Anthony Bourdain: seemingly effortless | Jack Marshall's column

Anthony Bourdain had a tattoo on his arm which read ‘I am certain of nothing’.

Monday, 19th April 2021, 7:00 am
Bourdain despairing of tourist traps in Bali, Indonesia (Netflix screenshot)

It’s a good place to start with someone so emphatically impressive: a fleeting glimpse which reveals so much and yet nowhere near enough.

A chef, writer, and TV journalist, Bourdain was an astonishing person. He was successful in the culinary world, and a former heroin addict; he was a breathtakingly good writer, and was often spiky and awkward to work with. He was a genius; he was depressed.

He died by suicide almost three years ago.

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He was smart, able to not only offer razor-sharp observations delivered with humour and edge, but do so on camera. He seemed to be effortless in every situation, from standing on the banks of an Indonesian river with a spear in hand, about to slaughter a pig; to a black-tie event in Shanghai.

At my celebrity dinner party, Bourdain’s name is the first on the list. He was just so unspeakably cool.

“Tony is Tony; he’s easy to love,” says Spanish chef José Andrés, unprompted, about his friend during an episode of Bourdain’s brilliant show Parts Unknown. “He seems like he doesn’t care, but then you see it. He’s the most caring person I’ve ever met.”

Parts Unknown is a masterpiece, an Odyssey driven by Bourdain’s fascination with people.

Ice-fishing in Quebec, coffee in Tangier; sailing the Congo, flamenco in Granada. Tokyo, Copenhagen, Iran, Jamaica. Spam in Okinawa, music in Nashville; steak in Uruguay, cow’s blood in Kenya. Antarctica, Newfoundland, Bhutan, Armenia.

In Sicily, Bourdain heads out to catch fresh octopus and cuttlefish. Realising the venture is staged, the fisherman throwing dead fish into the sea for him to scoop up, Bourdain spirals into depression, heading ashore and refusing to film. He’s seen in a cafe, alone.

Three years later, he’s at a family gathering in the Philippines when the beloved matriarch sings Edelweiss. The camera slowly pans to an enraptured Bourdain. There’s the suggestion of a tear in the corner of his eye and a faint smile on his lips.

Like his tattoo, these two snippets are polaroid-quick snapshots of Bourdain the man. It’s not enough - nothing will ever be enough - but I’m grateful we have them.

“I’m a storyteller,” Bourdain once said. “I see stuff; I talk about how it made me feel at the time. If you can do that honesty, that’s about the best you can hope for.”