Believe or not, Anthony Bourdain has a truly criminal mind.
Oh, sure, you might have gotten hints of his felonious character in the pages of his wildly entertaining memoir, Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly, or on the small screen as the former chef travels the world eating strange things and getting into trouble on No Reservations and Parts Unknown.
But what even hardcore fans and casual foodies probably don’t know is that Bourdain not only has a serious jones for crime fiction but he’s one of the genre’s most gifted practitioners. They say to write what you know, and Bourdain does it to perfection by writing about the strange intersection of crime and cooking in three deft novels, two outlandish graphic novels, and one hard-to-categorize urban historical.
The One-Two Punch
Long before Kitchen Confidential was even a glimmer in the chef’s eye, Bourdain was already a well-established crime novelist. His debut novel, Bone in the Throat, was published in 1995. The book is about an up-and-coming chef, Tommy Pagano, and his misadventures working around the mob in Little Italy. While it’s clearly the work of a novice writer, it’s here that Bourdain starts to captures the sounds and smell and blistering heat of a working kitchen while also developing his own twisted sense of humor. This gets real obvious when Tommy has to explain how a hit man entered his kitchen but isn’t seen leaving.
“I’m sorry I couldn’t say anything,” Tommy tells his boss. “I mean, what am I gonna say, ‘Sorry chef, I had a couple of friends over last night and they sort of chopped a guy up with your knife and I think it’s maybe damaged a little bit’?”
The author starts to stretch with his 1997 follow-up Gone Bamboo, which follows a CIA-trained assassin and his wife down to the Caribbean for semi-retirement until a mob boss in the witness protection program screws everything up. It’s a wackier setup more suited to readers who enjoy the late Elmore Leonard but Bourdain’s mouth-watering descriptions of island grills and five-star restaurants are sure to leave them hungry for more.
The Pièce de Résistance: Bobby Gold and Typhoid Mary
Bourdain has admitted plenty of times that fame and his work on television puts a dent in his writing. That may be why two of his best works came directly on the heels of Kitchen Confidential’s publication in 2000. In 2001, the chef published two new short works that demonstrate his writing at its peak.
The first is a strange experiment that attempts to humanize a woman who has long since been demonized by history. In Typhoid Mary: An Urban Historical, Bourdain pays homage to Mary Mallon, the Irish cook who became an asymptomatic carrier of typhoid fever, leading her to infect at least 50 people during her term as a cook. In a gentle remembrance, Bourdain describes traveling to Mallon’s grave in the Bronx to lay his first chef’s knife at her resting place.
Something a fellow cook would appreciate, I hoped – a once fine hunk of quality French steel – a magical fetish, a beloved piece of my personal history. And a sign of respect, I hoped, an indicator that somebody, somewhere, even long after her troubles and her dying, took her seriously, understood, if only a little bit, the difficulty of her life as a cook. It’s the king of gift I would like to receive, one that I would understand.
I looked around the graveyard, making sure that no one else was watching, leaned over and with my hands, pulled back the grass at the base of her stone. I slipped my knife down there, covered it up the way it had looked before and left it for her. It was the least I could do.
A gift. Cook to cook.
Bourdain followed up this delicate wonder with his finest work, a slender, vicious portrait of a New York bonebreaker, Bobby Gold. It’s an incredible book not because its prose is florid but because Bourdain has stripped the novel down just its elemental parts, like a chef breaking down a side of beef. It opens on Bobby in the seventies, already in trouble.
Bobby Gold at twenty-one, in a red-and-white Dead Boys T-shirt, blue jeans, high-top Nikes and handcuffs, bending over the hood of the State Police cruiser, arms behind his back, wished he was anywhere but here.
The novel picks up after Bobby’s prison stint when he’s the security chief for a mobbed-up nightclub and part-time enforcer for Eddie Fish, his drug-addled best friend. Of course Bobby falls in love with a troubled chef, Nikki, who makes Bobby a dish when he stops by the restaurant.
In went the crayfish tails, the mushrooms, and the truffle peeling. She reached down into the oven, a side towel protecting her hand, and removed the fish. In a small saucepan, Bobby watched as she heated a little sauce from the cooling crock a few stations down, whisked in a little knob of whole butter, lowered the flame. Pulling the risotto off the stove, she folded in some arugula, then carefully piled a neat mound in the center of a plate, spun back to the stove and gingerly transferred the fish from pan to plate, resting it at an angle atop the risotto. When the sauce seemed reduced to her liking, she drizzled some around the plate with a large spoon, then stopped back to examine her work, seemingly unsatisfied with something. She reached for a bottle of truffle oil over Lenny’s station, reconsidered, and then, looking both ways, quickly dodged back into Lenny’s lowboy and removed a single, fresh white truffle from inside a moist towel.
In the end, Bobby gets away, but not clean.
Bobby Gold, in a purple and blue sarong, feet bare, drank Tiger beer and watched children washing their hair in dark, brown, muddy water at the riverbank. A water buffalo strained to pull a plow with a missing wheel in a rice paddy in the distance. A khmer in a khaki shirt and shorts, a red karma covering his head from the sun, collected sticks from the roadside. Bobby brushed a persistent fly away from the corner of his mouth and lit another 555, sat there smoking, yearning for pizza.
Viewer’s Advisory: Graphic Content
In recent years, Bourdain has mostly limited himself to TV appearances, the occasional article, and semi-sequels to Kitchen Confidential. But one aberrant experiment takes the author in a whole new direction.
In 2012, Bourdain collaborated with co-writer Joe Rose and artist Langdon Foss for Get Jiro!, a graphic novel published by Vertigo Comics. It’s a wildly visceral comic book about a former Yakuza enforcer turned sushi chef and Bourdain obviously likes the character because he followed the graphic novel up this year with a sequel, Get Jiro: Blood and Sushi. Bourdain explained his interests in an interview with Amazon.
“I think the explosion of interest in chefs and restaurants is certainly easy fodder for satire,” he said. “But my motivation was really nothing more than to help tell a story that would be fun, extremely bloody, beautifully illustrated–and insanely detailed as to the specifics of cooking and eating. I’m a big fan of classic Japanese cinema, Hammett’s Red Harvest, spaghetti westerns and food–so these were obvious elements.”
There’s a scene in Kitchen Confidential where the chef describes one of his low points, when he arrived at yet another cooking gig to find guys breaking down machine guns in the kitchen. Bourdain’s career in fiction simply takes that intersection between crime and cooking and extrapolates it to an extreme degree. Bourdain summed his interests up well in a recent interview with Rain Taxi Magazine.
“I’m a crime buff,” Bourdain said. “What is the great American family television show? It’s The Sopranos. There’s no more accurate representation of the average American family. You have to go to an organized crime family to see what Americans really live like and how they talk at home. So, in a sense, it’s just a comfortable way to explore the kind of social relationships I’m familiar with. Organized crime, much like real life, is not The Godfather. Somebody makes a mistake, they screw up, they don’t get whacked, it’s not the end of the world. People betray each other in small ways all the time. You make a decision, and you move on, you try to do the best you can. So it’s a comfortable world, it’s a familiar world, and it sounds good to me. I like the way they talk. They’re funny guys. Almost all of them. And they eat, and eat well.”
Bourdain may not have the literary output that his fans might hope but there’s no doubt that his work has made an impact both on the crime genre and the literary world. Indeed, his two worlds often intersect on his television programs, which have featured partners-in-crime like Scottish crime novelist Ian Rankin, transgressive fiction sensation Chuck Palahniuk and genuine literary legend Jim Harrison. Perhaps when all the celebrity dies down, Anthony Bourdain will return to the keyboard to pound out more sensational tales of crime, cuisine, and the human condition. One can almost picture it: the author typing away in some exotic locale, spilling out the fictions that originated in his own kitchens, and yearning for pizza…
Coda: Anthony Bourdain died by suicide on June 8, 2018, in his hotel room in the Alsace region of France. He was 61 years old. In September, he won multiple posthumous Emmy Awards for his work on his CNN show Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown. Following his death, President Barack Obama said: “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.”