The beginning of Anthony Bourdain’s TV career was a disaster

Wasn’t always so easy.
Wasn’t always so easy.
Image: EPA-EFE/Jose Sena Goulao
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It’s hard to imagine the late Anthony Bourdain being ill at ease in front of the camera. In shows like Parts Unknown he appeared perfectly comfortable slurping noodles and sipping beer onscreen, all while delivering snark and wisdom in equal measure.

But it wasn’t always thus. In an oral history of the author, chef, and TV personality’s “enormous life” published by GQ in their Men of the Year issue, Bourdain’s closest friends, collaborators, and peers reminisce about his life and career. Among the revelations? His screen career got off to a rocky start.

Lydia Tenaglia and Chris Collins were the freelance producers who first approached Bourdain about a TV show. They went on to found Zero Point Zero productions, which produced three of Bourdain’s most well-known shows. Tenaglia and Collins recounted how, when they first set out on a five-week trip to Asia to begin filming A Cook’s Tour—which would also serve as the basis for Bourdain’s follow-up book to Kitchen Confidential—things did not go well.

Tenaglia: Japan was a fucking disaster.

Collins: The mistakes were very clear. He did not engage with us. He would not acknowledge our presence and that we were there working together.

Tenaglia: I think he was thinking, “Great! I just got a free ride to all these countries.”

Collins: It was a ruse. It was, I’m gonna double dip here. I’m going to be able to get paid to go make something, and I’m going to write articles.

Tenaglia: We would go back to the hotel and say, “We are so screwed.”

The pair recount how, after the disastrous shoot in Japan, Bourdain insisted on flying back to New York to cook Christmas dinner for his family. They doubted he’d come back. But when he did, arriving in Vietnam, something shifted.

Collins: He started drinking it in, and something inherently changed in that guy. There was something…the smell, the colors…something twisted in his head the right way. It really sounds crazy, but it was “Okay, we’ve got something.”

Tenaglia: He felt it, too. He came alive, because those frames of reference were starting to pop. His sudden inclination was to turn and share that with us. You could sense this excitement, like, “Holy crap, I’m actually on the ground in a location that I have studied, that I know, that I have references to.” You know, Apocalypse Now, Heart of Darkness, Graham Greene, the Vietnam War. He was percolating with an excitement that was very genuine.

Collins: It was like a light switch coming on.

Bourdain said repeatedly that Vietnam was “one of his favorite places on earth.” What he did not say, however, was that it was also the place where he learned how to work well with a crew—and be on TV.