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Anthony Bourdain’s Literary Legacy in 5 Books

Anthony Bourdain was impulsive, passionate, prone to righteous fluctuations in temperament, and probably a delightful person to have a beer with. His fame wasn’t the detached, lacquered type of a Hollywood actor or celebrity but a brother or an impossibly cool dad. He would say things like, “I simply travel around the world, eat a lot of shit, and basically do whatever the fuck I want,” with no ostentation or vanity. It would almost be easy to hate Bourdain for the outlandish life he lived, a New Yorker profile concluded last year, “if he weren’t so easy to like.” Another way of putting it is that Anthony Bourdain built his career on telling the truth.

Sadly, the writer, chef, television host, and outspoken food and media personality, died in June this year of an apparent suicide. He was sixty-one.

Bourdain rose to fame in 2000 with his best-selling book Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly, a memoir of his experiences as a chef that established his reputation as the bad-boy, Hunter S. Thompson-esque rock star of the pop-culinary world. From there, Bourdain went on to host the Food Network’s A Cook’s Tour, then the Travel Channel’s Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations, and finally CNN’s Parts Unknown, the series for which he won five Emmys and a Peabody Award. But before all this—before he was a decades-long chef in New York, before he was a dishwasher, a prep drone, a line cook, and a sous-chef—he was a writer.

Like so many millions around the world, I’m still grieving the loss of Anthony Bourdain. And as someone who enjoys writing and admittedly doesn’t understand a whole lot about high-stress, high-profile restaurants, cooking lines, gas ranges, or exhaust fans, I thought it would be worthwhile to revisit the literary legacy of a man who, before he himself knew much about any of those things, was a person who enjoyed writing and was pretty good at it. I urge you to read these books and consider, as this writer will forever, how Bourdain’s attraction to the secrets behind the façade—the frenzied, shadowed events taking place backstage—began with his attraction to the written word, which is perhaps the singular theme running through all of his work.

Bone in the Throat: A Novel of Death and Digestion (1995)

Bourdain’s first book, written while he was still entrenched in New York City’s restaurant scene, presents a delectable portion of gangster edge mixed with vulgar mobspeak, junky-chefs, frantic entrepreneurs, and salty feds, all taking place in Manhattan’s Little Italy. Like most of Bourdain’s books, it includes autobiographical undertones: protagonist Tommy is a sous chef at his gangster uncle’s Soho restaurant, working under a head chef with a painful heroin habit when he gets wrapped up in a Mafia murder and the impending FBI investigation. Bone in the Throat is a whirlwind of fictional fun that, for Bourdain, wasn’t all that far from the truth.

Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly (2000)

In 1999, Bourdain’s essay “Don’t Eat Before Reading This” served as the springboard for Kitchen Confidential, which became a New York Times bestseller and established Bourdain as a gifted, albeit edgy food personality. Released in 2000, the book is both Bourdain’s professional memoir and a behind-the-scenes treatment of the professional culinary industry, which he describes as an intense, often unpleasant, and sometimes dangerous workplace staffed by eccentrics and misfits. Bourdain catalogues some of his personal misdeeds and weaknesses, including illicit drug use and taking part in a masochistic industry that was, on its best day, unfavorable to women. A follow-up book, Medium Raw, was published in 2010.

A Cook’s Tour: In Search of the Perfect Meal (2001)

As an up and coming TV personality and world traveler, Bourdain approached his first food and travel show with one question in mind: What makes the perfect meal? The book conveys the same theme and demonstrates Bourdain’s interest in offering an authentic story about the crosscurrents of food and lifestyle. A Cook’s Tour was ostensibly inspired by Apocalypse Now and begins with Bourdain eating the still-beating heart of a snake in Saigon, Vietnam. He eventually makes his way into Khmer Rouge territory, eats with Russian oligarchs in Moscow, and observes a pig slaughter in Portugal. Following the publication of this book, Bourdain established himself as someone who was not only interested in food, the kitchen, and the lives of cooks, but someone interested in telling stories about life itself, with food serving as the key to unlocking those stories.

The Nasty Bits (2006)

Bourdain’s witty, sharply-written collection of irreverent short stories covers fast-food to filmmaking to vegans and the entire food industrial complex, even devoting a chapter to what he considers the most important job in a restaurant: the dishwasher. In The Nasty Bits, Bourdain serves up a hellbroth of truthful, often outrageous stories from his worldwide misadventures. Whether revealing the more unglamorous aspects of making television, or scrounging for eel in Hanoi, or confessing to lobster-killing buyer’s remorse, Bourdain is as compelling and entertaining as ever.

Appetites (2016)

Appetites is a home-cookin’ cookbook like you’ll rarely see, with personal favorites from his own kitchen and his time abroad, all translated into an effective course-by-course breakdown that will leave your dinner guests delighted and full. By 2016, Bourdain knew he wasn’t simply a chef anymore but a television personality and cultural critic. The book, co-written with longtime collaborator Laurie Woolever, is basically a list of mostly-simple recipes he liked cooking for his family and friends. It’s beautifully concise and heartfelt and maintains Bourdain’s signature grit and style—like the dessert “chapter” at the end, which is all but two words: “Fuck dessert.”

By: Nico Picciuto

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