain rose to fame in 2000 with the publication of “Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly,” a bestseller that led to his TV career at the Travel Channel and, later, CNN. The book is an autobiographical look at his wild, more than two-decade-long culinary career, during which he rose from dishwasher to executive chef. His writing style is breezy, poetic at times, humorous at others, with the occasional sex tale retold in raunchy detail.
In “Kitchen,” he recounted the moment he decided to become a chef. There was no urgent desire to remake the culinary landscape or contribute to the greater good. For him, the New York City restaurant scene of the 1970s brought with it sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll, all of which he craved.
Early in the book, he listed Burroughs and Hunter S. Thompson, an early pioneer of first-person experiential journalism, as his idols, along with Bruce Lee and Iggy Pop. Like Burroughs, Thompson was a drunkard and addict. Cocaine was Thompson’s drug of choice. He also loved firearms. He shot and killed himself at his “fortified compound” in Colorado in 2005. He was 67.
Bourdain said in the past that he was self-destructive, but his global travels, far-reaching fame and $1.2 million fortune clouded the public’s view of him, leading us to believe that he finally had it all figured out.
He clearly didn’t, however. His life offers three central lessons: Choose whom you idolize wisely, stay the hell away from drugs, and for goodness’ sake, seek help if you need it.
Scott Brinton is the Herald Community Newspapers’ executive editor and an adjunct professor at the Hofstra University Herbert School of Communication. Comments about this column? SBrinton@liherald.com.