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He sits at a round two-top in Les Halles restaurant on Park Avenue. The wall behind him is white-tiled and there are a couple of shabby little laser-printed notices. It’s obviously somewhere back of house, but Anthony Bourdain’s whites are immaculate and there’s a pristine cloth on the table. He holds a 12” knife like he knows how to use one. It is 2001 and Bourdain has just published Kitchen Confidential, the bestselling exposé of his life as a chef, which will change everything both for him and, arguably, many others in the same line of work.
For Chris Floyd, a young photographer with a reputation for brilliant portraits of rock stars, this commission, for issue three of Observer Food Monthly, was different. “I remember thinking it’s just going to be some shouty, annoying guy who’s got a book to plug, and I remember not going into it with a great deal of belief, really,” he says. “Within 90 seconds, I realised this man was special. He was physically incredibly striking. Chain-smoked, constantly. He had unbelievable charisma.”
Laurie Woolever is a writer and editor who spent nearly a decade as Bourdain’s “lieutenant”. Her new book Bourdain: In Stories, is an oral history of those who shared his life.
“He was very forthcoming about a lot of the aspects of his life, both good and bad … not shy about sharing his faults and his shortcomings,” she says of the chef, who died in 2018. “And yet there was a lot about him … parts of his history that I think he shaved off or sanded away over the course of his life in order to stay true to the image that he was sharing with the world.”
As Floyd describes, Bourdain buzzed with a “humming, constant nervous energy, legs going all the time, you know. Joe Strummer was like that as well. Vibrating.” But Floyd captured something else; a look of simultaneous innocence and enthusiasm, like he’s teetering on the edge of something.
“I think he felt he’d won the lottery,” says Woolever, “or had somehow harnessed lightning in a bottle – being at the right place at the right time with the right book for the moment, with the right people around him to help him catapult into this new life. I think he felt extraordinarily lucky.”