Life Lessons from Anthony Bourdain: How He Developed His Iron Professionalism, Achieved Creative Freedom & Learned from Failure

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.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Watch Antho­ny Bourdain’s Free Show Raw Craft, Where He Vis­its Crafts­men Mak­ing Gui­tars, Tat­toos, Motor­cy­cles & More (RIP)

Hear Leonard Cohen’s Final Inter­view: Record­ed by David Rem­nick of The New York­er

Carl Sagan Issues a Chill­ing Warn­ing to Amer­i­ca in His Final Inter­view (1996)

David Fos­ter Wal­lace: The Big, Uncut Inter­view (2003)

Paulo Coel­ho on How to Han­dle the Fear of Fail­ure

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.

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