My passion for cooking drew me to chef Anthony Bourdain over a decade ago while channel surfing until I barreled upon “No Reservations” on the Travel Channel. Food brought me to the table, but this was no ordinary grub show. I discovered a kindred spirit with an IDGAF attitude whose passion for food, music, beer, and adventure never surpassed his compassion for his fellow man, as they say in Costa Rica, “Pura Vida.” His modus operandi seemed like a recipe for existence, yet three years ago at the age of 61, he took his own life. Academy Award-winning documentarian Morgan Neville (“20 feet from Stardom”) explores the life of the chef, writer, and television host by connecting with those who knew him best. In the end though, how well did they really know him?
Bourdain was a rebel from day one. His reputation as a punk-rock chef fit. “Roadrunner” is not a biography that traces the chef and author from his childhood through his rise to fame, although we get glimpses of his upbring and commentary from his brother Chris, no, this is a Cinderella story of a man in his 40s ready to come to terms that he had peaked when life suddenly threw him a bone.
In 2000 he wrote a book “Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly” which exposed the darker side of the restaurant business while exposing his own misgivings including a dependency on heroin and alcohol. Part memoir, it quickly rose to the top of the New York Times bestseller list. He viewed himself as the antidote to all the cute and cuddly celebrity chefs which he said explained his success, while it was evident that he was just a good writer and a great storyteller.
Archival footage interspersed with candid interviews featuring chefs Éric Ripert and David Chang, who often appeared on Bourdain’s shows, are included and it becomes evident that they are still suffering from the loss of a good friend, their emotions surfacing during the conversations with Neville.
Producers Lydia Tenaglia and Christopher Collins, who after reading “Kitchen Confidential” envisioned a television show where Bourdain traveled around the world, tasting food and commenting on life. From Food Network’s “A Cook’s Tour” to the Travel Network’s “No Reservations” and “The Layover,” Bourdain suddenly found himself trekking across the globe, something he never imagined. A true cinephile, his only references to the outside world were the ones he saw in movies. Behind-the-scenes footage and highlights from the shows are included in the documentary including the scene where Bourdain eats the still-beating extracted heart of cobra while visiting Saigon.
After the 2006 Beirut episode of “No Reservations” in which Bourdain and his crew found themselves in the middle of the Lebanon War — they were evacuated by Marines along with other trapped American citizens — a change occurred and soon his shows were less about the food and more about the people. After a falling out with the Travel Channel, Bourdain jumped ship to CNN for “Parts Unknown” which featured a theme song by Queens of the Stone Age, a band he admired.
Music has been a key factor of Neville’s documentaries and so he seems like the perfect candidate to tackle Anthony Bourdain’s life. Artists that include Iggy Pop (who is featured in the documentary), Alice Cooper, and Marky Ramone appeared on Bourdain’s show, musicians he idolized and like a true fanboy he never held back his adoration. He came across as geeky and genuine and it connected with so many people.
Bourdain’s personal life is featured in the doc with footage of his first wife, high school sweetheart Nancy Putkoski, they divorced just as stardom found the celebrity chef. A couple of years later he found a new form of release in jiu-jitsu after meeting MMA fighter Ottavia Busia, who appears in the documentary. The two got married and had a child together, home movies and pics help tell the story, but the strain of Bourdain’s career, which included long stretches of being away, eventually took its toll on their marriage and they separated in 2016.
“Roadrunner” begins as a celebration of the celebrity chef’s life but as the documentary plays out one can’t help but feel a bit melancholy as we remember how the story ends. His final relationship with actress Asia Argento comes under the spotlight after the two met on an episode of “Parts Unknown.” We as humans have this natural tendency to solve any mystery but when it comes to suicide, there is no clear answer. You may feel a tendency to point a finger or look for clues while watching the documentary, but you won’t find any. There are no answers, nor can there be. Even those who knew him best weren’t prepared for the ending to Bourdain’s story.
Are three years too soon for this doc? I would say “yes.” The interviews make it clear that Bourdain’s loved ones are still overcome with grief and despite the film’s upbeat tone, this is a tragic story that seems to be narrated by the chef-turned-writer-turned-television host who in his signature voice-over narration is heard explaining “You’re probably going to find out about it anyway” followed by “There’s no happy ending.”
Neville has come under fire recently for admitting he used A.I. technology to mimic Bourdain’s voice for a few lines of dialogue written but never spoken by the chef. Thousands of hours of audio were used to generate the faux narration which is so good that I didn’t notice. A misstep by the director? For sure. An on-screen quote would have sufficed but in his defense, Neville didn’t put words in Bourdain’s mouth he said he was “trying to make them come alive.” The grey area in all this comes as the director mentioned that he cleared it with Bourdain’s ex-wife and literary executor Ottavia, which she flat out denies.
Still, don’t let the controversy stop you from seeing “Roadrunner.” In true Bourdain spirit, I feel he would say “F—k it” followed by “Enjoy the show.”
Editor’s note: This story was changed to correctly reflect the amount of time passed since Bourdain’s death.