Anthony Bourdain was not a particularly good chef. That statement comes not as a cheap shot at the recently departed, but a quote from the departed himself. Bourdain freely admitted it over a couple of Tiger beers with a Fast Company interviewer last year. "I was very deservedly fired on a number of occasions," he adds for good measure, referencing his decades of dirty work and drug abuse before he rose to prominence in the worlds of food- and travel-centric books and television. But in more than one way, those decades prepared him to ride the kind of success he would eventually achieve into a body of work that could have arisen from no other life or personality.
"Most of the people I've met who've been in the television industry for a long time, their greatest fear is that they will not be in the television industry next year," Bourdain says. "That they'll say something or do something or make a decision that will be so unpopular that they'll lose their gig and won't end up back on television again. I don't have that fear." He knew, surely better than anyone who has publicly remarked on it, that he may not have shown the genius in the kitchen to attain star-chef status. But he also knew he had something ultimately more important: the skills to turn out meal after flawless meal, day in and day out. "If I have to," he says, "I'm pretty sure I can keep up on an omelet station."
Many remembrances of Bourdain have highlighted his iron professionalism. "He is controlled to the point of neurosis: clean, organized, disciplined, courteous, systematic," wrote the New Yorker's Patrick Radden Keefe in a profile published last year. "He is Apollo in drag as Dionysus.” Bourdain credited that to his lean years in the kitchen: "Everything important I ever learned, I learned as dishwasher and as a cook: you show up on time, you stay organized, you clean up after yourself, you think about the people you work with, you respect the people you work with. You do the best you can." This went for matters personal as well as professional: "If I say to you I'm going to meet you tomorrow at twelve minutes after five to see John Wick 7, I will be there at 5:02."
He would also, he adds, be "hanging out across the street, discreetly observing to see what time you show up. And I'll be making some very important decisions based on your arrival time." Bourdain's exacting standards, for himself and others, allowed him to achieve an unusual degree of freedom for a major media personality. "I detest competent, workmanlike storytelling," he says of his and his collaborators' penchant for creative risk. "A powerful reaction, in one way or the other, is infinitely preferable to me than pleasing everybody." Yet despite taking books and television shows ostensibly about food in new and unpredictable aesthetic and intellectual directions, in the kitchen he remained a traditionalist to the end. "You put chicken in a carbonara? You lost me. It's an unforgivable sin against God."
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.