Anthony Bourdain was a true Renaissance man. In his 61 years he was a bestselling author (most notably of "Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly"), a trend-setter in television as the host of such shows as "Parts Unknown" and "No Reservations," world traveler, author, journalist, and food anthropologist. But it was his sincerity and humanity which won him legions of fans all over the world.
Bourdain's final project before his tragic death earlier this year was the recently released graphic novel "Hungry Ghosts," which tells a series of stories connecting Japanese mythology and food through the lens of horror and the supernatural. In many ways it is a sequel and continuation of the imaginary and story-telling sensibilities that begin with the New York Times bestseller "Get Jiro!" and its prequel "Get Jiro! Blood and Sushi."
What was it like to know Anthony Bourdain and work with him? How did celebrity impact him? In what ways did Bourdain model a type of masculine strength that also allowed for vulnerability? Why was he so compelling to his fans and also his friends and colleagues? How did Bourdain meld his curiosity about life with a commitment to self-improvement in his writing and other vocations?
In an effort to answer these questions I recently spoke with Joel Rose, author of the acclaimed book "Kill, Kill, Faster, Faster." Joel Rose was Anthony Bourdain's friend of 35 years and his co-author on the graphic novel "Hungry Ghosts" as well as the previous works "Get Jiro!" and "Get Jiro! Blood and Sushi." Our conversation has been edited for clarity and length. A longer version can be heard on my podcast.
I had a tear in my eye when I heard about Anthony's death. My mother loved him too, she would say that Anthony is "one cool white soul brother". You knew the man. What about Anthony Bourdain was just so transcendent?
He was never anything but what you saw. He showed up on my doorstep one day. I had this little magazine on the Lower East Side. With my first book contract, I bought a computer. It was 1981. I bought a dot-matrix printer and it was like I had my own printing press. I got some of my stories together and I put together this magazine. I drew a different picture on each magazine and brought it to the local bookstore, 25 copies. By the time I got home they were on the phone. We want more. We sold them all out.
I was onto something. Not much later, I got a manuscript in the mail and it was a comic book. The drawings were OK, they weren’t good. But the writing was really good. I wrote the guy a note. I wrote everybody a note. I never would just send back a rejection slip. I said, “Your art sucks but your writing is really good.”
The next thing I know somebody rings the buzzer downstairs. I lived on a fourth floor walk-up. I run downstairs and it’s this tall handsome young guy. He is probably in his middle 20s and he's wearing his chef's whites. It was Bourdain. He came upstairs. Anthony was really interested in making himself a better writer. He didn’t know anybody but he really wanted to be a writer.
We stayed really close friends all those years. I ate in the kitchen of every restaurant he worked in. He was just always looking to improve his work and make his writing better. He was really insecure about it but in a genuine, questing way. He was always on a path. I think that he never abandoned that path. He never thought differently about himself. He always opened himself up to others, his heart and his mind.
Anthony had a steel-trap mind for things that he was interested in. But ultimately he was just as you saw him on TV. He was Just as your mom saw him. He was just as my mom saw him and knew him. People respond to generosity of spirit and a genuine quest-like curiosity and humanity. He proved that to be true throughout his career. As devastating as his death was, to see how many people responded as if Anthony was a close friend, a member of their family, that’s a remarkable testament to who he was.
Anthony didn't strike me as someone who was self-conscious and self-important about being a "celebrity."
He wanted to share whatever he had achieved with people. I never saw him reject anyone. People would come up, and ask “Can I have my picture taken? Will you sign this? Can I ask you a question?” I never saw him say no to anyone, not even just say "OK, let’s take the picture." He was always super nice to everybody. It wasn’t a how or fake. That’s the way he was. Anthony was mystified about what happened to him in his life. He didn’t think he deserved it. Anthony thought he was pulling something over everybody’s eyes. They didn’t really know who he was. They didn’t know how lucky he was in talent and good fellowship. Anthony thought he was getting away with something.
Classic impostor syndrome?
Maybe. It felt like he was being chased by the cops and he was looking in the rear view mirror to see the lights and they were gaining on him. I don’t think Anthony thought he was an imposter as much as he thought he was undeserving.
What did Anthony say about meeting President Barack Obama?
All I remember is that Anthony said what a great guy Obama was. Anthony was not cavalier about meeting celebrities and the circles he traveled in. He loved Obama as one of the probably the country's greatest presidents, Obama is a man of great elegance, the incredible lucidity of his thinking.
Anthony recognized how fortunate he was in his life. But at the same time he was getting worn down. He was tired. But then not long before Anthony died he was telling me how happy he was.
I have a close friend who committed suicide. I know my friend was in horrible pain emotionally but I was and remain angry at him for doing such a thing. Yes, it is selfish to feel that way but it is true. I've let it go but I still have those moments. Do you have similar moments when you think about Anthony? How he could take his own life given how loved he was?
If I were personalize it, and make it about myself, yes, I did feel angry. Because we had so much work that we were planning and were well into. I felt like I failed him in some way. I’ve gone back to thinking about our last correspondences. I see that Anthony went from being effusive to just giving one word answers.
He was traveling most of the time. We work mostly through email and messaging. From being really into our work he went to just one word answers such as "great," "this sucks," "whatever." In retrospect, I should have been aware that something was going on but that’s more about me than him. I don’t know. I just feel bad. I just feel bad that he had so much to offer. His ability to touch so many different kinds of people. That’s a great loss. He was one of the good ones.
This is a loss for all of us. Someone who is able to connect with so many different kinds of people and revel in all our differences. He wanted to share food and talk to you. Anthony really wanted to know what you had on your mind and what you thought. He was so open to that. How rare is that amongst us? It’s such a disservice to all of us that he is gone.
Unlike lots of men Anthony was vulnerable and brave at the same time. He was very transparent about his drug addictions, life success and failures and the like. Many other people would make themselves the hero in their story. But it didn't seem like Anthony did that.
He did not want to present himself any other way than in his vulnerability and his honesty. I don’t think he saw any purpose beyond that. Anthony was not looking to make you feel a certain way about him. He didn’t need to be some kind of hyper masculine stud. He didn’t need to be. The first time I met him, that day at my door he was high.
I knew it from those many years ago. I had a drug problem. He was high and I saw it and we actually talked about it when he came inside. When Anthony got into mixed martial arts, jujitsu, he said, “Hey man, I turned in one addiction for another.” He said, “I’m addicted this is". He threw himself into it. Anthony actually won some competitions.
He got beaten up every day to start. He was just miserable at it. He just stuck through it and he excelled at it. Anthony never bragged on it or anything like that. He just did it. He dedicated himself. He did the same thing with his writing. Anthony understood he had a long way to go. It was one of the joys of working with him.
I worked in TV and movies so the narrative structure of our projects together was mine. I would work and then send off my part to him. I would say to him, “Tony, I’m stuck. Can you do this scene?” It would come back to me in 10 minutes. He would just blow it out.
It was just some really nice place for both of us. There was no anxiety, it was a free place that was relaxed and fun. Then we were working with these incredible artists where you write a script and then you get it back with these incredible flourishes. It was such a pleasure for me and for him too.
Was working on "Get Jiro!" and now "Hungry Ghosts" an epiphany or just something that developed naturally?
It was Tony. He would bug me for years. He wanted to do a graphic novel. I had written a screenplay with Amos Poe, the film director and it was named one of the best unproduced screen plays in Hollywood. DC Comics contacted me and asked if I wanted to write a comic book from the screenplay. I did. Tony loved comics. He was always saying, “Hey, let’s work together on a comic book. Let’s do a graphic novel.” Then one Thanksgiving he was here and his daughter was three and she was really sick. Throwing up and everything. We hadn’t even eaten. She was asleep on the couch. Ottavia, his wife, said, “We got to get her home.” My wife, Karen, was putting together a care package for them. Turkey and everything for them to come home because we hadn’t even eaten.
He cornered me and said, “I got this idea and I really want to do it.” Then the next thing I know he sent me a page of what he was thinking about. Then I worked on that. We went back and forth. We then went to the DC Comics offices. Anthony loved it.
Behind the reception desk was Metropolis. Superman was coming through the wall. Another floor was Gotham City, we went out for a drink and he was so happy. Then we just started working. We had no idea that "Get Jiro!" was going to be a New York Times number one best seller. It was crazy. We’ve just been working together on "Jiro" and related graphic books and comics ever since.
How does it feel like to have to shepherd Anthony's legacy with the final project "Hungry Ghosts"?
Well, I have tears in my eyes right now. Hey, listen, the reason that you’re talking to me is because Tony’s not here. I’ve had to pick up his mantle. All I’ve had are interviews and writing essays, all stuff that would have fallen his way. I feel like I’m sharing that with him. To tell you the truth I feel close to his spirit. Even when I’m writing these essays and such, I feel him close to him. That is a gift. That’s a gift for me. I just got the books last week.
Were you afraid to open it? Did opening "Hungry Ghosts" signal some type of closure?
Most of them are shrink-wrapped. I did open one just to have a look at it. Did I do it with trepidation? I don’t know. Maybe. I’m proud of it. I’m happy. He told a film director, Darren Aronofsky--who he’s close to--how happy he was with the way that "Hungry Ghosts" came out.
I feel grateful to our friendship that he was able to have a place of satisfaction and enjoyment and even pleasure from what we were working on together even though he was dealing with turmoil and pain. Thank you Tony. Thank you Karen Burger. Thank you to all those artists who made "Hungry Ghosts" and "Get Jiro!" happen. Thank you everyone for putting us in that space that we were able to do that.
When you think of Tony, what do you think of? What was so compelling about him?
The image is of Tony in a mother’s kitchen in Mexico. For me that’s what describes him. That was the touchstone where this person lived. He was not an elitist in any manner, shape or form. He was someone who relished just the warmth and genuine spirit and incredible generosity of sitting down for a simple meal with folks, those folks who are the mothers of his kitchen staff, his cooks and his dishwashers.
Just the regular people and being at home and being in a place of peace. Peace and enjoyment and genuine spirit and no bullshit. That’s the thing. No bullshit. He was a deep thinker. He was an emotional thinker as well. He was really clear about right and wrong. Not that he didn’t make mistakes in his life. He made many but he would own up to them. If he made a mistake, he was willing and ready to take responsibility for himself.
He never blamed others that I ever heard of. I thought that was a remarkable thing for someone who had so many accolades and so much success. He’s not the only person that I’ve ever worked with who has gone on to incredible heights in their careers. But of every one I’ve ever worked with, Anthony was able to maintain himself and stay true to himself better than anyone I’ve ever known. That’s so admirable.
Friendships are partnerships. Especially if you’ve been friends with somebody for a very long time. As you describe it, Anthony's "no bullshit" life mantra could turn some people off. But you and he were and are very close. What was your dynamic together like?
I was attracted to his work ethic. That he was fallible. I think that’s what I was attracted to. That he was quick to admit that he was not a done deal. That he was always on a path of inquiry and curiosity. Anthony was a seeker. I don’t know about myself if I am or not but he was.
He wanted to know about you. He wanted to know what you thought. He wanted to know what you liked to eat. He wanted to know what you felt about your mother. He wanted to know about your mother and what she was struggling against and how you were dealing with it. That was genuine. That was not bullshitting put on. That was Tony.
I think that if I responded to anything in him from that first day over my kitchen table on Seventh Street, it was that we were on a journey together. I don’t know what I saw in him. But I was devoted to helping him get to a place where he was comfortable to work. Because he was such a good writer right from the start. I responded to his work and he was so insecure about it.
Anthony always wanted to be better, to feel more confident, to be on top of it. I was trying to tell him, “You’re never going to be there. You will never be there. If you do get there, if you have the arrogance to be in that place, your writing’s going to be shit.” That is not what it’s about. I was so honored to be part of that journey from the very beginning. I was on it with him because it was the same journey I was on.
I think that was reassuring to both of us. I think that’s what cemented our friendship if anything. We were friends for 35 years and we were able to key into that place, a journey about our writing and creativity. That is a special place to be.
Did fame change Anthony?
I think that’s so far from what went on with him. He would go back to New Jersey where he grew up and go to his favorite hotdog stand. He used to talk about the kids that he grew up with. A couple of his friends, they used to play football in front of his house. Two brothers went on to play in the NFL. Anthony was in such glory when he talked about those days. He must have been 10 or 11. Anthony was not self-impressed. He was fundamentally unchanged as a person.
I am going to buy a copy of "Hungry Ghosts" at my local comic book store, First Aid, here in Chicago. But I am probably going to keep it in the Mylar. In my mind opening the bag will signal a type of finality where Anthony is really gone. I have audio tapes of one of my dearest friends, he was more like a brother to me, and he passed away some years ago. I had a radio show in college and of course recorded everything. I promised to give his brother and mother the tapes and CDs. I can’t do it. Because to do that will signal he is really gone. What would you tell people who may be feeling the same way about "Hungry Ghosts" or watching the final season of Anthony's show "Parts Unknown" on CNN?
Originally, until you just said all that I would have said just open it. Now, I say I wish you could have met Tony because that sentiment and that genuineness are exactly what he responded to and loved. I think it’s really beautiful and I understand it. Even though I opened "Hungry Ghosts" right away.
But ultimately you have to make your own decision. If your decision is from an emotional center like that then your decision either way is the right decision for you. Chauncey, you know what? Don’t open that book and do send me your address and I will open a book and I will send it to you. You’ll have the one that you did not open but you’ll have the one that I have opened for you.