Books

The Chef Who Became a Brand

Anthony Bourdain’s biographer thinks success destroyed him. Is the unauthorized Down and Out in Paradise a fair portrait?

Anthony Bourdain leans over a counter in a stainless-steel kitchen. There are bags of meat and a knife on the counter.
Anthony Bourdain in 2005. Jacky Ghossein/Fairfax Media via Getty Images

Why are family members of the late chef, writer, and TV personality Anthony Bourdain angry about a new unauthorized Bourdain biography, Down and Out in Paradise, written by Charles Leerhsen? Perhaps you’ve heard that the book includes texts that Bourdain exchanged with his girlfriend, Italian actor Asia Argento, shortly before he died by suicide in 2018. Leerhsen does print those texts, which conclude with Argento telling Bourdain to “stop busting my balls” and Bourdain responding, in his last communication sent to anyone, with “Ok.” But that’s not the focus of the complaints. It’s Anthony Bourdain’s brother, Christopher, who sent the publisher angry emails before the book’s publication, and what Christopher seems peeved about is how Leerhsen depicts the Bourdains’ childhood in a New Jersey suburb. (Leerhsen describes the two brothers as taking opposite sides in their parents’ broken marriage and quotes an anonymous “relative” who confirms this.)

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No one in Bourdain’s immediate family seems to be complaining about the texts, which is hardly a surprise given that they were supplied to Leerhsen by an anonymous source—one who is almost certainly Bourdain’s second wife, Ottavia Busia-Bourdain, from whom Bourdain was separated but not divorced. As Bourdain’s executor, Busia-Bourdain is in possession of the devices where Bourdain’s texts and emails reside. “The estate has not objected” to his inclusion of that material in his book, Leerhsen told the New York Times, “and I don’t anticipate any objections.” Instead, the objections seem mostly to have come from outside observers, who complain, for example, that not everything permitted is also decent, which is true. In his own defense, Leerhsen told the L.A. Times that his methods are no different from those of biographers past, who relied on such materials as personal letters. That is also true. Leerhsen, a former Sports Illustrated editor and the author of three previous biographies of such historical figures as Ty Cobb and Butch Cassidy, has also worked as a co-writer for hire on celebrity memoirs for the likes of Brandon Tartikoff and, in 1990, Donald Trump. With the latter category of book, the celebrity is the person who must be pleased, but when one’s subject is dead? Well, no one wants to read an impersonal biography.

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A man in glasses on the beach.
Charles Leerhsen. Steve Hoffman
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If Leerhsen’s book is an unconscionable violation of Bourdain’s privacy, then so are all biographies, an argument that some people have certainly advanced. Argento responded to Leehrsen’s request for an interview with an Oscar Wilde quote: “It is always Judas who writes the biography.” All due respect to Wilde, but that statement is most definitely not true. Had Judas written his own gospel in addition to those of Jesus’ four fanboys, we might have a more multidimensional account of the Nazarene’s life. A selling point of Down and Out in Paradise is that unlike earlier accounts of Bourdain’s life, which Leerhsen characterizes as “sanitized and inspiring,” this one features interviews from disgruntled friends and colleagues left behind by Bourdain on his climb to fame. One of those earlier attempts, one that Leerhsen dismisses, is Morgan Neville’s 2021 documentary Roadrunner, which generated its own controversy over its use of an A.I.-generated voice reading passages that Bourdain wrote but did not actually record himself. This bit of artifice aside, though, Leerhsen is being unfair when he lumps the film with the rest of “Bourdain Inc.,” which he insists shies away from discussion of the “messy truth.” Roadrunner notably doesn’t whitewash the final two years of Bourdain’s life, when his infatuation with Argento caused him, and many of those around him, much distress.

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A solidly researched and, despite its press, not especially lurid biography, Down and Out in Paradise has a stubborn resistance to psychologizing its subject that—along with the use of such antique terms as “the boob tube” and “red-blooded American male”—gives it a dated air. It reads as if it were written in 1999, the year that Bourdain’s life changed as a result of the publication of “Don’t Eat Before Reading This,” the sensational New Yorker article that became the basis for his bestselling book, 2000’s Kitchen Confidential.

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Leerhsen likes to hover over this turning point, a time when Bourdain, 43, was living with his first wife, Nancy, in a shabby Manhattan apartment where they once left a Christmas tree lying on its side for nine months. Bourdain worked as a middling chef at a middling restaurant, and Nancy spent most of her time watching Court TV. The pair were recognizable New York types, stunned remnants of the bohemian heyday of the East Village, former junkies clinging to the fringes of a city that was rapidly shedding its grit. The haut-bourgeois exaltation of chefs and restaurants was both a symptom of this transformation and the condition that made Bourdain’s midlife success possible. He was a funny, earthy iconoclast, dishing the dirt on what went on behind the scenes at the eateries that were increasingly central to New York’s culture. Most gifted chefs are meticulous and imperious, not qualities that make for charismatic personalities. Bourdain, however, was more like a musician, specifically the kind of downtown rock ’n’ roller who once played CBGB. He wanted to become “the culinary equivalent of the Ramones.”

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Bourdain’s old-timey hipness is a primary source of fascination for Leerhsen, who compares him to Frank Sinatra in an extended passage in the book’s prelude: Each is “the epitome of cool, a sad-smiling Jersey boy who combined supremely high standards with the under-appreciated art of not giving a shit in ways that seemed to excite both sexes. You wanted either to be him or to do him, especially if you’d heard the gossip about his gargantuan member.” (OK, that last line is pretty lurid, but the subject never comes up again!) Leerhsen’s Bourdain was a swashbuckling “renegade” drawn to the piratical culture of restaurant kitchens and sworn to a code of authenticity that, despite his age, seems quintessentially Gen X. His drinking and smoking and his past history of drug use were badges of this street cred. “When traveling for his show,” Leerhsen writes, Bourdain “never dealt with official tourist agencies because he disdained the authorized version of things; he balked at the word ‘brand.’ ” As a kid, Bourdain rebelled against what he once described as “the smothering chokehold of love and normalcy in my house,” which, along with the bland comforts of his suburban upbringing, irked him simply because they were bland and suburban and therefore phony.

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Granted, this stance was central to Bourdain’s own sense of his identity, even if later in life he professed to be unable to remember what he so much objected to in Leonia, New Jersey. Bourdain did, after all, include a chapter in 2010’s Medium Raw titled “Selling Out.” Leerhsen admires Bourdain for every time he resisted doing just that, whether it’s his rejection of product placement and licensing deals or his refusal to include fake greeting scenes (where the host pretends to be meeting a guest for the first time) in his shows. “You do understand that he never really became a full- fledged adult, right?” an ex-girlfriend of Bourdain’s asks Leerhsen at one point, suggesting that it’s just dawned on her that this is what the biographer most values in his subject, a sort of adolescent fantasy of purity sustained into middle age.

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Leerhsen doesn’t blame Argento for Bourdain’s suicide, as some of his more fervent fans apparently have. He provides plenty of evidence that Bourdain hovered over Argento with incessant, over-the-top praise and offers of help like an overprotective parent, behavior virtually guaranteed to alienate a woman who considered herself a free spirit. Leerhsen describes Bourdain’s smothering behavior without ever making the connection to how Bourdain felt about his own childhood.

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A couple of days before he took his own life, Bourdain—who was on a shoot with his friend, the chef Éric Ripert, in the Alsatian town of Kaysersberg-Vignoble—had gone on a beer run to the next town. His companions that night reported that he seemed like the old Tony, out carousing with his buddies and glad-handing local fans. Leerhsen believes that this was a turning point, that by “briefly reliving his past” carousing with the guys, Bourdain was forced to see “how far he had come” and that he had “lost his integrity in pursuit of a woman who seemed to spend her life performing for the paparazzi and clowning on Instagram.” In other words, he had forfeited the authenticity so central, in Leerhsen’s eyes, to Bourdain’s identity, even if he sold out for love rather than money. This seems like wishful thinking on Leerhsen’s part, since the actual precipitating event was most likely Bourdain’s breakup with Argento. Suicidal people are known to experience strange interludes of calm or even euphoria once they stop battling their self-destructive urges and resolve to end their lives.

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Artists who die by suicide inspire a confused mixture of sentiments in the American public. In part, their ordeals appeal to a romantic, misguided belief that only great suffering can produce great art. (The painter David Choe, a friend of Bourdain’s, says as much in Roadrunner.) But Americans also retain a lingering puritanical conviction that art ought to teach some redeeming message. As a result, when, for example, the novelist David Foster Wallace ended his life in 2008, his public image was transformed almost overnight. Previously criticized as a writer of recondite, self-indulgent doorstops, he was recast as a wise man whose work proffered heartfelt insights on how the sensitive and true of heart can survive in an increasingly mediated and commercialized world—despite the fact that he had very plainly been unable to do so himself. “Saint Dave” is what skeptics, many of them people who actually knew Wallace, call this posthumous phantom.

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Leerhsen, too, refers to “Saint Anthony, miracle worker, healer, and martyr,” scornfully caricaturing this false Bourdain as both a fantasy of the “prescription-strength Bourdain obsessives” and the product marketed by “Bourdain Inc.” (personified by Bourdain’s literary agent Kimberly Witherspoon, whose alleged motto is “We’ve got to protect the brand!”). But despite his protestations, Leerhsen’s image of Bourdain isn’t so very different—is, in fact, a martyr, not to a heartless she-devil, but to fame itself. It was success that destroyed Bourdain, according to Leerhsen, in the classic downfall scenario beloved by the sort of indie rock fan who prefers every band before they got big. Hooked on the public’s love, Bourdain sold his soul to keep it, grinding out episode after episode of his travelogue series even though he kept saying that he wanted to quit.

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This isn’t untrue—at 61, Bourdain was exhausted by traveling two-thirds of the year—but Leerhsen can’t pass it off as the whole truth. He doesn’t even attempt to puzzle out the source of Bourdain’s neediness, which preexisted his television career, or why it alternated with a startling ability to cut off people with whom he had shared long and apparently deep friendships. Most who die by suicide suffer from clinical depression, but Leerhsen never investigates whether Bourdain had any history of this illness. What did he hope to achieve in his relationship with Argento, exactly the wrong sort of woman to pick for the kind of life Bourdain insisted that he wanted to share with her? Leerhsen hazily tries to equate that doomed affair with Bourdain’s addiction to fame, and Instagram and gossip columns did play an outsize role in it. But it’s impossible to believe that what Bourdain really needed was to get back to the version of himself that spent all night out drinking with his pals, and that if he could only have stayed at this never-ending party, he might have survived. Portraying him this way seems a greater disservice to Leerhsen’s subject than the publication of any text message.