He was a wry novelist, a brilliant magazine writer, and a comics creator for the ages

By David Canfield
June 08, 2018 at 12:22 PM EDT
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Over the course of 2018 so far, Dark Horse Comics had published four issues of Hungry Ghosts, a new horror comics series helmed by Anthony Bourdain and novelist Joel Rose. (The fourth and final installment was released in May.) A gorgeous, haunting, at times gruesome saga that draws from the Japanese mythologies yokai, yorei, and obake, and mixes terrifying suspense with fascinating culinary intrigue, Hungry Ghosts cements an underrated literary legacy of Bourdain, who died Friday.

The comics’ plot begins at a party, with a Russian Oligarch inviting a group of international chefs working in his kitchen to play the samurai game of 100 Candles. What follows is an alternately spooky and gorgeous series of anecdotes, each rendered visually striking, as the chefs meditate on food, hunger, and so much else. The first story features the spooky tale of a ramen chef whose decision not to give a beggar a meal comes back to bite him — and it lingers in the mind long past the final page.

Barring any potential posthumous releases, Hungry Ghosts is the final published work of Bourdain and a strong argument for his literary talents. Written along with Rose, his partner behind the equally exemplary Get Jiro! comics, each installment offered a window into Bourdain’s singular sensibility, his ability to interweave the macabre with the poignant, the tasty with the gross. He made a name for himself via cookbooks and his dynamic television personality, but for decades, those who read Bourdain’s work knew his special gifts on the page.

His feel for comics, and his ability to mold the form to his own strengths and insights, was clear from Hungry Ghosts, which will be published as a hardcover by Berger Books in October. He also brought verve and vibrancy to magazine writing. In the April 19, 1999 issue of The New Yorker, Bourdain made his debut in the esteemed publication with the essay “Don’t Eat Before Reading This,” which arguably launched the celeb chef to fame. He provides insider’s knowledge in the wry, forthright tone he’d become beloved for, guiding readers through restaurant dos and don’ts and offering his own provocative opinions. What also shines through, perhaps most clearly, is a real affection for all things food, translated through vivid descriptive writing. Consider this passage a good example of how emotionally deep Bourdain could go.

The essay, which New Yorker editor David Remnick said was given to him as an unsolicited manuscript, would lead to the publication of Bourdain’s famed book Kitchen Confidential and much else. Two years after “Don’t Eat” hit newsstands, Bourdain won Best Food Writing from Bon Appetite magazine. And he’d publish several more books on food, including his TV show companion No Reservations and his 2010 take on his rising stardom, Medium Raw.

And yet, before all that, even his New Yorker debut, Bourdain had already established himself as a writer among a select few — as a novelist. His debut, Bone in the Throat, was originally published in 1995 and then reissued in paperback in 2000, shortly after his breakout. It’s a story of an up-and-coming chef lured into the crime world, a juicy mafia story more notable for the fun Bourdain seems to be having than its originality. He’d follow that up with more witty crime capers, including the marital saga Gone Bamboo (1997) and The Bobby Gold Stories (2001).

Over the course of his career, Bourdain wrote about a lot. There was a palpable love of food, to be sure, a feel for the frenzied culinary world. But like any great writer, what was most obvious in his prose, his many creations, was something more fundamental — and, in the case of his untimely passing, more tragic: a love of storytelling.