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Anthony Bourdain's death leaves food world and South Florida stunned

Anthony Bourdain’s suicide at 61 left the food world reeling on Friday, with stunned chefs, restaurateurs and fans exchanging phone calls and texts in the early-morning hours. Some knew him. Many did not. His only connections to South Florida were his regular appearances at the South Beach Wine and Food Festival and loving visual tributes to Miami in a 2006 episode of “No Reservations” (his show that ran on the Travel Channel) and a 2015 episode of “Parts Unknown” (his current show that airs on CNN).

Bourdain, a chef and former heroin addict turned author, world traveler and TV host, was one of those rare beings whose humanity and honesty transcended borders — of nations and his field — and made strangers feel connected to him.

“Nothing surprises me anymore, but this shocked me … It’s just a sad day,” says Lee Brian Schrager, executive director of the South Beach Wine and Food Festival and a schoolmate of Bourdain at the Culinary Institute of America in the late 1970s.

Billy Corben, a Miami-based documentary filmmaker and director who appeared in the 2015 Miami episode of “Parts Unknown,” tweeted photos of his Bourdain encounter Friday and wrote, “I loved [‘No Reservations’] and was thrilled when we got asked to do the Miami episode of Parts Unknown. We spent a few hours eating stone crabs and drinking beer and I walked away an even bigger fan.”

Bourdain embraced haute cuisine and street food, with his Miami television episodes spotlighting Cuban coffee and medianoche sandwiches at Islas Canarias, Caribbean culture at B & M Market in Little Haiti and everything-but-the-kitchen-sink Colombian hot dogs for after-hours consumption at La Perrada de Edgar in Miami Beach.

Bourdain began the 2015 “Parts Unknown” episode by saying, “Miami sneaks up on you. Miami is the kind of place you say, ‘That could never be me,’ and then it is."

“Tony was a symphony … A piece of my heart is truly breaking this morning,” chef and television host Andrew Zimmern tweeted Friday. “The sad, cruel irony is that the last year he’d never been happier.”

Food writer Ruth Reichl tweeted: “Oh Tony. Oh no. Sitting here weeping. There will never be another like you.”

Bourdain was raised in New Jersey, worked the kitchens of New York and shot to fame when he was executive chef of Les Halles restaurant when he wrote an article in The New Yorker that detailed the underbelly of the restaurant business, which he expanded into a bestselling book, “Kitchen Confidential.” He instructed diners why they should never order fish on Mondays and offered an unvarnished view of kitchens, clubs and alleys where he worked hard, played hard and bonded with punk-rock bands and heroin needles.

“He started as a chef, but what he did best was tell stories. That’s how I view him, a storyteller," Schrager says.

Bourdain wrote the foreword to Schrager’s first cookbook, and Bourdain last appeared at the festival as emcee of the 2017 tribute dinner honoring Jose Andres, where he called the Spanish-born chef “my hero” for supporting immigrants and backing out of a restaurant deal at a Donald Trump hotel, triggering a lawsuit from Trump.

“He was an early supporter of the festival — he used to do cooking demonstrations with Eric Ripert,” Schrager says.

Ripert, executive chef of Le Bernardin in New York and Bourdain’s friend and frequent travel companion, discovered Bourdain’s lifeless body in a French hotel, according to CNN. Bourdain’s last image on his Instagram account was from June 4, a “light lunch” in Alsace of ham, pork belly, wurst and sauerkraut.

Schrager says he met Bourdain 40 years ago when they were students at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., when cooking was a trade and chefs were working stiffs, not celebrities. “He didn’t want people to know this, but he came from a comfortable and somewhat privileged background,” Schrager says. “His mother worked at The New York Times [as a copy editor]. But he cultivated this image as a hardscrabble guy from the streets.”

Bourdain parlayed the success of “Kitchen Confidential” into a television career, and he quit restaurant kitchens nearly two decades ago. He wrote books, won awards, hopscotched the globe and ate and drank well. When he died, he had 7.4 million Twitter followers and 2.7 million Instagram followers.

He married, became a father at age 50 and divorced. After shooting an episode of “Parts Unknown” in Italy, he became romantically involved with Italian director and actor Asia Argento. In recent months, after Argento revealed that she was sexually assaulted and harassed by film producer Harvey Weinstein, Bourdain became an outspoken supporter of the #MeToo movement and he decried “meathead culture” that ruled restaurant kitchens. He also saw his friend Mario Batali lose his culinary empire after accusations that Batali assaulted and harassed women.

Bourdain was outspoken and prone to outrageous hyperbole. Schrager recalls how he lambasted Food Network and its celebrity-chef culture at the South Beach festival — an event sponsored by Food Network. “That was Anthony. He wasn’t a warm, cuddly person,” Schrager says. “But he was fiercely intelligent.” Schrager says he wanted Bourdain and Argento to host a #MeToo event at the 2018 New York Wine and Food Festival in the fall, which he also runs.

Bourdain joked last year that he would serve President Trump hemlock if asked to cook for him, and Bourdain made lifelong sport of baiting vegetarians, once writing, "Vegetarians and their Hezbollah-like splinter-faction, the vegans, are a persistent irritant to any chef worth a damn. Vegetarians are … an affront to all I stand for, the pure enjoyment of food. To me, life without veal stock, pork fat, sausage, organ meat, demi-glace, or even stinky cheese is a life not worth living."

The last time Schrager says he saw Bourdain was in April, when he ran into Bourdain during lunch at Porter House New York in the Time Warner Center.

“It was the first time I met his girlfriend,” Schrager says. “They were sitting at the table next to mine. We chatted, and he seemed like himself, happy, well, not happy, but like Anthony Bourdain. He had everything — success, the new girlfriend, a great career. This is something that is just hard to understand.”

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mmayo@southflorida.com, 954-356-4508. Follow my food adventures on Instagram: @mikemayoeats. Sign up for my weekly dining newsletter at SouthFlorida.com/EatBeatMail.

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