Anthony Bourdain is the great Trojan Horse of America’s cannabis movement—and may not even know it. Inadvertently or otherwise, the globe-trotting foodie is one of this country’s most charismatic and influential cannabis advocates.
A poetic, philosophical maverick, Bourdain laces his work—ultra-popular TV food and travel shows and best-selling books—with pro-cannabis attitude and anecdotes. In so doing, he’s helped shape the attitudes of millions of people towards cannabis without so much as hosting a rally or posting a meme.
“Obviously, if I’m shooting in Morocco or Egypt and I find myself on a sand dune in the middle of the Sahara, looking out over a perfect fucking moonscape, I’m smoking weed,” he said.
Bourdain’s million-selling breakout book, Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly, is speckled with fond cannabis references and remembrances. Episodes of his hit CNN series Parts Unknown, in which he also repeatedly alludes to the joys of cannabis, have attracted audiences upwards of 670,000. He’s earned “establishment” recognition including multiple Emmy Awards and, significantly, a 2012 honorary CLIO Award—which is given to individuals whose work has encouraged people around the world to think differently.
“Chefs are in the pleasure business, and it’s important to understand your subject.”
This is a man who shares a leisurely dinner with President Barack Obama (as seen on a recent Parts Unknown episode) and travels with household-name celebrity chefs, yet is an unrepentant, eloquent cannabis aficionado. He’s eaten cannabis-infused pizza in Cambodia; explored Copenhagen’s cannabis-infested “Pusher Street;” and (apparently) enjoyed Morocco’s cannabis-infused “majoun” confection—all on national, prime-time TV.
“I will tell you, with authority, that the perfect delivery system for marijuana, particularly good marijuana, is a joint; a classic joint,” he said. “I prefer two papers. Purists will say one paper, [but] two papers burns more evenly.”
By embracing, joking and reminiscing about cannabis in front of vast, broad-demographic audiences and in such “respectable” company, Anthony Bourdain has become a shining star of America’s cannabis community. On the page and on-screen, he’s enthusiastically familiarizing his fans with the plant’s versatility, cultural roots, societal value and worldwide acceptance.
While Bourdain seemingly slipped seamlessly into small-screen ubiquity in the early aughts (initially with Food Network series A Cook’s Tour), his culinary journey stretches back to the mid 1970s. While attending New York’s Vassar College, he enjoyed a summer working in a seafront restaurant in Provincetown, Massachusetts, before dropping out to attend NYC’s Culinary Institute of America.
Upon graduation in 1978, Bourdain plunged into a rollercoaster, rock ‘n’ roll jobbing journey through upscale NYC restaurants, which he so entertainingly recounts in Kitchen Confidential. The book is a sensuous, sometimes sardonic, belly-before-brains romp through two decades of often cannabis-fueled cooking.
“Everybody [in professional kitchens] smokes dope after work. People you would never imagine. There has been an entire strata of restaurants . . . created especially for the tastes of the slightly stoned, slightly drunk chef after work.”
“We were high all the time, sneaking off to the walk-in refrigerator at every opportunity to ‘conceptualize’,” wrote Bourdain in Kitchen Confidential. “Hardly a decision was made without drugs. Cannabis, methaqualone, cocaine, LSD . . . secobarbital, Tuinal, amphetamine and, increasingly, heroine.”
From sweetening tea with honey-soaked psilocybin mushrooms to igniting brandy to reenact Apocalypse Now explosions, the kitchens of Bourdain’s memory are places of functioning substance abuse and creative debauchery. Introducing the man’s single-minded, eccentric and decidedly lived-in worldview to the general public for the first time, Kitchen Confidential catapulted Bourdain, directly and through the TV career it ignited, from unseen chef to celebrity multi-millionaire—but not until middle life.
“At the age of 44, I was standing in kitchens, not knowing what it was like to go to sleep without being in mortal terror,” he said earlier this year. “I was in horrible, endless, irrevocable debt. I had no health insurance. I didn’t pay my taxes. I couldn’t pay my rent.”
A self-confessed former “crackhead,” he was once reduced to selling his record collection on the streets to raise money.
Bourdain’s TV trajectory reflects his burgeoning public appeal. After 35 episodes of A Cook’s Tour he moved on to the Travel Channel for what would become seven years of the very similar No Reservations (and the shorter-lived The Layover). His 2012 leap to mainstream network CNN for Parts Unknown cemented fame that far transcends gastronomy. Indeed, the relentlessly inquisitive, hour-long show will go minutes at a time without even mentioning food, while delving also into the culture, history and lifestyles of destinations from Quebec to Colombia, Mississippi to Madagascar.
Bourdain’s very vocal association of cannabis and cooking has found him aligned, alongside chefs and restaurateurs like Roy Choi, David Chang and Joanne Weir, with what’s been dubbed “haute stoner cuisine”—in short, classy contemporary cooking informed by, and catering to, the munchies.
“Everybody [in professional kitchens] smokes dope after work. People you would never imagine,” Bourdain said. “There has been an entire strata of restaurants . . . created specially for the tastes of the slightly stoned, slightly drunk chef after work.”
As cannabis has become decriminalized in more and more U.S. states and increasingly entered everyday American life, so has its influence become more palpable on progressive restaurant menus. Examples of haute canna-cuisine include breakfast burrito pizza, ice cream mimicking the bottom-of-a-cereal-bowl milk, and all manner of mutant hot dogs.
By detailing and subtly celebrating cannabis-based recipes like majoun—a storied Moroccan concoction containing potent kief—on ratings-topping TV, Bourdain has helped propel the evolution of high-end cannabis edibles, while also catching the attention of amateur canna-chefs everywhere.
“Chefs are in the pleasure business, and it’s important to understand your subject,” he said. “If you know what it’s like to be stoned and hungry at one o’clock in the morning, it’s helpful when you’re trying to create a menu for people who are stoned and hungry at one o’clock in the fucking morning.”
Bourdain’s exploration of mind- and mood-altering substances is in keeping with his curiosity towards “extreme” foods—the ultra-spicy, beyond-slimy and, to Western sensibilities, utterly gross. Calling himself “a very unusual case,” he kicked hard drugs but still enjoys alcohol and, apparently, cannabis.
In No Reservations’ Peru episode, Anthony Bourdain implied he’d imbibed a shaman’s hallucinogenic ayahuasca brew (which he later discussed, along with his LSD encounters, on the Joe Rogan Experience podcast). His playful embrace of off-piste substances, experiences and just plain fun is encapsulated in an upcoming Parts Unknown scene in which he declares: “It’s perfectly okay to be shitfaced at the [dining] table!”
These days, Bourdain is deliberately ambiguous about his relationship with cannabis, apparently out of professional and legal obligation. On a 2013 edition of Parts Unknown he explained, with thinly-veiled sarcasm: “Network Standards and Practices prohibit me from even tasting [majoun] . . . So until I see Christiane [Amanpour] and Wolf [Blitzer] doing bong rips in the Situation Room, I will of course abide by these rules.”
Yet in the same episode he described the hashish haze of a Tangier cafe as resembling “my dorm room, 1972.”
“I will tell you, with authority, that the perfect delivery system for marijuana, particularly good marijuana, is a joint; a classic joint.”
Arriving in Amsterdam for a 2012 stop on The Layover, he quipped, eyes rolling: “The use of any controlled substance by me or any member of this crew would be absolutely forbidden according to network standards and all rules of human decency.”
Referring to that same episode shortly after its shooting, in an interview with Mark Binelli of Men’s Journal, Bourdain said: “Network policy, of course, absolutely precludes any of their talent getting high on camera. I’ll be interested to see how my editors cut around that.”
And after demolishing his Cambodian “happy pizza” on No Reservations, he wondered aloud: “What makes this pizza so happy? Let’s just say there’s a powerful ‘herbal component’ . . . Which is more important: Crispy crust, or crispy diner?”
Comments like these have made Anthony Bourdain so synonymous with cannabis-enhanced good times that his very name has entered the cannabis vernacular—an “Anthony Bourdain” being the hit that nudges a toker from sober to high (according to the crowdsourced Urban Dictionary).
CNN appears well aware of its star’s standing in stoner subculture. A six-minute clip devoted to Anthony Bourdain discussing hashish in Morocco, which has been viewed over 220,000 times, appears on the network’s own YouTube channel. And it’s perhaps no coincidence that CNN’s cannabusiness docu-series High Profits aired immediately after Parts Unknown on Sunday nights last year.
Self-described as “America’s favorite bad-boy chef,” Bourdain has lately curbed his once hard-living, profanity-laced persona. He quit smoking following the birth of his daughter in 2007, earned a blue belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu in 2015, and now seldom swears on camera. While he still constantly references and enjoys alcohol, he appears healthier today, silver-haired at age 60, than he did a decade ago.
The beautifully-shot Parts Unknown, now in its eighth season, oozes Bourdain’s irrepressible personality. In its Nashville episode (airing on October 2), its punk rock-loving host chooses hanging out with The Kills over cooking (though he does whip-up some deviled eggs for a party). In the new season’s Sichuan episode (airing October 16), he delights equally in the region’s searingly spicy cuisine and the visible distress this causes his travelmate, chef Eric Ripert. In Japan (airing November 13), he’s more interested in the geisha girls of “ochaya” tea houses than in tea itself.
Lending don’t-look-away allure to his TV work, Bourdain has endured life-threatening close calls (in Lebanon and Libya) and comedic logistical fiascos (in Sicily and Romania). He insists that there are no re-takes or staged walk-ins in Parts Unknown and, true to his spirit of exploration, is prepared to suffer to expand his palate and mind. There’s an almost Fear Factor fascination to watching him consume the likes of unwashed warthog rectum (in Namibia), raw seal eye (Canada), and beating cobra heart (Vietnam).
These aren’t mere ratings-boosting stunts, however. Anthony Bourdain is also making points central to his gastronomic philosophy: that traditional “street” and “peasant” dishes have way more value and flavor than Western fast foods; that Americans have blinkered appetites; and that there’s much to be enjoyed in animal parts usually discarded in affluent First World cooking (the double meaning in Parts Unknown’s title).
The same goes for his incidental championing of cannabis, which asserts: This stuff is harmless and probably good for you; it has myriad medical, culinary and recreational applications; and many of our global kin have already figured this out and are all the happier for it.
“Cures glaucoma, too,” he wryly advised, polishing-off his cannabis-sprinkled ‘happy pizza.’
Bourdain’s latest book, Appetites: A Cookbook, which will be published on October 25, returns to his hands-on culinary roots. His first actual cookbook in more than a decade, it reflects a more domesticated lifestyle since becoming a parent. Appetites is about cooking at home, but includes insights from years of worldwide adventure and in hectic, hyper-organized professional kitchens (Bourdain describes himself in the book’s announcement as “a psychotic, anally retentive, bad-tempered Ina Garten”).
Looking fitter than ever, with undulled lust for his subject and a network budget and creative freedom which he’s described as “unfettered and spectacular,” the Bourdain brand remains ascendant. And the appetite-enhancing approach he takes to overtly promoting adventurous cuisine continues to be paralleled by implied, irreverent cannabis advocacy.
“I wanted people to feel a certain way watching these shows,” he said. “I wanted people to feel hungry when they see all the food I am eating . . . It’s a very manipulative process and I enjoy that process.”