Born on June 25, 1956, in New York City and raised in New Jersey, Anthony Bourdain knew he’d be a chef while vacationing on the coast on France with his parents as a boy. A local fisherman offered him an oyster fresh from the sea; he ate it, and “That was it, man,” Bourdain said in a Biography.com interview. “That was it.”
Bourdain graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in 1978 and worked his way up through the restaurant business, becoming executive chef at New York City’s Brasserie Les Halles in 1998. It was during his time there he wrote an essay for The New Yorker, “Don’t Eat Before Reading This,” that transformed how people thought about dining out and started Bourdain on a secondary path: that of author.
The chef left Les Halles sometime around 2000, and released his first book, Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly, which became a New York Times best seller and exposed the underside of the restaurant industry.
“I wrote it in a voice that’s familiar to anyone cooking, working in a kitchen at that level,” he told Entertainment Weekly 10 years after the book’s release. “It was obnoxious and over-testosteroned, and would be certainly to somebody who doesn’t recognize that dialect. But it’s like slipping into a warm bath for a lot of people who spent a lot of time in the restaurant business. It was an honest reflection of how I talked in the kitchen.”
He went on to pen several more books about the restaurant industry and cooking, as well as a comic book series and some works of fiction.
Bourdain (here in a throwback Instagram photo) spoke openly about his struggles with drugs and alcohol, telling PEOPLE in a 2018 interview, “I was a heroin addict, for sure, and I was a cocaine addict.” He went on to discuss his relationship with alchol, saying, “I think my last years working in the restaurant industry, I was definitely drinking too much, because alcohol was around me at all times and you were under tremendous stress.”
His success in the culinary and literary worlds also translated to the small screen. From 2002-2003 he led the Food Network’s A Cook’s Tour, on which he traveled to exotic locales to try the cuisine.
Bourdain followed up with the Travel Channel’s No Reservations, which had a similar premise to A Cook’s Tour and often featured his famous foodie friends. That ended in 2012, just after he started The Layover, also on The Travel Channel; the series tailed him as he crammed as much as he could into a 24- to 48-hour stay in a city.
“The Layover was hard on me,” he told Eater in 2012. “It was hard with that much food and liquor in a two-day shooting period, back-to-back-to-back. And that’s after shooting No Reservations.“
He didn’t slow down for long, though, serving as a judge on ABC’s The Taste and launching his most recent series, CNN’s popular Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown, which started in 2013. The show earned four consecutive Primetime Emmy Awards, from 2013 to 2016.
President Barack Obama was even a guest on Parts Unknown; in this 2016 clip, Bourdain teaches him to properly “slurp” noodles in Hanoi, Vietnam.
Obama tweeted a tribute to Bourdain following his death, writing, ” ‘Low plastic stool, cheap but delicious noodles, cold Hanoi beer.’ This is how I’ll remember Tony. He taught us about food — but more importantly, about its ability to bring us together. To make us a little less afraid of the unknown. We’ll miss him.”
Following the 2016 win, Bourdain addressed the press room, joking, “I’ve screwed up my life in every possible way a human being could screw up their life. Every real awful decision that a person can make — standing there dunking French fries at age 44 with no future — and it seems to have worked out. Failing upwards, I’m a big believer in that.”
Bourdain was also a popular guest on a host of food-related shows, including Top Chef, on which he was known for being brutally honest with contestants.
Bourdain was married to high school sweetheart Nancy Putkoski from 1985 to 2005, then married Ottavia Busia (pictured) in 2007. He and Busia welcomed daughter Ariane that same year. But after nine years of marriage, the couple separated in 2016.
Following the news, Busia said, “Because of professional decisions we both have made, my husband and I have been for years in an unconventional relationship. Nothing has changed. We love each other. We respect the decisions the other has made. And we’ll always consider ourselves a family.”
Though he generally kept her face covered on social media, Bourdain took Ariane along on several shoots, and often said he spent all of his free time in New York City cooking for and hanging out with her.
“Before first grade, it’s no problem, you pull her out of school for five or six days. [She’s been to] Sardinia, Tuscany, Naples … Hawaii … Jamaica.”
In his final interview with PEOPLE in 2018, he said he felt “some responsibility” to “at least try to live” since his daughter was born.
“I also do feel I have things to live for,” Bourdain explained. “There have been times, honestly, in my life that I figured, ‘I’ve had a good run — why not just do this stupid thing, this selfish thing … jump off a cliff into water of indeterminate depth,’” he said, recalling something he said he’d once done for his Travel Channel show.
He also described how, before his daughter’s arrival, he would “go to places” where “I was, frankly, asking for trouble. It was a daredevil move.” But now, “in retrospect, I don’t know that I would do that today — now that I’m a dad or reasonably happy.”
Most recently, Bourdain was dating Rome-based actress Asia Argento. In 2018, he told PEOPLE she’d softened him a bit, adding, “I’m happier for sure. It’s nice to be with somebody who I see as a peer.”
In the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal, Argento revealed to The New Yorker that she’d been assaulted by the producer. Bourdain was a vocal supporter of his girlfriend, and as the #MeToo movement moved from Hollywood into the culinary world, he spoke out against chefs and restaurateurs who’d also assaulted and harassed women in the workplace.
While working, Bourdain always reserved five days to be home with his daughter and as much time as he could to be with Argento — sometimes together.
“I want to spend as much time with her as I can,” he told PEOPLE of his girlfriend, adding he wouldn’t mind settling down with her in New York City, near his daughter. But “we’ve both been married twice, so that’s not something that’s ever, ever going to happen. That’s the death of everything. I think we both respect each other’s work. Work first.”
On June 8, 2018, news broke that Bourdain was found dead of an apparent suicide in a hotel room in France, where he’d been shooting Parts Unknown with longtime friend Eric Ripert. He was 61.
If you or someone you know is considering suicide, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), text “help” to the Crisis Text Line at 741-741 or go to suicidepreventionlifeline.org.
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