There’s a thrill in meeting anyone who’s reached a certain level of celebrity; the chance to bask in the ambient glow of art and fame and as-seen-on-TV. But the people who encountered Anthony Bourdain rarely walked away with anything as mundane as an autograph or a dashed-off selfie.
The world-renowned restaurateur, author, and television host, who was found dead Friday in Paris at age 61 by apparent suicide, was physically larger than life — lean and leathery, he stood 6’4” without shoes on (maybe even a few inches taller, if you counted his perpetually windswept shock of silver hair). His energy and magnetism, though, felt like the true measure of his size. Both on camera and off, he was endlessly fascinated by everyone he met: stopping to ask where they were from, what they loved to eat growing up, their all-time favorite meal.
Whether he was downing bún chả and cold beers with President Obama in a Hanoi noodle shop in a 2016 episode of Parts Unknown, digging into oyster pie with Bill Murray in South Carolina, or just messing around with his friends and fellow chefs (a Michelin-starred crew that included Mario Batali, José Andrés, Thomas Keller, and Jacques Pépin), Bourdain always seemed fully engaged in every moment.
And unlike most of his onscreen colleagues, he never spoke about food in a vacuum. When a 2006 trip to Beirut landed him and his crew in the crossfire of a very real war, he returned with No Reservations four years later, recalling his heartbreak at seeing shell bombs and rockets fall on a city only recently freed from Syrian occupation — and the bizarre privilege of watching it all unfold from the relative safety of the hotel pool. (He also dropped into a legendary local spot for a very nice kibbeh and home-style hummus with pine nuts.)
A few members of EW’s staff were lucky enough to have their own experience with Bourdain years ago, when he cooked what we were calling the Fattest Meal Ever for Fatboy Slim and Fat Joe. (It was the mid-2000s, okay?) Afterward, he invited the music team to come celebrate at Les Halles, his now-shuttered French bistro in Manhattan.
The restaurant was mostly closed off to the public that evening, though actress Kate Hudson huddled nearby in a dim corner with a shaggy, unidentified man. As course after course rolled out — duck-leg confit, blood sausages, a cassoulet made with beef that he told us had been aged in a cave in France, whipped potatoes so rich with cream and butter I mistook them for actual lard — he regaled us with stories of his days eating cobra hearts in Vietnam and seeing the Ramones at CBGB’s.
He spoke openly of the hard living he said he had put mostly behind him by then, though he also inhaled a succession of cigarettes with a skill and speed that seemed almost Olympian. Someone at the table told him that I didn’t really eat meat, so he demanded I sit next to him while he gave me a tutorial in foie gras. After my first bite of blood sausage, I thought I might have to excuse myself and quietly go throw up, but I couldn’t say no to him. Mostly, it was delicious. And for days afterward we all lived on seltzer and iceberg lettuce, still burping out tiny memories of cave cassoulet.
What was a lifetime highlight for most for us who were there that night was probably just another Tuesday for our charming, magnanimous host. But it was clear that he did it, and kept doing it, because it was what he loved. It’s impossible to calculate the horrendous personal loss to all the friends and family who really knew him. And the deep sadness, too, of the millions who only saw him from a distance, but will never get to hear him speak the words of his famous introduction again: “I’m Anthony Bourdain. I write, I travel, I eat. And I’m hungry for more.”