He never knew it, of course, but Anthony Bourdain and I ever-so-lightly crossed paths once. Several years ago, he wrote about a roots-centered episode of Top Chef:
I was the exhausted researcher who frantically dug into the family histories of a dozen Top Chef contestants (producers had no clue which ones would survive to this Ellis Island episode), doing the genealogical equivalent of sequential quick fires to ensure that the final five would all learn something new about their ancestry, so it was my handiwork he was musing on.
As a long-time fan of Top Chef — not to mention, French-born travel bum — I suppose it was just a matter of time before I would set my sights on Bourdain, who was a gifted chef and possibly even more talented writer. A professional vagabond and reformed but unapologetic scoundrel, he managed (on shows such as Parts Unknown, No Reservations, and The Layover) to make watching someone else travel fascinating.
So as a modest tribute to a truly one-of-a-kind, here are five things that you didn’t know about his roots:
1. Anthony Bourdain’s family tree is one of the most diverse I’ve ever researched. In addition to the obvious — France — Brazil, Ukraine, Spain, Austria, Uruguay, Paraguay, and even Gibraltar all claimed a piece of his past. Religion-wise, his heritage was both Jewish and Catholic.
For any doubting Thomases out there, here’s a small sample of the paper trail, the 1861 baptism of his great-grandfather, Aureliano Bourdain, in Sao Pedro, Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil.
2. If any of the following surnames appear in your family tree, there’s a chance that you are some sort of cousin of Bourdain’s: Adler, Belami, Belliard, Bourdain, Calcada, Cohen, Duclos, Francia, Friedman, Lorel, Mallet, Riousse, Sacksman, Schuss, Ungar, and Weinrib.
3. The maternal, Bronx-based portion of his family tree had characters who would likely would have amused Bourdain, including a pair of brothers in the textile industry who had a habit of getting mixed up in situations involving bad checks and stolen goods. But they were also on the receiving end of criminal activity, such as the time his grandmother was robbed of $4,500 of jewelry and furs.
4. His ancestors were relative late-comers to America with the first arriving in the late 1870s and the last disembarking at Ellis Island in 1926, though there’s a bit of a caveat with regard to that last date. Officially, it’s true, but the reality is that this same grandfather had been here before in 1919. While many have romantic tales of ancestors who supposedly stowed away to come to America, Bourdain’s grandfather is one of the rare documented cases.
At the ripe old of 13, his grandfather stowed away on the S.S. Kroonland (at the time, being used as a naval vessel). He was discovered, handed over to protective custody, and returned to his mother in Bordeaux, but he must have liked what he saw during his brief stay because he decided to make it permanent in 1926 after having completed a stint in the French military.
5. This colorful Bourdain ancestor didn’t have long to make his mark in Anthony’s family tree, but he did his best. Working in the cosmetics industry, he took a bride in 1928. It’s hard to say whether they had agreed in advance or were fooling each other, but both fibbed about their ages. While the paperwork says that he was 26 and she was 28, the gap was considerably wider. At age 23, he was taking a 35-year-old wife. Having been an only son, he sadly passed away at the young age of 27, leaving an only son of his own — Bourdain’s father.
Anthony Bourdain’s very existence, then, was against the odds, and his wanderlust almost inevitable. How very fortunate for all of us that we were able to witness this wild spirit at play during his all too short tenure on our planet.