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Anthony Bourdain's Addiction Report Card

Anthony Bourdain has been through a series of addictions—how's he doing?

WNYC/Adriankwok via Wikimedia Commons (CC-BY-2.0)
Source: WNYC/Adriankwok via Wikimedia Commons (CC-BY-2.0)

Anthony Bourdain is the urbane, profane chef, memoirist, and television travel and food personality whose trots around the world are displayed on the Travel Channel's "Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations" and the new "The Layover." The energizing principle of The Layover is that Bourdain dashes to some location for 1-2 days of mad sampling of the locales, people, and cuisine of places we should all want to see, or may have been but overlooked much of the best that was available there.

According to the Travel Channel, "Viewers get a ringside seat as Tony goes on the hunt for local intel and explores the essential must see places, people and foods in locations throughout the U.S., Asia and Europe." Bourdain is widely traveled, and seems to have personal contacts everywhere (although I bet he meets a lot of them on set where they come for television exposure), and he's willing to try just about anything, and comment wryly on it. In a famous comment on people who view their bodies as temples, Bourdain adopts the simile of an amusement park instead—he'll sample any cuisine anywhere, and leave his body to fend for itself. Here is Wikipedia's description:

Known for consuming exotic ethnic dishes, Bourdain is famous for eating sheep testicles in Morocco, ant eggs in Puebla, Mexico, a raw seal eyeball as part of a traditional Inuit seal hunt, and a whole cobra—beating heart, blood, bile, and meat—in Vietnam. According to Bourdain, the most disgusting thing he has ever eaten is a Chicken McNugget, though he has also declared that the unwashed warthog rectum he ate in Namibia and the fermented shark he ate in Iceland are among "the worst meals of [his] life."

This outgoing, adventuresome aspect of Bourdain's personality is his calling card, and has gotten him to where he is today. He rose through the cooking ranks to become the long-time chef at Brasserie Les Halles in New York (where he remains something called "chef-at-large"). Bourdain's breakthrough memoir, "Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly," which put him on the literary map, describes the long journey that brought him to this position, one marked by extreme excursions into drugs, strung out over years. After kicking heroin in rehab, for instance, he still worked long hours in New York kitchens interspersed with cocaine and alcohol binges, et al.

Bourdain also portrays himself as having been truly obnoxious, someone who could be overbearing, insulting, completely self-absorbed—someone the current popular narrative would label a typical addict. But I wouldn't call him that. I would call him a highly energized and thoughtful person with a tendency to get off track, but who ultimately righted himself. I know he righted himself, aside from his highly successful books and his eventual rise to the top of New York's cooking circles, because of his television shows—according to the Times, "Mr. Bourdain remains the best of the Americans abroad on TV: the professional voyagers," of whom there are now tons. Oh, and his second marriage (one less than Newt Gingrich), which provided him with a daughter, appears to be very solid.

What makes Bourdain successful at this job is his intelligence and honesty; as described by Mike Hale in the Times, "Mr. Bourdain’s singular success in the role indicates just how much quick intelligence and hard work it takes to make that character viable and keep it from descending into self-parody (which has happened surprisingly seldom on No Reservations)." Moreover, according to Hale, this intelligence and attention to detail "is part of Mr. Bourdain’s larger television persona: smart, profane and sarcastic but, most important, real."

And how are Bourdain's addictions going? For some time, he continued to smoke cigarettes—but there was no evidence that he is still smoking on his first show in "The Layover," in Singapore. I assume he long ago left drugs behind—at one point, viewing (I don't think he visited it) a nighttime Singaporean zoo, he suggests it would be good to see on drugs, and then almost seemed to approve of Singapore's Draconian policies—illicit drug users and dealers are executed—to keep illegal drugs at bay. That comment was unlike Bourdain, who at another point in the show reads from Singapore's strict guide on personal behavior, sexual especially, after driving through the red-light district in town.

What's that leave? Drinking. Bourdain still drinks, and sometimes confesses to drinking too much. But that is rare. He is usually shown casually drinking a beer or wine with dinner. In Singapore, he visits the nightlife district, famous for its cocktails, but declined to sample any. Viewers would find this completely understandable—even if they liked cocktails—while watching the sleep-deprived, groggy Bourdain rush from point to point in this tiny city-nation. Doing "The Layover" would just be impossible with heavy drinking. On the other hand, I watched at one point an episode on "No Reservations" on a tropical island where Bourdain devoted the better part of an afternoon to laying on a hammock drinking beer—which seemed likewise somehow appropriate.

Bourdain, in other words, is not a 12-step, abstinence automaton-nut. He has a good life, and he knows how to keep it. Smart, thoughtful people often arrive at such a point, even after some serious detours.

Which brings me to Bourdain's eating. Bourdain—who was born in 1956—looks to be in good shape. Not razor thin, but a well-preserved middle-aged man. On "No Reservations," Bourdain travels around having normally-spaced meals in exotic locales, eating things in many cases I have only heard and read about. The same is quadruply true for Singapore, which combines a plethora of Asian and Western cuisines in a remarkably compact space, often served in street-side stands and large malls. And I would say that Bourdain samples them all—but what he does isn't sampling (other than the fish eyes, of which he only has one in Singapore). He seems to have a half-dozen or more full meals in a 36-hour period!

I marvel at this performance—sort of like an old drinker who watches a younger person consume alcohol he or she can no longer tolerate. I would never—as a 65-year-old man—eat all that food, even if I could. It seems a wretched excess that I would regret for months. I found myself wondering whether Bourdain had some sort of magical metabolism, or whether he spends his time back in New York working out twice daily—or both. On the other hand, I believe that, in some way as yet poorly understood, Bourdain's adventurous attitude towards food contributes to his remaining relatively thin.

In a saner world, people would comment on this aspect of Bourdain's performance—since America is a country overcome with obesity which watches people stuffing themselves on television. That is actually the theme of one of the innumerable food-travel shows—"Man Against Food"—in which "Foodie Adam Richman sets out on mission to sample the country's best ... as he engorges himself ... , you get to see stuff fall out of his mouth; the saliva, the mucus. . . . " You get the idea!

Stanton Peele's new book (with Ilse Thompson), is Recover! Stop Thinking Like an Addict and Reclaim Your Life with The PERFECT Program. Follow his guided self-cure program at

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P.S. There are some really good comments on this post -- along with the usual ones from AAbots.