cook, writer and television presenter

born June 25th 1956

died June 8th 2018

Anthony Bourdain, who has died age 61, was an accomplished professional chef who was for many years in charge of the kitchen at Brasserie Les Halles, a bistro on Park Avenue, New York, which specialised in traditional French cuisine. But he came to widespread public attention with his memoir Kitchen Confidential (2000), which described the “culinary underbelly” of restaurant kitchens.

In vivid, entertaining prose liberally sprinkled with profanities, Bourdain’s book depicted the pressurised life of the working line cook and the frequent eccentricity, substance abuse, sexual misbehaviour and downright criminality behind the scenes in the restaurant industry. “Rarely,” the food writer Jay Rayner claimed, “has a book been seized upon by a profession as the true gospel in such a manner.” The Guardian noted laconically that it was “not exactly Delia”.

What it was was an enormous commercial success, and Bourdain followed it with a number of sequels, and began a career as a television presenter, in programmes which combined his love and deep knowledge of food with worldwide travel. The first was A Cook’s Tour (2002-3) on the Food Network; he later did two series for the Travel Channel and in recent years had a programme entitled Parts Unknown on CNN. In 2013, he wrote: “I get paid these days to eat and drink my way around the world… writing and making television, no matter what some whining dipshit may tell you, is easy. Cooking is hard.”

He felt a degree of conflict about this new role, since he had frequently expressed his contempt for television chefs and had to admit “Needless to say, this celebrity chef racket has worked out okay for me”. He also moderated his disdain for superstar chefs such as Alain Ducasse and Ferran Adrià (“the foam dude”) and retreated a little from his “bad boy” reputation. He wrote unsparingly about his previous drug use and addiction which had once led him to sell his record collection to buy drugs, but he eventually gave up smoking (when his daughter was born in 2007) and took up Brazilian jiu jitsu, though he remained a keen drinker.

Anthony Michael Bourdain was born on June 25 1956 in New York City, and grew up in New Jersey. His father Pierre worked at Columbia Records as a classical music executive and his mother Gladys (née Sacksman) was a sub-editor on The New York Times.

His first culinary awakening came on a transatlantic voyage to visit his father’s family in France, when he ate Vichyssoise on the Queen Mary; after his parent left him ands his younger brother in the car while they ate at La Pyramide in 1966, he vowed revenge by becoming adventurous in his eating. In the Gironde, in south-western France, he had his first oyster. “I remember it like I remember losing my virginity,” he wrote, “and in many ways, more fondly.”

In 1973 he left high school early and “unhappily in love” to follow a girlfriend to Vassar College where, for two years, he “treated the world as my ashtray”. His priorities were drinking, drugs, smoking and rock and roll, but he spent the summer in Provincetown, a fishing village turned tourist destination in Cape Cod. In need of money, he took a job as a dishwasher.

He immediately loved kitchen life, where the staff: “had style and swagger, and they seemed afraid of nothing. They drank everything in sight, stole whatever wasn’t nailed down and screwed their way through floor staff, bar customers and casual visitors like nothing I’d ever seen or imagined.” After he was asked to mind the broiler station during a wedding reception, while the head chef introduced the new bride to adultery in the alley behind the restaurant: “I knew then… that I wanted to be a chef.”

He dropped out of Vassar and, after further stints as a line cook and caterer, attended the Culinary Institute of America, where the training consisted of traditional French hotel methods – sauces made with roux and creations in aspic. He graduated in 1978 with “field experience, a vocabulary and a criminal mind. I was a danger to myself and others.”

Bourdain then worked his way through numerous restaurants in and around New York. In Kitchen Confidential he made no bones about his bad behaviour, which included not only heavy drinking but “cannabis, methaqualone, cocaine, LSD, psilocybin mushrooms soaked in honey and used to sweeten tea, secobarbital, tuinal, amphetamine, codeine and, increasingly, heroin”, but he also had a ferocious work ethic, insisting that the essential quality for a restaurant cook was turning up on time, no matter how ill or hungover.

He ran a number of kitchens, including the Supper Club, Sullivan’s and One Fifth Avenue before, in 1998, taking over at Les Halles, which also had branches in Downtown New York, Miami, Washington DC and later Tokyo. Though Bourdain stepped back from cooking in the years after the success of his book, he nominally remained the restaurant’s “chef-at-large” until 2014. It closed last year.

Kitchen Confidential was written after Bourdain had produced well-received articles in The New Yorker and after he had already published two crime novels with a culinary background, Bone in the Throat (1995) and Gone Bamboo (1997). He followed its success with a sequel, Medium Raw (2010), having produced a book to go with his Food Network series (which was awarded Food Book of the Year in 2002), a cookbook and a historical non-fiction book called Typhoid Mary. The Nasty Bits (2006) was a collection of his food and travel journalism, while the following year’s No Reservations was a tie-in with his series of that name for the Travel Channel. He also wrote a couple of graphic novels and was involved in publishing a series of books on subjects – not confined to food – which interested him.

Rock and roll – especially The Ramones – remained an obsession, and he was very well-read and highly informed about film. His favourite foods (in common with many professional chefs, as he pointed out) were traditional domestic dishes: black pudding with apple and mash, macaroni cheese – “No fucking truffle oil!” – roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, shrimp heads, rib-eye steak, daube and fresh garlic. “Too lazy to peel fresh? You don’t deserve to eat garlic.”

Bourdain relished the opportunity to travel for television, and interviewed a number of significant chefs, as well as figures such as Alice Cooper, Iggy Pop and Francis Ford Coppola. A few days ago, he described his latest programme for CNN as the highpoint of his professional career, after he persuaded the distinguished cinematographer Christopher Doyle to film it.

It was directed by Asia Argento, with whom Bourdain began a relationship last year. He was outspoken in his support of her campaign against sexual harassment, after she accused Harvey Weinstein of having raped her earlier in her career.

Anthony Bourdain married Nancy Putkoski, a girlfriend from high school in 1985, and they divorced in 2005. He was then married, from 2007 until 2016, to Ottavia Busia, with whom he had a daughter, Ariane. He was reported to have committed suicide in a hotel room in Strasbourg, where he had been filming.

Andrew McKie