Anthony Bourdain had a profound influence on television during his 16 years on the air, thanks to his immense talent and the fortuitous timing of his rise to prominence.
Bourdain parlayed the success of his 2000 memoir “Kitchen Confidential” into his first TV series just as the expansion of the cable TV universe created huge new demand for all manner of niche programming. Food Network and other lifestyle-focused cablers such as Bravo and TLC grew by leaps and bounds in the early 2000s, which helped to fuel mainstream interest in the culinary world and its stars. This expansion opened the door for Bourdain to thrive in his signature hybrid food-travelogue format.
“He shows you that there was a story behind the chef and a story behind every plate of food,” says Allen Salkin, a veteran food writer and author of the Food Network history “From Scratch.”
“Even a show like ‘Top Chef’ shows Bourdain’s influence because that show is really about showing the artistry and soulfulness of cooking. We can now see that these people are artists trying to present there work to the world. Before Bourdain, food shows were really just, ‘Here’s a way to cook something easy for your family,'” Salkin says.
Through his writing and his TV shows, Bourdain lent a rock-star aura and swagger to his profession, just as prominent chefs were finding easy onramps to TV. He also offered a glimpse into the priesthood of chefs and the level of skill and dedication it takes to run a restaurant and be a professional cook.
“I am just devastated. (Bourdain) was such a leader for us in so many ways both in and out of the kitchen. It’s a sad day,” said restauranteur Geoffrey Zakarian, an “Iron Chef” winner and a ubiquitous presence on Food Network.
Bourdain famously savaged Food Network in its early days, but then wound up doing his first series, “A Cook’s Tour,” for the cabler in 2002-2003. From there he moved to a long run on Travel Channel with “No Expectations.” He relocated to CNN in 2013 with “Parts Unknown.”
His TV persona was not much different from the person he was off camera, friends and colleagues say.
“Anthony Bourdain had a passion for food and travel and he never shied away from offering his opinions, which is what his devoted audience enjoyed most about watching him,” said Kathleen Finch, who oversees Food Network as chief lifestyle brands officer for Discovery.
“His writing was so good and his TV persona was such a dangerous cocktail that you couldn’t stop watching,” Salkin said. “That’s who he was.”
Bourdain’s interest in exploring the world and understanding far-flung cultures through food helped open up America’s palettes to culinary traditions from the rest of the world, said Judy Joo, a U.K. “Iron Chef” winner and host of Food Network’s “Korean Food Made Simple.”
“He stood up for the truth and told us stories from every corner of the world, unapologetically,” Joo said. “His raw style and candor made him a true pioneer for food, travel, and television, merging the three genres into an adventure that made the world a little smaller, connecting us all.”
Bourdain’s entry to television came through a cold call he received from producer Lydia Tenaglia, who was impressed by “Kitchen Confidential.” That led to “A Cook’s Tour,” a show shot on a shoestring budget that Bourdain described last year as Tenaglia and her partner Chris Collins “walking backwards (with cameras) through Asia with me.”
Bourdain’s partnership with Tenaglia’s Zero Point Zero Productions endured for the rest of his life. In addition to “Parts Unknown,” Bourdain and Zero Point Zero recently produced a documentary feature on influential chef Jeremiah Tower, “Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent.”
Bourdain also ventured into the scripted arena. He penned several episodes of the 2010-2013 HBO drama “Treme,” which was set in New Orleans. In 2005, Fox made a short-lived romantic comedy out of “Kitchen Confidential” toplined by future A-lister Bradley Cooper.
Speaking at the Produced By NY conference last October. Bourdain said it took some time to get comfortable being on camera. He expected that the crew would film him “over the shoulder as I ate,” he said. “The first time Lydia said ‘OK look at the camera, tell us where are we and what you expect to find,’ I was stunned.”
A turning point for Bourdain’s TV work came in 2006 in Beirut, when he and crew members got stuck when deadly violence broke out between Israel and Hezbollah forces. At first, Bourdain was determined not to exploit the tragedy in his “No Reservations” series for Travel. But he wound up writing a dark commentary for the closing segment that profoundly influenced his future work.
From that point on it changed everything for me,” he said in October. He made a commitment to himself that he would “never again to ignore the elephant in the room” while shooting the show.