“You’re probably going to find out about this anyway, so here’s a little preemptive truth-telling,” says Anthony Bourdain in a voiceover early on in the recent documentary Roadrunner. “There’s no happy ending.”
Of course, no spoiler alert is necessary: We already know that Anthony Bourdain’s story doesn’t end well. The enthusiastic eater-at-large’s June 2018 suicide — he hung himself in a hotel bathroom in a village in the Alsace region of France — was widely reported, but bewildering nonetheless. Roadrunner recounts the life of this former New York City chef, bestselling author, and cable TV personality who roamed the world in search of stories about people, places, and politics as much as food. As the documentary makes evident, Bourdain’s untimely death continues to haunt his family, friends, crew, colleagues and fans.
But does Roadrunner solve the cruel conundrum around Bourdain’s suicide? No. Viewers in search of definitive answers for why the curious, compassionate, and adventurous food ambassador took his own life won’t find them in the film. As Los Angeles Times film critic Justin Chang notes, the movie can’t — and maybe shouldn’t — answer the unbearably sad question that looms over every frame. Can anyone ever really know what leads someone to commit such an act?
By interspersing archival footage, TV clips, and pre-existing voiceovers from the man himself with recent interviews with family, friends, colleagues, and co-workers trying to make sense of what happened to the person they loved, the film unflinchingly portrays the impact of suicide on those left behind. Understandably, all the stages of grief are on display: shock, sadness, depression, guilt, anger, and acceptance.
Every suicide is a mystery and tragedy unto itself. Suicide is complex, say mental health experts, and there’s unlikely a single trigger. It is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States; white males account for 69 percent of all suicides in the country and the rate of suicide is highest among middle-aged white men, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. Ninety percent of people who commit suicide have a mental illness, and many individuals who take their own life also struggle with substance use disorder.
That Bourdain grappled with both mental ill health and substance use problems during the course of his life is well documented. But to many, his suicide still came as a shock. He had fame, fortune, professional success, industry accolades and – on the surface at least – a dream gig touring the globe for “Parts Unknown,” a CNN series exploring food culture in far-flung places.
“If I’m unhappy, it’s a failure of imagination,” he told Patrick Radden Keefe for a 2017 New Yorker profile. Still, the 61-year-old had his demons. As Roadrunner reveals, the red flags were many – in retrospect at least. As a young adult, Bourdain had a heroin and crack cocaine addiction; in his writings, he described restaurant kitchens as being “drenched” in drugs and alcohol.
In the 1980s Bourdain reportedly kicked heroin cold turkey – without rehab, 12 steps, or therapy – though he acknowledged methadone maintenance treatment for several years. He quit crack, too, but his drinking had reached worrisome heights prior to his death, according to former crew members. (His toxicology report, it should be noted, found no traces of narcotics and only traces of alcohol and medication in therapeutic doses. In addition, the gifted writer left no note, leading French authorities to conclude it was an impulsive act.) The TV star was also a workaholic and his punishing schedule – away from home for 250 or more days a year – likely took a toll on his physical and emotional wellbeing. There was little grounding Bourdain, who lived an untethered existence.
With this in mind, the documentary explores Bourdain’s efforts to keep his self-destructive tendencies in check. By all accounts, Bourdain was brilliant, funny, fearless, generous, passionate, and a perfectionist. He was also a risk taker. And, at different times in his life, he acknowledged suffering from agoraphobia, anxiety, bouts of depression, despair, manic outbursts, compulsions, dark mood swings, melancholy, obsessiveness, even paranoia. Given the internal obstacles he faced, his creative accomplishments are all the more extraordinary.
It’s unclear whether Bourdain tried medications or other treatments for the mental health conditions that plagued him. He did seek out professional counseling at least once: in a Buenos Aires therapy session aired in a 2016 “Parts Unknown” segment.
“I can find myself in a spiral of depression that can last for days,” he tells a therapist while lying on a couch, noting that Argentina has more “headshrinkers” per capita than any other country in the world. “I feel kind of like a freak,” he says. “It’s an isolating feeling. I communicate for a living but I’m terrible at communicating with the people I care about.”
Bourdain was reportedly obsessed with suicide. He was fascinated by the act and kept track of high-profile suicides, according to Morgan Neville, the Academy Award-winning filmmaker and Roadrunner director, who dubbed Bourdain a suicidologist and created a montage of his numerous suicide “jokes.”
Roadrunner includes footage from a 2018 “Parts Unknown” episode at an Indonesian funeral celebration, in which Bourdain commented that he didn’t want anyone to see his body after he died. He also joked about having his corpse fed into a wood chipper and his remains sprayed all over Harrods, the fancy London department store, in the middle of rush hour. “That would be pretty epic,” he mused. “I wouldn’t mind being remembered in that way.”
In his book Medium Raw, Bourdain wrote about how he thought about driving off a cliff in the Caribbean after the breakup of his first marriage but swerved at the last minute. He thought about death a lot, it seems, for someone whose on-screen persona suggests an enormous appetite for life. “Tony hasn’t been all right for a long time,” says artist David Choe, referring to his friend in the present tense in Roadrunner. “The amount that he joked about the end of his life — he’s been chasing that s*** forever. … He’s a f***ing runner. He ran for a long time, but you’re not going to outsmart pain.”
“Roadrunner” explores Bourdain’s world, which was filled with other creative souls—chefs, painters, musicians, and writers. There are a few notable omissions in the line-up: no interview with his mother, Gladys Bourdain, a New York Times copy editor who died in January 2020; no sit-down chat with his last girlfriend, Asia Argento, a prominent and controversial #MeToo figure; and no conversation with his first wife, Nancy Putkoski, to whom he was married for 20 years. His second wife, Ottavia Busia, does speak about life with Tony – and without – and expresses her profound loss and regret at not keeping closer tabs on her fragile ex and father to their daughter, who was 11 at the time of her dad’s death.
Much of the documentary explores familiar terrain: The anonymous cook who blew up the staid restaurant scene in 2000 with his swaggering industry tell-all book Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly. The outsized personality who helped define the concept of a celebrity chef (a label he loathed) and was dubbed “the bad boy of brasserie fare and besmircher of brunch” by Atlantic writer Sophie Gilbert.
But Bourdain’s public image, with his penchant for hot, sweaty, messy, risky gastronomical pursuits in under-explored locations, was in stark contrast to the private Bourdain: a shy, introverted, introspective figure plagued by imposter syndrome. Roadrunner introduces viewers to 40something Tony – as he was known affectionately among fellow cooks, family and friends – at the beginning of his meteoric rise in the late 1990s, essentially skipping over pre-fame Bourdain, his unhappy childhood in suburban New Jersey, and his first marriage to a fellow addict.
The film covers other well-worn territory: The big break the then-unknown writer received with his 1999 New Yorker article “Don’t Eat Before Reading This,” a ballsy and brutally honest expose that was the basis for his book Kitchen Confidential, which catapulted Bourdain into public life. Bourdain arrived as an exciting departure to the chefs of the time. His sinewy punk rock aesthetic, his thrill-seeking, outrageous demeanor and constant striving for bold culinary exploration garnered attention.
Meanwhile, Kitchen Confidential became the catalyst for Bourdain’s television career. That transition began awkwardly, gawkily – the man had barely traveled outside the country before a camera crew started following him everywhere. But over time he found his voice, vibe, visual aesthetic, and storytelling schtick and morphed into the carefully curated on-camera character that audiences came to adore, first on the Food Network’s “A Cook’s Tour” and then on The Travel Channel’s “No Reservations,” and “The Layover,” and, finally, on “Parts Unknown.” When people think of Bourdain, it’s the “Parts Unknown” persona that typically comes to mind: the cocky, kind, and charismatic food ambassador for well-loved and little-known places and people. For some, TV Tony was simply a heightened version of the take-no-B.S., give- no-f*cks, IRL Tony that his fans, friends and family expected to be around for years to come.
Those who knew him well had glimpses into his complicated character. “Everyone loves the Marlboro Man, romantic cowboy version but you’ll see that even for this 6’4” guy who looked great in a tux and ate everything all over the world, it wasn’t a guarantee that his life was perfect,” his longtime assistant and frequent co-author Laurie Woolever, told Vogue in an interview about her book, Bourdain: The Definitive Oral Biography, published in late September. “There’s always much more that’s going on that doesn’t make the cut in a 46-minute episode.”
In an eloquent essay for Eater, writer Maria Bustillos wonders how someone so loved and admired could slip beyond the reach of friends and family. Bustillos blames what she calls the “Bourdain industrial complex.” Being at the center of brand Bourdain, according to Bustillos, was pressure-packed and an increasingly lonely and isolating place. Living in a filmed fishbowl, she hypothesized, became too much for a man who was so vulnerable.
Some point to the state of Bourdain’s relationship with Asia Argento as a contributing factor to his demise. Whether he felt betrayed by Argento’s behavior – including a public display of intimacy with another man – has been the subject of much speculation, including in Roadrunner. There was also an allegation by a former teen actor of sexual assault by Argento, one which Bourdain apparently helped pay to go away. The person who might be able to address this head-on is no longer here, and it appears he dealt with these high-stake stresses almost entirely in private.
Critical discussion around Roadrunner has focused on the filmmaker’s choices. Neville has taken heat for using artificial intelligence to mimic Bourdain “speaking” a few lines that he wrote but never actually uttered out loud (at least not into a microphone); the harsh, staged finale (no spoiler alert here for those who’ve yet to see it); and the director’s decision not to interview Argento. In interviews for the documentary, the “Parts Unknown” crew describe the Argento-Bourdain pairing as volatile. Viewers are left with the impression that the Italian actor played a major role in his despair and melancholy at the time he took his life. But, Michael Steed, a “Parts Unknown” director, notes the act was Bourdain’s and his alone. “Tony killed Tony,” says Steed. “Sixty-year-old men don’t normally kill themselves because they broke up with somebody.”
What viewers are left with: A man of great talent and glaring contradictions. Bourdain was at one time the poster child for the pervasive bro’ culture and toxic masculinity that infected the restaurant industry and has taken decades to dismantle. But towards the end of his life, Bourdain became an ardent advocate for the #MeToo movement, using his significant social media platforms to call out high-profile sexual predators in the film, television, and restaurant industries. The frank and foul-mouthed storyteller was, by his own admission, feral and wild, but he also craved order and structure. He could also be courteous, chivalrous, and polite: a true gentleman.
How, then, to explain his abrupt departure? Steed, who directed the final episode of “Parts Unknown,” attempts an answer in a conversation with his 7-year-old son. “I think Tony, at the end, felt alone and felt he couldn’t talk to anybody about the pain going on inside him,” says Steed. Such intense suffering and hopelessness can generate impulsive behavior – but it usually passes, and Steed wanted to make sure his son knew that. “You know you always have someone to turn to, to talk to,” he tells him.
Bourdain’s storytelling – whether in Cambodia, California or the Congo – was empathic, insightful, and respectful. He was determined to highlight fellow humans’ resilience and capacity for joy, even during the darkest of days, using food and travel as his way into other worlds. Sadly, he wasn’t able to muster that same level of compassion and kindness towards himself. Instead, the world is left with an untimely death, a life interrupted.
Bourdain left behind a draft memoir: He gave his longtime director and producer Tom Vitale a USB stick to hang onto with the strict instructions: “Whatever you do, don’t look at this.” Vitale heeded that directive until Bourdain’s untimely passing. When he finally read what was stored on the stick, Vitale discovered Bourdain’s musings under the title Hungry Ghost.
“His writing was lyrical, almost stream-of-consciousness, riddled with errors and omissions, but exquisite nonetheless,” writes Vitale in In the Weeds: Around the World and Behind the Scenes with Anthony Bourdain, published in early October and excerpted in Vanity Fair. “I found it humbling how, even in an early draft, Tony succeeded at effortlessly capturing the dislocation of moving through space, the blur of a life spent in motion.”
“It took a moment for me to realize how different it was than Tony’s other work,” Vitale continued. “Instead of the curiosity and humor that usually characterized his writing, Tony described himself as wandering from place to place, haunted by crushing loneliness. A lost soul trapped in a perpetual state of dissatisfaction, always longing for more, he was the very embodiment of a hungry ghost.”
In a recent essay for Newsweek Vitale writes: “Looking back, there were lots of signs. Tony had gotten a lot gentler over the last two years of his life. That was a personality shift that I was aware of, and I know personality changes can be a warning sign for suicide. But I would never, in a million years, have foreseen him taking his own life.” Writing the book, Vitale told one reporter, was about a search for answers. But, he added, “you spend enough time thinking about things, you sort of realize that the answers don’t bring as much comfort as maybe you hoped they would’ve.”
A talker by trade, it seems fitting to give Bourdain the last word. Here he’s talking about travel, but also about life. “Travel isn’t always pretty,” he once said. “It isn’t always comfortable. Sometimes it hurts, it even breaks your heart. But that’s okay. The journey changes you; it should change you. It leaves marks on your memory, on your consciousness, on your heart, and on your body. You take something with you. Hopefully, you leave something good behind.”
“Roadrunner” is available for viewing on several streaming services.
If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts, call 911. Or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741. En Español: 1-888-628-9454; Deaf and Hard of Hearing: 1-800-799-4889.