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'An Almost Volcanic Life Force': Writer Recalls Anthony Bourdain


This morning we report on the death of a man who bounded across television screens filled with life. Anthony Bourdain has died. He took his own life, we're told, while in France recording an episode of his CNN program "Parts Unknown," which took him around the world. Patrick Radden Keefe of The New Yorker magazine wrote a profile of Bourdain in 2017, and he's on the line. Welcome to the program, sir.


INSKEEP: We don't know a lot at this point about Bourdain's death except that he was found by a friend unresponsive in a hotel room in what's believed to be a suicide. What went through your mind when you heard that news?

KEEFE: Well, it's a huge shock because this guy was an almost volcanic life force. It's hard to think of somebody who had a more irrepressible lust for life than Bourdain. But there had also been a lot of darkness in his life, and I suppose in that respect - it's shocking, but there may be aspects of his personality that would mean that this is perhaps less surprising than at first blush one might think.

INSKEEP: What was the darkness?

KEEFE: Well, he had struggled as a younger man with addiction and overcome it and reinvented himself many, many times. You know, he was a chef, and then became a writer and then a TV host. And in the time I spent with him - I reported a piece over the course of a year - there were often these strains. He would talk about death. He would talk about dark moments. And he sometimes said that part of the reason he was so frenetically active, traveling around the world constantly, doing these new programs, was that he worried a little bit about what would happen if he was left on his own.

INSKEEP: Meaning that he was fending off darkness, perhaps, through his energetic travels around the world?

KEEFE: Yeah. I think he would have said that himself. Look, I don't mean to suggest that I or anyone else could have in any way seen this coming. It's a massive shock. But I think that one aspect of Tony's personality was that there was this amazing kind of lust for life, and that that was twinned with a darker cast.

INSKEEP: Well, let's talk about where that lust took him. We should mention that he started at the bottom, in a way. He spoke with the public radio program Fresh Air in October 2016 and recalled that one of his first jobs in the kitchen was not as a chef, but as a dishwasher. Let's listen.


ANTHONY BOURDAIN: It was very hard work. You had to be there on time. There were certain absolute rules. And, for whatever reason, I responded to that. It was a mix of chaos but also considerable order that I guess I needed at the time.

INSKEEP: How did the dishwasher become a celebrity chef?

KEEFE: Slowly. I mean, it didn't happen until mid-life, really. He was in his mid-40s. And he wasn't a celebrity chef. He was a guy grilling steaks and dunking french fries. And he wrote his way out of the kitchen. That's how it happened is, he wrote a memoir, "Kitchen Confidential," which kind of put him on the map, and then from there had the opportunity to do this television show where he - as he put it to me - you know, I travel around the world, I go wherever I want, and I eat fun things and meet interesting people. What's not to like?

INSKEEP: Yeah. That's a cleaned-up version of the quote that you have in your New Yorker article.

KEEFE: (Laughter).

INSKEEP: We can refer people to the article for the more earthy version of that. I don't think that I realized that the program had been around so long, I guess, under different names and on different networks for about a decade and a half, right?

KEEFE: Yeah. It's had different iterations on different networks. And it kind of evolved, but the DNA has always been the same. And I think by the time he got to CNN, he had a huge amount of creative freedom, big budgets. He'd already been to about a hundred countries. So in many instances, he was trying to find new places to go. But that's part of what's so devastating about this. Even last week, there was a Hong Kong episode that he was really excited about that aired with a cinematographer, Christopher Doyle, who he had been obsessed with for years and talked to me a couple of years ago about how badly he wanted to work with this guy. And so that was a small dream come true. It's really astonishing to think that we've lost him.

INSKEEP: Let's listen to a little bit more of Anthony Bourdain. And he's talking here about traveling for this program that was about food but really exposing the culture and realities of different places.


BOURDAIN: The response I'm looking for is to hear from someone from the neighborhood saying, how did you ever find that place? I thought only we knew about it. It's, you know, truly a place that we love and is reflective of our culture and our neighborhood. But on the other hand, that's kind of a destructive process because if I name the place - and I don't always, when it's a place like that - I've changed it. The next time I go back, there's tourists.

INSKEEP: Patrick Radden Keefe, I just want to mention when I've traveled in places like Israel or Iran, one of the things that I've typically heard at some point in my traveling and reporting is, did you see what Anthony Bourdain did when he was here?

KEEFE: (Laughter). Yeah. It's an amazing thing to think about. He took that kind of credo of authenticity and of understanding people on their own terms really seriously. And I think one of the results is that he went to a lot of places that, first of all, TV programs don't go. And if you talk to the people who are there, they often feel as though he got them right, which is no easy thing to do.

INSKEEP: Patrick Radden Keefe, thanks very much. Really appreciate it.

KEEFE: Thank you.

INSKEEP: He is a writer for The New Yorker. He profiled Anthony Bourdain, the chef who's program, "Parts Unknown," was on CNN. He was filming an episode of that program when he was found dead in his hotel room in France, an apparent suicide. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: June 8, 2018 at 9:00 PM PDT
A previous introduction to this transcript incorrectly described it as a conversation between David Greene and Michael Ruhlman. This is a transcript of a conversation between Steve Inskeep and Patrick Radden Keefe.