“[When I die], I will decidedly not be regretting missed opportunities for a good time. My regrets will be more along the lines of a sad list of people hurt, people let down, assets wasted and advantages squandered,” Anthony Bourdain wrote in Kitchen Confidential, the book that launched the New York City chef’s career as a globetrotting gastronome taking on the world with wry humor and humanity. The Emmy- and Peabody-winning TV personality’s words seemed prophetic in the wake of his suicide in 2018. Those hungry for more information surrounding the death of the beloved foodie — famous for series including No Reservations and Parts Unknown — at age 61 may find some clues in Academy Award–winning director Morgan Neville’s new documentary, Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain, which contains extensive previously unseen footage. Here are some of the doc’s most savory details about the hard-living host’s complex life.
Bourdain never wanted to be on TV.
The best-selling author was slated to write a follow-up to Confidential when he was approached by producers Lydia Tenaglia and Christopher Collins to do the show that became A Cook’s Tour. “He used to always say, ‘Don’t let me do TV … If I ever do TV, shoot me,” longtime friend and book editor Karen Rinaldi remembers. Collins says the network pitch suggested Bourdain smoke and drink his way across the globe and “eat weird shit too.” After a few years, that persona “burned off and it became Tony.” Bourdain’s increasing displeasure with the producers’ scripts led to his takeover as scribe. “I better write in my voice. Otherwise, I’ll sound like a television travel host,” Tenaglia remembers him saying.
His first marriage was a casualty of his success — but he got a crime novel out of it.
The college dropout, former restaurant dishwasher, and heroin addict had one constant in his life prior to fame: his high-school sweetheart, Nancy Putkoski, who was with him for almost 30 years. Bourdain’s brother Chris says Putkoski had no interest in celebrity or being tied to it. As Bourdain’s star rose and the couple’s marriage unraveled, Bourdain wrote a novel in which “the characters’ yearnings for a white-picket-fence kind of life reflect my own far more truthfully than any nonfiction I’ve ever written,” he says in voice-over, as we see images of him sunbathing solo poolside. “Shortly after that, I burned down my previous life in its entirety.”
A loyal TV team put up with a lot of Bourdain’s bullshit.
Though A Cook’s Tour was shot and produced solely by Tenaglia and Collins, the tough-to-please tastemaker ultimately worked with a much larger dedicated crew, many of whom were with him until the end. “What made it into the shows was, as far as I was concerned, the least interesting parts of the trip,” director of 15 years Tom Vitale says with a smile. “He was a control freak in a lot of ways. You couldn’t win an argument with him,” so the trick was to “lead from behind.” Director Michael Steed (eight years on the job) says he and Bourdain clicked because “I enjoyed fucking with [him] … We all sort of fucked with Tony in our own ways.” Director Mo Fallon (10 years on the job) says Bourdain weighed in on everything; “every show had his care in it. Every show potentially had his wrath.” Vitale recalls numerous emails saying, “Tell editor to unfuck itself … He would say the greatest sin is mediocrity.” Producer Helen Cho, a ten-year veteran to whom Bourdain once gifted brass knuckles, says it also irked him if everyone liked the show.
World events impacted the show’s direction — and its cultural commentary.
In 2006, when No Reservations was in Beirut, the crew wound up trapped at their hotel after war broke out between Hezbollah and Israel. Bourdain didn’t want to make a show from what they had shot, but the Travel Channel did. That’s when Collins says the opinionated host stopped doing a “rosy sum up” and embraced ambiguity. In voiceover, he reflects on “an embittering experience” that “got all of us thinking about … what’s important in life.”
Similarly, after a leftover-food giveaway in Haiti went south, Bourdain realized even altruism could backfire. “The biggest issue that we dealt with was trying to be … the fly on the wall,” cinematographer of 12 years Todd Liebler remembers. “[This] was a prime example of trying to help and it’s rearing its ugly head.” Chef David Chang says the more his friend traveled, the less it became about food. “I think it was about Tony learning how to be a better person.”
When Bourdain met his second wife, Ottavia Busia, he did an about-face on fatherhood.
The James Beard–award winning French chef Eric Ripert thought they were a perfect match “for those occasional … rendezvous.” For her part, Busia expected to meet a somewhat arrogant bad boy but instead found him endearing. Still, Tenaglia was “shocked” when Bourdain became a dad, as he had previously said fatherhood wasn’t for him. Ripert says he was a devoted father — when he was home. His love for Ariane “moved him to his core,” Tenaglia says. “I think he was constantly aware of not wanting to screw it up.” Still, Collins says, though he “straddled the world of being the domestic guy, [the] pull for the experience outside — as if it was gonna slip away if he wasn’t there — was equally as great.”
Bourdain and Busia were already leading separate lives when he met director-actress Asia Argento.
“Even if we didn’t work out as a married couple, we were still really good friends and our focus was Ariane,” Busia says of their amicable split, which she says was due to Bourdain’s being on the road 250 days a year. Rinaldi believes the breakup left him “incredibly vulnerable.” Tenaglia thinks he blamed himself and that it “left him wondering whether or not he was lovable.” Bourdain’s musician-friend Alison Mosshart says he referred to Argento as “the crazy Italian actress” in his emails, and predicted their affair would end badly. Musician Josh Homme feels he was “looking for something feral and wild, maybe due to age and being alone.”
He quit heroin cold turkey, but Bourdain may never have overcome his addictive personality.
Artist David Choe says his friend’s addiction “jumped.” Chang thinks it was because he never really dealt with “the insecurity or issues that put him down that road to being with.” Fallon points to a pattern: “When he threw himself into something, he threw himself [into it] completely.” His jiujitsu training — a result of Busia competing in the sport — was a positive example; it pushed him to get healthy and cigarette-free. But Fallon says that he turned his “lifelong addictive personality to another person [Argento], and that was extremely dangerous.”
In his last years, Bourdain told Chang he’d be a bad dad, tried to quit Parts Unknown, and fired his longtime cameraman.
“At the end of the day, Tony’s dark as fuck,” Chang says. But the Momofuku founder was shocked when his friend said he wouldn’t be a good father. “That fuckin’ hurt,” he says, crying. “And I know he wasn’t trying to be mean … He was projecting … I think it broke his heart that he couldn’t be the fuckin’ dad that he thought he could be — the romantic version of a dad.”
Bourdain told musician John Lurie he was becoming agoraphobic. “And then I saw the pain on his face,” he says. Stressed and exhausted, Bourdain had a “dramatic” meeting with Collins and Tenaglia to tell the pair he was done. “Every band comes to an end. It’s time for us to break up and go our separate ways,” Tenaglia recalls him saying. He wanted to make his relationship with Argento work. But when the producers gave him their blessing, he froze. Tenaglia suspects he may have wanted them to object. “It’s really kind of sad,” Collins says emotionally. After they realized Bourdain wasn’t going anywhere, they told him they would find a way to make things work.
When the show headed to Hong Kong, and Steed unexpectedly needed gallbladder surgery, Bourdain got them to agree Argento could step in as director. After longtime cinematographer Zach Zamboni had a disagreement with her, Bourdain fired him. Producer Cho says that “was a huge red flag because it was like, ‘If he’s gonna do that to someone like him … anyone in the inner circle is essentially … disposable.’” Collins describes a “manic nature” to his last year, in which the highs were very high and the lows were “ugly.” Busia saw the change but says her estranged husband was seeing a therapist, which made her think she could take a step back. “I will always [feel like] I should have kept an eye on him more, you know?”
After paparazzi pictures of Argento and French reporter Hugo Clément were published, Steed asked him how he was doing. “A little fuckin’ discretion,” he replied — referring to Argento, not the director. On June 8, 2018, Bourdain was found dead in his Alsace hotel room — an event everyone interviewed in the film remains shattered by. “We’re trying so hard to understand [why] because we think, if we can understand it, then we’ll be okay with it,” Rinaldi says. “The fact of the matter is: No, I don’t think we get to know.”