Anthony Bourdain traveled the world in search of indigenous food and untold stories but struggled with profound loneliness. In this week’s cover story, we honor the food rebel’s final days, and his unconventional rise to fame that would touch the lives of millions.
Bourdain died of an apparent suicide inside his hotel room in Kaysersberg, a small village in the Alsace region of France, where he was filming an episode of Parts Unknown, the CNN series that chronicled the travel host’s quest for culture and cuisine. He was 61.
Those around him in the weeks before his death noticed a lighter mood, especially since the release of the June 3 Hong Kong episode of Parts Unknown, which his girlfriend Asia Argento directed.
“When I was working with him last week, he was giddy,” says CNN publicist Karen Reynolds. “He was texting me and e-mailing me, which he doesn’t normally do.”
But spending some 250 days of the year on the road also took its toll. “Travel can be a struggle, because sometimes it’s easier to think of the place you’d rather be,” says Bourdain’s longtime photographer David Holloway. “He would rave about Rome, where his girlfriend lived. He would say it’s an amazing city to fall in love in.”
Raised with his brother Christopher in Leonia, N.J., by Gladys, an editor for The New York Times, and his late father, Pierre, a music industry executive, Bourdain had what he described as a “pretty normal” family: “We all ate together. I found it kind of oppressive, actually,” he told People in 2016. “I envied the broken homes of my friends because they were left alone to misbehave unsupervised.”
After two years at Vassar College, he dropped out to attend the Culinary Institute of America and eventually work as a chef where he would find the trouble he was looking for. In the 1980s Bourdain bounced from job to job at restaurants in New York City while struggling with a serious drug addiction.
He eventually got clean in the early ’90s, and while working as the executive chef at French brasserie Les Halles in 1999, Bourdain solidified his role as a cook and a talented writer when his essay “Don’t Eat Before Reading This” was published in The New Yorker. He later expanded the article in his tell-all bestselling memoir Kitchen Confidential, which would make him famous.
He landed his first television show—A Cook’s Tour on the Food Network—at age 44 and in 2005 began hosting No Reservations on the Travel Channel. In 2013—by then wed to Ottavia Busia and a father—he launched Parts Unknown. It was a career he cherished. “I have the best job in the world,” he told People. “I decide where we go. If I’m not having a good time, it’s nobody’s fault, it’s a failure of the imagination.”
In 17 years on the road, Bourdain visited nearly 100 countries and left an unparalleled mark on the food industry—and the world.
“Tony’s thoughts connected with people,” says photographer Holloway. “Everyone has a picture and a story. These are real moments, because Tony was honest. People feel an honest loss.”
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.