• Evan Northrup

'Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain': A Fan's Journey

(Focus Features)

Seven years ago I became enthralled with a tattooed, cigarette-smoking, rough-shelled chef turned travel oracle. His name? Anthony Bourdain.

I had just turned 16. Books, TV, and the overdramatized social struggles of being a teenager consumed my life. Then, I got a job — a job as a busboy/host to be exact — and immediately the loud, high adrenaline nights spent scurrying between the kitchen and dining room became the highlights of my weeks.

For a kid who spent eight hours a day half-asleep in a classroom, I can’t describe the rush of suddenly finding myself in the high octane, breakneck-paced world of a restaurant. Everything from cleaning after hours to unlocking the doors on Sunday morning felt like a treat, but there was one element that stood miles above the rest. The people.

If you ever want to see how people would talk and act if they didn’t have time to send every sentence through a thousand mental filters before it reached their mouth, spend the night in a kitchen. There, where time is the greatest commodity, and every extra syllable is worth its weight in steak and shrimp, single words or phrases are spoken, yelled, and sometimes spat with the weight and meaning of entire conversations taking place in the dining room. Cooks and servers don’t have time to say anything other than what they mean, and the bullshit-free atmosphere is sweeter than any dessert ever served.

I think on some level everyone who has worked in a restaurant has felt the unbridled honesty and gristle-free culture that’s alive behind the dining room. Some fall in love with it, and others are chewed up and spat out in a matter of days. However, for an atmosphere and culture that so many love, at 16, the closest thing I had ever seen to this world being portrayed in pop culture was the watered-down PG-rated cooking shows on the Food Network. As someone who had always used books and film as a lens to view the world, it seemed unfathomable that no one had ever translated this unique space onto the page or screen. Then, someone handed me an old, beat-up copy of Kitchen Confidential — Anthony Bourdain’s love letter/expose on the gritty world behind the kitchen doors of a restaurant — and I never looked back.

The first time I read Kitchen Confidential, I remember one thing being clear. Anthony Bourdain didn’t just love the purity of the restaurant kitchen, he held it sacred. More importantly, he had the power to translate his feelings onto the page through soliloquies about sharp knives, stories about surly sous chefs, and spiels about the importance of a late night drink in those precious hours between close and open. He also wrote with a trait that endeared me to him at the time, along with millions of other readers and viewers over the span of three decades: he was a regular guy. He might be cooler than me, he might know a lot more about food than me, and he might be able to craft a sentence miles above any of mine, but there was — and always will be — something undeniably relatable about seeing the word through Anthony Bourdain’s eyes.

Reading Kitchen Confidential was the start of a seven-year journey that included three additional books (No Reservation, Medium Raw, and A Cook’s Tour), watching the majority of two television series (Parts Unknown and No Reservations), and even a few (failed) attempts to recreate the meals detailed in the Anthony Bourdain Les Halles Cookbook. I will never stop watching reruns of Parts Unknown, and I doubt Kitchen Confidential will ever spend more than a year on my bookshelf without being taken down. Despite that, my seven-year journey came to an end last Thursday on the opening night of Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain.

Roadrunner tells the story of Bourdain’s life at a clipping pace, from the moment Kitchen Confidential was released to the end. The movie runs an hour and 58 minutes, and like Bourdain himself, it never has time to drop anchor and laze about in the moment. There is previously unseen footage and new — ethically abhorrent — voiceovers, but where Roadrunner shines is through the interviews with the people who knew him best.

I couldn’t imagine that the director, Morgan Neville, would be able to find a new angle on a man who had been filmed for hundreds of hours and written thousands of pages. I mainly expected this documentary to be a highlight reel of interviews, TV clips, and behind-the-scenes footage. I was wrong. Neville didn’t give us one final look at the world through Bourdain’s eyes. Instead, he offered a look at Bourdain through the eyes of those who surrounded him, including his second wife Ottavia Bourdain, artist David Choe, chef Eric Ripert, and more of his closest compatriots.

(Focus Features)

One thing that is never in question is that this cast of journeymen telling Bourdain’s story truly, unequivocally loved him. But with real love comes a mix of a thousand other things, including despair, confusion, and anger. To these people, Bourdain wasn’t just a larger-than-life celebrity. He was also an awkward movie nerd, a man uncomfortable in the spotlight, and someone who questioned whether his shows offered introduction and exposure to new cultures, or exploited them for profit. Simply put, Roadrunner offered a full view of Anthony Bourdain — including the parts that TV had edited out.

I would be remiss not to mention that Neville crafted the documentary with a beautiful and caring touch. Every shot, every line, felt delicately selected to capture both the joyful and sorrowful moments of Bourdain’s life. Are there nits to be picked? Of course. The two artificially created Bourdain voiceovers using an AI will always be remembered as a glaring misstep, and I will personally never know if their portrayal of actress Asia Argento was completely fair. However, the issues do not overshadow Neville’s achievement in telling Bourdain’s story with respect and thoughtfulness.

It’s difficult to describe the way I felt leaving the theater on Thursday night. I know there was the sorrow of feeling I had said goodbye to a long-time friend, mixed with satisfaction that the film memorialized him as the full of life, incredible American storyteller that he was. This was a man who inspired us to have one more round, tell one more story, try one more dish, or take one more trip. I don’t claim to understand him better than any of his other followers, but as I watched people stream out of the theater, I couldn’t help but think the last thing he would’ve wanted is for wonderings about his death to overshadow all the things he taught us about life. Cheers to Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain, for helping make sure that will never happen.