A recurring quip on the BBC podcast “Kermode and Mayo’s Film Review” (aka “Wittertainment”) is that Jaws is “not about a shark.” Roadrunner: A Film about Anthony Bourdain prompts a similar conclusion about its stated subject. Nominally about the late chef who first shot to fame with his 2000 “tell all” memoir, Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly, and the journey from behind those kitchen doors to the media star who ate noodles with President Barack Obama in Vietnam for an episode of CNN’s “Parts Unknown,” it is less a film about Bourdain than one about absence, artifice, and the limits of storytelling.
There is plenty of Bourdain in the film, much of the footage previously unseen because it predates his media persona: a young chef ordering vegetables on an old-school mobile device while sitting on the pavement outside Les Halles (the New York restaurant where he became executive chef in 1998); “Tony” at home with then-wife (1985–2005) Nancy, who brings him baba ghanoush and apple juice while he clumsily types with two fingers and chain smokes; Bourdain in the kitchen of Les Halles receiving the news that Kitchen Confidential was about to be a New York Times bestseller, after which he proclaims, somewhat ominously, “Anything that happens to me beyond that [kitchen] door, I’m suspicious of.” Indeed, this archival material is so rich in nostalgic detail as to almost raise suspicion itself: who, in an era before social media, could have predicted that these private moments of a chef who never sought fame might one day have value for a wide audience? Why was this recorded in the first place?
That question is never answered directly but the film’s narrative is one of an unlikely rise to fame—or to the “publicness” that resulted from emerging from behind kitchen doors to traveling the world with a camera crew in tow. It was not an easy transition: behind-the-scenes footage of his first trip to Japan for “A Cook’s Tour” (Food Network, 2000) exposes a sceptical figure still coming to terms with the construction he’d signed up for. As he narrates to the camera while being filmed walking “alone” in a rural setting on that occasion:
To be honest I’m not totally alone, because clearly someone’s shooting this. I always love those “desert scenes”—alone in the desert, yeah, but who else’s footprints are those? But look, this is pretty cool. And…well, I’ll tell you this—I’m having a lot more fun walking forward than the camera person is walking backwards, I’m sure.
Such scenes may be useful reminders to media scholars and lay viewers of the edifice of various “reality” genres—food and travel among them—that rely on extensive editorial manipulation to appear as seamless as possible to assist the viewer’s suspension of disbelief. But they should not come as a surprise.
Neither should the story of its now-absent protagonist: “There is no happy ending,” viewers are reminded by Bourdain’s own voice-over in the trailer for the film, which will not stand up as a “bio-pic” as much as an homage to both a film subject and a director—less a Julie and Julia (2009, directed by Nora Ephron about the lives of Julia Child and food blogger Julie Powell) than a Supermensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon (2014, directed by Mike Myers about the erstwhile manager of, inter alia, Alice Cooper, Teddy Pendergrass, and, significantly for the food world, Emeril Lagasse, whom Gordon claims to have been instrumental in transforming into the first modern “celebrity chef”). With an opening montage of Bourdain’s musical and linguistic inspirations—Ernest Hemingway, Hunter S. Thompson, Iggy Pop, Lou Reed—and later clips of the chef being interviewed by the likes of David Letterman and Oprah Winfrey, Roadrunner follows the cinematic structure of a “fallen star” documentary like Amy ([Winehouse], 2015, directed by Asif Kapadia): dynamic, voyeuristic, and unsettling.
There is much here of potential value to film and media scholars, particularly as a pointed example on several levels of what sociologist Erving Goffman described as the difference between “front stage” and “back stage” in his seminal 1956 book, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, and in the distinction cultural anthropologists use between an “etic” (outside, looking in) and “emic” (aiming to endorse an internal validity, even from the outside) perspective. Yet, likely to overshadow any focus on Bourdain, specifically, is the meta-discourse around the director’s choice to employ an Artificial Intelligence (A.I.) firm to digitally generate fifty seconds of the chef’s “voice” in an almost two-hour film (Simonite 2021)—words that “Bourdain himself had written…He just—to the best of our knowledge—never uttered them aloud” (Rosner 2021)—and which has dominated much of the film’s media coverage since its release.
The debate about the ethics of such a choice is beyond the scope of this review, but also embedded in it, to the extent of the performative aspect of what we recognize as the authenticity of “food media.” The opening segment of the film shows a beach with gently rolling waves, and we hear the familiar voice of its main character:
It is considered useful, and enlightening, and therapeutic, to think about death for a few minutes a day. What actually happens to my physical remains is of zero interest to me…I don’t want a party…“Reported dead.” Unless it could bring some entertainment value—in a subversive way…throw me in a woodchipper and spray me into Harrod’s in the middle of the rush hour. That would be pretty epic. I wouldn’t mind being remembered in that way.
If we accept these words as coming from Bourdain—who was sadly “reported dead” by suicide on June 8, 2018—it’s also reasonable to assume that he would not like to be remembered as a subject of controversies about misinformation and the scourge of deepfakes that presently dominate our mediascape. But for fans of the chef, television host, and man—as far as his viewers “knew” him—the knowledge that he avoided needing to confront such matters is about as comforting as just seeing him in “person” again.