Anthony Bourdain — rugged, unrefined and vulgar — was beloved worldwide. Watching his shows felt like touring the globe with a friend who was desperate to share a perfect meal with you. One night, you’re heading to Tehran for a home-cooked Persian feast. Next, you’re sitting on a plastic chair in a small noodle shop in Hanoi, Vietnam, sharing a cold beer and bowl of grilled pork with then-President Barack Obama.
Bourdain seemed to relish these adventures and was apparently madly in love with his new girlfriend, actress Asia Argento, so it was a huge shock to fans and friends when he killed himself in 2018.
A new film explores Bourdain’s career — from line cook, to author, to TV celebrity — plus the weeks leading up to his death. It’s called “Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain.”
Its director, Academy Award winner Morgan Neville, tells KCRW that Bourdain’s TV producers discovered he was shy and had a tough time looking people in the eye when speaking with them.
“[He] really had to figure out how to be himself on television. In no way was he a natural. What he was was smart and quick and funny. And he just had to figure out how to do that on camera, which he did, and did it incredibly well.”
Neville says Bourdain’s hunger for knowledge allowed him to excel onscreen. “He read voraciously and retained everything he read. So he had this incredible storage of knowledge. And then once he had the chance to travel, it was like he’d been training for that job for decades. And suddenly he realized, ‘Oh, everything I know and everything I can do, I can channel it.’”
He adds, “[Bourdain] understood that he was leaving behind the things that … kept him moored to a more sane life. And suddenly … traveling 250 days a year with something that was exciting on the one hand, but also totally frightening.”
Taking on fatherhood
After divorcing his first wife, Bourdain remarried and had a daughter, Ariane. Neville says her birth added stability to his life.
“People who knew Tony as a chef could never, ever have imagined that this guy would have a child,” he says. “[He] really makes a real run at trying to be a domestic, as Tony would say, ‘50s TV dad’ in the backyard at the barbecue, cooking hot dogs and trying to entertain the neighbors.”
But he notes that Bourdain’s role as a father didn’t sway his hunger to travel.
“There was always this ‘siren’s call of the road’. … His extreme restlessness of wanderlust, I think, was both one of his strengths and also one of his weaknesses.”
Exploitation or exposure?
According to Neville, Bourdain was initially shocked that anyone would pay him to travel, but as he became more prominent, he grew hyper aware of potentially exploiting the communities he visited.
“Once he got to CNN and … his fame and the scope and depth of the show grew