I have long maintained a theory that Anthony Bourdain—who died on Friday, at the age of sixty-one, of an apparent suicide—was the best-known celebrity in America. There are, I realize, actual ways to measure this sort of thing, but the intimacy that Bourdain cultivated with his fans was of a sort that transcended Q scores and approval polls. His show brought in millions of viewers, his books found millions of readers, and—especially for people outside of the food world, and to his own great irritation—he seemed to be everyone’s first idea of the “celebrity chef,” even though he hadn’t worked in a restaurant kitchen in years. (At best, he said, he could be described as a “cook.”)
Bourdain’s fame wasn’t the distant, lacquered type of an actor or a musician, bundled and sold with a life-style newsletter. Bourdain felt like your brother, your rad uncle, your impossibly cool dad—your realest, smartest friend, who wandered outside after beers at the local one night and ended up in front of some TV cameras and decided to stay there. As a writer himself, he was always looking out for other writers, always saying yes, always available for interviews and comments. You had to fight through a wall of skeptical P.R. to get to someone like Guy Fieri, but Bourdain was right there, for everyone, in equal measure. He remembered names. He took every question seriously. He was twenty minutes early to every appointment, to the minute. Every newspaper, every magazine, every Web site that asked got its Bourdain quotes—and good ones, too! Not pre-scripted pablum but potent missiles of cultural commentary—bombastic wisdom, grand pronouncements, eviscerations of celebrities, flagrantly named names.
Another way of putting it is that Anthony Bourdain built his career on the telling of truth. The son of a French father and an American mother (Gladys Bourdain, writing as G. S. Bourdain, was a writer and a copy editor at the Times), he was a novelist before he became an essayist, but, even in the realm of fiction—as in his series of sardonic crime thrillers, including the novels “Bone in the Throat” and “Gone Bamboo”—he evinced a fascination with how people lived within and around their ill behaviors. “Guys who wake up every morning, brush their teeth, shower, shave, then go to work at the serious business of committing felonies,” he wrote in “A Life of Crime,” an essay in his collection