It’s been more than four years since we lost Anthony Bourdain, and still people are coming out of the woodwork who feel the need to reveal new details about the culinary icon’s life. Bourdain was never a particularly private person, famously known for lacking a poker face on his many television series and sharing his personal thoughts through numerous pieces of writing. The 2021 documentary Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain was the first major posthumous look at the chef and food personality’s life, one that used questionable storytelling methods in an attempt to share Bourdain’s darkest secrets in his own words. And now a new unofficial biography digs even deeper into the tumult of Bourdain’s personal life, necessitating the question: When will we let this man rest in peace?
Journalist Charles Leerhsen has written the latest dissection of the chef, Down and Out in Paradise: The Life of Anthony Bourdain, out October 11 through Simon & Schuster. The publisher touts it as “the first book to tell the true and full Bourdain story, relating the highs and lows of an extraordinary life,” as well as promising “never-before-reported childhood traumas.”
It’s not unusual for the public to remain curious about the final moments of Bourdain’s life when it ended so tragically; someone who seemingly had it all took their own life, and it’s human nature to wonder why. But Leerhsen appears to be leaning heavily on the “definitely unauthorized” aspect of this book’s description, and according to The New York Times, Bourdain’s family, coworkers, and close friends refused to speak for the biography and went so far as to accuse the author and publisher of including defamatory information.
Details of the book revealed in The New York Times ahead of its release indicate why Bourdain’s loved ones wouldn’t want it published. In the course of his reporting, Leerhsen gained access to a number of private messages between Bourdain and others, and in the book he appears to include interviews exclusively with subjects who seem to have had a contentious relationship with the late chef.
In an attempt to create the antithesis of what Leerhsen calls “an official Bourdain product,” he seems to frame all details in the messiest way possible, going so far as to pin the cause of Bourdain’s suicide on a single exchange of texts between Bourdain and former girlfriend Asia Argento. It’s a dangerous oversimplification of mental health issues that is disrespectful to Bourdain, his legacy, and so many others struggling with suicidal thoughts. And it’s not the first time such an approach has been taken.
While much of the Roadrunner documentary was a nuanced and loving look at Bourdain’s life, it was not without its controversy for attempting to do something similar to what Leerhsen is apparently trying to do in his book. Director Morgan Neville told GQ that he essentially deepfaked Bourdain’s voice after his death, using an AI system to read aloud emails Bourdain wrote at the end of his life in Bourdain’s own voice. It adds an unfortunate layer of “ick” to a project that might otherwise have been worthy of Bourdain’s legacy.
Whether this was Neville’s intention or not, some critics have also said the film paints Argento as the villain.
“There’s something troubling and distasteful about the way this documentary trivializes [Bourdain’s #MeToo movement advocacy], leaving behind a whiff of misogyny that grows more pronounced with the not-so-subtle collective insinuation that the woman Bourdain loved was effectively to blame for his death,” wrote Los Angeles Times film critic Justin Chang.
In telling the story of Bourdain’s life and death, these creators should not feel so compelled to assign blame or prescribe reasoning for what happened. In reality, these kinds of ideations are virtually never the result of one single thing or person, one moment or exchange. Trying to pinpoint one only sours the most positive aspects of all that he brought to the food world and beyond.
Bourdain never tried to hide the less glamorous parts of who he was. During his life he was known for being sometimes difficult and harsh, and though he knew how to “turn it on” for the camera, it never felt like a false veneer of a character. There’s no need to dig back into his private messages to find out “who he really was” or solve the mystery of depression and addiction and mental health issues. He left behind brilliant work of his own by which to remember him, work that was created in his own words and on his own terms.
Bourdain wrote several books detailing his experiences at various stages of his life, the last of which was pulled together posthumously from notes written by Bourdain in a respectful and enlightening way, not an exploitative one. Even when these books take narrative liberties by adding a bit of swagger and flair, they nonetheless tell the story of an extraordinary life:
- Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly (Bloomsbury, 2000)
- A Cook’s Tour: In Search of the Perfect Meal (Bloomsbury, 2001)
- Typhoid Mary: An Urban Historical (Bloomsbury, 2001)
- Anthony Bourdain’s Les Halles cookbook (Bloomsbury, 2004)
- The Nasty Bits: Collected Varietal Cuts, Usable Trim, Scraps, and Bones (Bloomsbury, 2006)
- No Reservations: Around the World on an Empty Stomach (Bloomsbury, 2007)
- Medium Raw: A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food and the People Who Cook. (Ecco/HarperCollins, 2010)
- Appetites: A Cookbook (Ecco Press, 2016)
- World Travel: An Irreverent Guide (Ecco Press, 2021)
And of course, we can see, hear, and experience the man himself forever on film in various TV series:
- A Cook’s Tour (now streaming on Amazon Prime’s Freevee)
- No Reservations (now streaming on Discovery+)
- The Layover (now streaming on Discovery+)
- Parts Unknown (now streaming on Discovery+ and HBO Max)
- The Mind of a Chef (now streaming on PBS Living and PBS Documentaries)
If you’re not sure where to start, let our complete guide to Parts Unknown be your first stop—these are the 20 most essential episodes, ranked. If you’re new to Bourdain’s work, just one episode will make clear that he doesn’t need anyone else to tell his story. His legacy speaks just fine for itself.