by Rebecca M. Alvin
In 1972, Anthony Bourdain found himself with a group of friends living in Provincetown for the summer, long before he’d even entertained the idea of becoming a cook, let alone a world-renowned chef, writer, and TV travel and food show host. In fact, in an interview in The Boston Globe Magazine in 2012, he admitted he only got his first job in a restaurant, as a dishwasher, because he was forced to start contributing to the rent. But that one job altered his trajectory forever. Or perhaps, he was already on that trajectory and we can say coming to Provincetown actually was the first step.
In the new film Roadrunner by Morgan Neville, Bourdain’s fame, loves, successes, and struggles are captured through interviews with those who knew the late chef, (who committed suicide in 2018 at the age of 61), excerpts from his television shows Parts Unknown and A Cook’s Tour, including behind-the-scenes footage, interviews with Bourdain over the course of his career, and voice-over readings by Bourdain from his own writings, including the book that put him on the map, Kitchen Confidential, released in 2000. In addition, Neville weaves in Bourdain’s fascination with cinema as a reference point for much of his life before he started traveling in his mid-forties. What emerges from this collection of materials is a portrait of a deep thinker and a creative soul, someone whose own intelligence and curiosity both delighted and troubled him throughout his life.
Unfortunately, when someone dies by suicide, that fact overwhelms everything else about their legacy, or at the very least colors it with a sadness. Bourdain accomplished so much and was so well known prior to the suicide that it seems unfair to think of his death more than his life. Neville addresses this right away by starting the film with Bourdain’s voiceover comments about death, about how he didn’t care what happened to his remains after he died. It’s followed by a morbid but funny joke and then we move right into the story, which mostly covers his life from the time he wrote Kitchen Confidential to his death, with some reflections on childhood and his earlier days.
Because Bourdain was so consistently followed by cameras, there is a wealth of footage from which we can glean a lot to demonstrate his personality, even as it’s mostly within the context of filming for his television shows that we see him speaking with fellow chefs Eric Ripert and David Chang, for example. As the producers and others he worked with talk about working with Bourdain, it becomes clear that the camera was on him almost all the time, a fact which certainly contributed to the struggles he’d already faced all his life, struggles with addiction, with depression, and with a general restlessness outside of the kitchen. At one point, after Bourdain has fully switched over to a celebrity chef, no longer working in actual restaurants, he confesses, “I stopped working as a chef, the job whose daily routines were the only thing that stood between me and chaos.”
So much of his life seems to have been about seeking. He says in the film that when he was 43, he thought he’d already done most of what he was going to do in life, that the adventure part was over. He was married to his first wife, a high school girlfriend who he ultimately was with for nearly 30 years, and he was a successful chef at Brasserie Les Halles in Manhattan. And yet it was only after that point that Bourdain became so widely known, first with the book, then his first travel/food shows A Cook’s Tour, No Reservations, The Layover, and Parts Unknown, shows that were notably different from other chef shows for their deep interest in the cultures and political situations of the countries visited.
While he talks about his early use of heroin (starting here in Provincetown in fact) and how he quit cold turkey and the stresses of a life that was so often on-camera, Roadrunner shows us a man who was a constant seeker, who battled with the idea of being “happy” and fitting into a world where he stood out. The restlessness at the very core of his personality is the thing that comes through most in this version of his life. It is an extraordinary story, both sad and inspiring. And the film Roadrunner is full of insights about Bourdain that might just ring true for a lot of us.
Roadrunner opens at Waters Edge Cinema. 237 Commercial St., 2nd Fl., Provincetown, on Friday, July 16, where it is scheduled to screen through July 29. For tickets and information call 508.413.9369 or visit provincetownfilm.org/cinema.