Somewhere along the line America got really into chefs. Like really into it. I’m not talking about the family friendly Emeril Lagasses that got talk show audiences worked up over the inherent masculinity of extra garlic, no. I’m talking real chefs, ya know? Those edgy guys who know you can’t make Farfalle without a little bit of love and a whole lot of forearm tattoos. Tired of paper white kitchens, the American consumer wanted to see a new world where miserable chefs bark orders at line cooks while acting like the culinary reincarnation of Picasso. On our TVs and behind our dinner plates we craved scenes of a militaristic hierarchy filled with groveling utterances of “yes, chef” and “no, chef.” The idea of food as art turned into a strange power game filled with big personalities, cutthroat business practices, and even more forearm tattoos. We started calling mashed potatoes “smashed potatoes.” Words like “aioli” and “sous vide” entered the lexicon of the plebes. We called out privilege and abuse in every industry on the planet, but reveled in footage of angry chefs dumping perfectly good food in the trash on account of it being not literally perfect.
Anthony Bourdain, with the publication of Kitchen Confidential, might be the catalyst that kicked off this sea change in the way the American public viewed the world of fine dining. He was a tatted up chef with an attitude who also happened to be quite the writer. This soon led to a handful of hit TV shows, a couple of books, and a high-profile life — a life that ended long before its time.
Where Bourdain differs from the sweatier, angrier versions of his image who appeared on television in his wake, and who I dismissed in the first paragraph, is that while I’m sure he was no stranger to screaming at underlings and throwing food, he didn’t seem to be putting on airs for an audience — and really, as a guy who wasn’t yet a superstar, he couldn’t have been. His prickliness was real. But under the hard edge was a curious mind — food was just a way in. Bourdain viewed the dinner table as a cultural universality. No matter who you are, where you’re from, and what you believe, you gotta eat dinner. And depending on who you are, where you’re from, and what you believe, said dinner can take on many forms. Bourdain the writer showed us what goes on behind the scenes at a restaurant — Bourdain the traveler showed us the world. What began with food soon became a project about culture, then about humanity itself. By illustrating a bond between all humans through the shared ritual of eating, Bourdain was able to dissolve stereotypes, connect to distant cultures, and occasionally eat some really crazy stuff.
In fact, a few years back when I shared a story about being unable to wrap my head around the consumption of chicken feet at a dim sum restaurant, a friend told me I missed out on a flavorful treat, and then advised “sometimes ya gotta channel that inner Bourdain and take a bite.” It stuck with me, and now I’ll try anything. Not octopus though. Fuck those monsters.
Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain captures the essence of Bourdain’s powerful personality while also giving a play by play of his career, personal life, and eventual passing. From his early days as a heroin-addicted chef, to his stumble-start as a documentarian, to his tenure as travel laureate of the world, to his turbulent final days, it’s all there. Talking heads speak of “Tony” candidly, showing as much reverence for all of his lovable characteristics as they do disdain for the times he disappointed them. This is all intercut with footage from his travels and his life, as well as cinematic interstitials, complete with Bourdain’s own narration, that was presumably shot/recorded before he passed.**
Morgan Neville (20 Feet From Stardom, Won’t You Be My Neighbor) has put together a film that feels like as much like an Anthony Bourdain autobiographical piece as a posthumous movie could be, which I imagine was the goal. Fans of Bourdain are sure to love it, while folks like me, who hate “yes, chef” culture, and who don’t have too too much of a history with Bourdain will be inspired to dive further into his work (I wasn’t going to read Kitchen Confidential before, but I want to now). As a writer who can cook pretty well, who has worked in restaurants, and who has a similar addictive personality, I found myself looking inward while watching a movie that’s supposed to make me think about someone else. That’s a good thing indeed.
Some folks will likely brush up against the movie’s final act, which makes the connection between Bourdain’s addictive personality, his romance with Asia Argento, and the decline of his work. While it doesn’t explicitly say that Argento and her support of the Me Too movement (which Bourdain fell into pretty intensely in his final days) are responsible for his death, the film does draw a pretty strong connection. I’m sure this will upset plenty of viewers, and understandably so, especially since Argento is not spoken to in the film. Personally, I think the movie plays pretty fair with it all, maintaining the frank tone it has established from the very beginning. Had it been Bernadette Peters and March of Dimes instead of Asia Argento and Me Too, the film would’ve covered it all the same. And since Argento stands accused of the same behavior she decries (and we mostly ignored it because reasons), I’m not overly concerned about a film painting her in a somewhat villainous light. That said, her absence from the film is a missed opportunity to add a little more depth to the story.
By the time the film reaches the home stretch, and we watch the face of Anthony Bourdain grow tired and despondent, it almost seems impossible that no one saw his eventual suicide coming, but I guess that’s how things like this go. You can’t always tell. Even the artful interstitial footage shows signs of a man whose happiness has faded. This assumption, however, is made with his passing in hindsight. When the footage was shot, everyone probably saw his sleepy eyes as wizened by a life well-lived. As such, Roadrunner moves beyond celebrating a legendary life and an incredible body of work. It goes beyond documenting the cultural force that was Anthony Bourdain. In its final form, Roadrunner is a reminder of the message embodied by its subject: be open, do the things, ask for help if you need it.
So yes, I still get bothered by celebrity chefs (except Guy Fieri, he’s the man) and the culture that lets many of them be what they are, and for that I can partially blame Anthony Bourdain. But I’m also inspired to travel the world with an open mind, experience new things, and dive into life with the enthusiasm and curiosity of a half drunk, former heroin addict who just wants to experience something real, man. And for that I can thank Anthony Bourdain, as I’m sure plenty of others will agree.