Beyond Roadrunner: Why Anthony Bourdain was his own best storyteller
Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain (2021 movie)
When setting out to make Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain, director Morgan Neville's goal, as stated in the documentary, was "to make a film about why [Bourdain] was who he was." Suffice it to say there's been some disagreement over how well the film achieves that goal. (EW's Leah Greenblatt wrote the film "feels like an essential document, created in the radical no-reservations spirit in which he lived" in her A- review; other responses have run from calling it a "fascinating, moving documentary" to "invasive," an "encyclopedia-like info-product," and "larded over with doomy foreshadowing at every edit.") There's no question that Roadrunner struggles mightily to solve the mystery of Anthony Bourdain, and to complicate the picture of the beloved chef that's sunk deep into the cultural fabric. Bourdain's collaborators attest to how prickly and moody he could be; intimate footage chronicles what Bourdain was like off screen; friends and archival clips of Bourdain himself emphasize that he didn't want to be remembered as some kind of mythic figure.
The problem, though, is that Roadrunner can't do a better job of explaining Bourdain than Bourdain himself did. Watching the film, I felt that I was never getting much insight I couldn't get from Bourdain's own writings and TV shows, which Roadrunner samples in ways that largely blunt their impact. Returning to them is ultimately a much richer experience, and while it's perhaps unfair to compare a two-hour documentary to someone's life's work, it's puzzling that the film would come up so short with such a deep well of material to delve into. It's also unsurprising that the doc is at its best when Bourdain is telling his own story; after all, he became the Anthony Bourdain we know because he was so gifted at doing so.
If you found yourself wanting to delve deeper after watching Roadrunner, here are the best places to start.
Roadrunner's narrative begins with the publication of the 2000 memoir that propelled Bourdain to stardom, which is also the best starting point for anyone trying to understand the beloved chef. Kitchen Confidential remains a bracing combination of autobiography, restaurant-industry exposé, and Hunter Thompson-esque chronicle of debauchery, even if its depiction of the toxically masculine kitchen environment reads more queasily than it used to. (This is something Bourdain himself acknowledged amid the #MeToo movement, writing in 2017, "To the extent which my work in Kitchen Confidential celebrated or prolonged a culture that allowed the kind of grotesque behaviors we're hearing about all too frequently is something I think about daily, with real remorse.")
That's partly why the autobiography elements are the most compelling now, chronicling Bourdain's early adventures with food and the culinary trade. A key moment early in the book is Bourdain's recollection of eating a raw oyster for the first time during a childhood trip to France. "Spite, always a great motivating force in my life, caused me to become suddenly adventurous where food was concerned," he writes. "I decided then and there to outdo my foodie parents… I'd show them who the gourmet was!"
After the oyster, he continues, "I had had an adventure, tasted forbidden fruit and everything that followed in my life — the food, the long and often stupid and self-destructive chase for the next thing, whether it was drugs or sex or some other new sensation — would all stem from this moment."
In other words, the darkness that Roadrunner treats as Another Side of Anthony Bourdain was never really hidden. Kitchen Confidential is strikingly confessional, filled with excerpts from Bourdain's days as a hedonistic thrill-seeker and drug addict, a past that hangs heavily over Roadrunner while going oddly underexplored in the film. He reflects on his life frankly, in the raw, seemingly unfiltered voice and persona that would come to define his TV work: "[When I die], I will decidedly not be regretting missed opportunities for a good time," Bourdain writes late in the book. "My regrets will be more along the lines of a sad list of people hurt, people let down, assets wasted, and advantages squandered."
Kitchen Confidential also foreshadows Bourdain's future travelogue shows with "Mission to Tokyo," a chapter chronicling a trip Bourdain took to Japan in 1999. He recounts "the most incredible meal of [his] life," course after course at an underground sushi bar, which Bourdain describes with rapturous, sensuous detail. He marvels at the culture of the city, enraptured by it, determined to take everything in.
"I did not want to leave. I had only begun to eat," he writes. "There were a million restaurants, bars, temples, back alleys, nightclubs, neighborhoods and markets to explore… This was excitement, romance, adventure — and there was so much more of it, too much more of it for even another month, another year, another decade to adequately contain my investigations."
And most poignantly, the book now functions as a window into the life Bourdain left behind, and the happiness and security he felt while ensconced in it. "I think I'll swing by Les Halles" — the New York brasserie where Bourdain was executive chef at the time — "and do a little expediting. I feel safe there," he wrote in a new preface shortly after Kitchen Confidential was published to massive success. It feels perhaps overly grandiose to call the book an origin story, but it is at the very least an origin: the birth of the public Bourdain that would come to be so widely adored.
Bourdain's TV shows would center his own experiences much less than "Mission to Tokyo" did, but would carry over many of the same qualities: voracious curiosity, a yearning for new experiences, and of course, a reverence for good food. After a short-lived Food Network series called A Cook's Tour, his peculiar approach to the TV travelogue truly began to bloom with Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations, which aired on the Travel Channel from 2005 to 2012.
If there's a single hour that encapsulates that approach, it's probably "Anthony Bourdain in Beirut," a much-cited touchstone in his TV career. The special 2006 episode of No Reservations chronicles the week Bourdain and his crew spent trapped in Beirut, Lebanon as the Israel-Hezbollah War erupted around them. Throughout the episode, Bourdain and his crew chronicle, in real time, Lebanese people whose lives are being altered forever, sharing their stories without ever condescending or exoticizing.
At one point, Bourdain helps the kitchen staff at his hotel cook a meal, remarking, "Cooks are the same everywhere." But his closing voice-over questions that sentiment, and the very concept of the series: "I'd begun to think that no matter where I went or who I sat down with, that food and a few drinks seemed, always, to bring people together… I'd begun to believe that the dinner table was the great leveler, where people from opposite sides of the world could always sit down, and talk, and eat and drink, and if not solve all the world's problems, at least find, for a time, common ground. Now, I'm not so sure."
That push and pull between brotherhood-of-man romanticism and the harsh reality of the world would recur throughout the rest of Bourdain's TV work, and perhaps even define it. "Beirut" embodies a certain ethos of his series: People caught up in the tendrils of forces they can't control, brought together over food to reflect and connect through their common humanity.
Bourdain's CNN follow-up to No Reservations continued the spirit of the earlier series, while pushing the host's interests and artistic ambitions even further. The sense of historical and social scope expands while the filmmaking grows more sophisticated and evocative — for instance, the 2016 episode "The Greek Islands" is framed as an ennui-filled, lonely vacation for Bourdain (complete with very European sequences of the host lounging by the pool or staring at nature), while also exploring the country's financial crisis and its effects.
Though Bourdain always insisted he wasn't a journalist, many episodes of Parts Unknown display journalistic impulses, capturing, say, so-called modernization and vanishing ways of life in Hong Kong, the multiplicity of cultures that make up Miami, or repercussions of history through Armenia and L.A.'s Koreatown. And Bourdain could also, on occasion, return to self-examination.
Roadrunner pulls a few poignant moments from 2014's "Massachusetts," in which Bourdain returns to Provincetown, the seaside resort town where he worked his first restaurant job and became addicted to heroin in his youth (as chronicled in Kitchen Confidential). Late in the episode, Bourdain attends a recovery meeting and shares part of his story, recalling, "I'll tell you something really shameful about myself. The first time I shot up, I looked at myself in the mirror with a big grin. Something was missing in me, whether it was a self-image situation, whether it was a character flaw… There was some dark genie inside me that I very much hesitate to call a disease, that led me to dope."
"Massachusetts" is hardly a confessional tell-all — it explores the opioid epidemic's devastating effect on the state and its people — but that moment displays, again, Bourdain's keen insight into himself. And the episode as a whole is a showcase for much of what made Bourdain so beloved: his raw authenticity, his empathy, his sharp and piercing perspective. Perhaps even more so than "Beirut," it's the quintessential entry in his TV oeuvre.
There's much more to discover in that oeuvre, of course, but these entryways help shed light on the man himself and encapsulate what made him and his work meaningful to so many. If they don't explain Bourdain, exactly, they at least illuminate him, his complexities and contradictions, and his view of the world and humanity. Parts of him will always be a mystery, but unlike Roadrunner, Bourdain's work is content to embrace the questions when answers can't be found.
Roadrunner is in theaters now. Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations is streaming on Discovery+. Parts Unknown is streaming on HBO Max.