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Highly Likely #86: Anthony Bourdain

"You know all that shit that was supposed to happen if you smoked weed? It never really happened.”

When Anthony Bourdain passed away in 2018, it was a gigantic loss for lovers of food-travel culture. Through his programs “No Reservations,” which aired on The Travel Channel, and then “Parts Unknown” on CNN (both programs ran for a collective 17 seasons on cable TV), he showcased food cultures from around the world. His persona exemplified that sort of brash, New York swagger: a punk rock attitude, and some unflinching honesty tossed in for good measure. 

Bourdain could also be a divisive character, however,  and his sometimes antagonistic interactions often led fans into a “love or hate” relationship with him. But his contributions to modern travel and food shows can’t be denied … Bourdain broke new territory and created something new with his personality-driven take on food culture.

His path toward stardom started with his best-selling book “Kitchen Confidential” – where Bourdain described a drug-fueled work environment in the kitchens of lower Manhattan that included copious amounts of Cannabis usage on a nightly basis. Sure, there were also heavier substances used and described in the book, but I’d always wondered, given Bourdain’s personality, if he’d continued to use Cannabis after he became a TV celebrity.  Then in 2017, I watched as one of America’s prominent food personalities rolled, then proceeded to light up a joint while overlooking the magnificent Puget Sound in Seattle.

Throughout his TV program, there were many signs in his 17 seasons on-air that Bourdain truly enjoyed consuming Cannabis. Here are a few:

  • On “No Reservations” in Cambodia, he orders a restaurant’s ‘Happy Pizza’ – which he notes had been enhanced with a “powerful herbal compound.” 
  • On “Parts Unknown” in Amsterdam, just before heading into the infamous Red Light District, he says, “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. Remember kids: don’t do drugs. We don’t.” Then proceeded to give the camera a long, pronounced eye roll.
  • Also on “Parts Unknown,” Bourdain eats a Cannabis-infused quail egg in Denmark.
  • Finally, a long segment on “Parts Unknown” is dedicated to showing how hashish-laced Majoon in Morocco is made by combining kief with honey. Bourdain, who’s writing style is chocked full of a sort of white knuckle honesty combined with sharp satirical snark, says, “Of course, network standards and practices prohibit me from even tasting this mind-altering treat … So until I see Christianne and Wolf doing bong rips in the Situation Room, I will, of course, abide by these rules. Because that’s. The. Kind. Of. Guy. I. Am.” 

So, Bourdain consumed plenty of edible Cannabis on his programs. But the question still remains: Did he smoke it?  Well, it took almost two decades, but that episode in Seattle put the debate to rest. “I’ve smoked weed since I was 13,” he said to a brother-sister Cannabis entrepreneur team over dinner. “You know all that shit that was supposed to happen if you smoked weed? It never really happened.”  

“I smoked a hell of a lot of bud on the show and looked straight at the camera and said, ‘This is CNN.’ And I gotta tell you, it made me happy,” Bourdain told Anderson Cooper in their breakdown of the program. Bourdain noted that CNN’s legal department had to get involved with the decision to smoke Cannabis on-camera and that it was ultimately allowed on the network since it was legal in the jurisdiction where he smoked it. “No, I got ripped-stoned on-camera … I’m very proud of my joint-rolling skills, so it was nice to roll a joint on camera. No, it was a highlight for me – getting ripped on camera on some high-powered, high-test bud,” he recalled.

The new biographical sketch of Bourdain by author Charles Leerhsen paints a picture of a complicated man – one whose appetites for substances far stronger and more dangerous than Cannabis eventually got the best of him. The book also demonstrates the very real dangers of celebrity in our modern day. And while it’s true that Bourdain’s story ultimately has a tragic end, that doesn’t change the fact of the indelible mark he left on society.

This article was originally published in the December 2022 issue of All Magazines.

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