Wow. Anthony Bourdain is like me! Now debt-free (well, OK, he’s definitely not like me), Chef Bourdain, now 60, apparently didn’t even have a savings account until he was 44.
I don’t want to sound like I’m bragging about this, but the sad fact is, until 44 years of age, I never had any kind of savings account. I’d always been under the gun. I’d always owed money. I’d always been selfish and completely irresponsible.
Well, they aren’t kidding. Chef Bourdain is painfully, achingly honest about his shortcomings, something I’ve always admired in his writings (Bone in the Throat, Medium Raw, A Cook’s Tour), but particularly Kitchen Confidential, where he famously described his drug-addled beginnings in the culinary trade.
So, you would think that a now reasonably reformed Anthony Bourdain – who just released the well-reviewed Appetites – would have been rich by the time he wrote his tell-all, Kitchen Confidential. But, wait…
I was given a $10,000 advance for Bone in the Throat, which I split 50-50 with my old college roommate, who got me into book publishing. For the second book, Gone Bamboo, I probably walked away with around eight grand.
When Kitchen Confidential was published, I hadn’t filed taxes in about 10 years. I was seriously behind on rent. It had been about a decade since I’d communicated with American Express in a timely manner. In my daily life, the goal was to muffle the anxiety that I’d feel as I tried to drift off to sleep knowing that, at any point, what little money I had in my bank account could be garnished by the IRS or the credit card company. The landlord could kick me to the curb. That was my reality for many years…
I’m not sure Bourdain’s parents are thrilled to be labelled with that withering description, “bad with money.” Their son is sympathetic, but brutally honest, describing “that terrifying space, that uncertainty that goes back to childhood. Will the car get fixed? Will we be able to pay for tuition?”
It was a very different America: the middle class of those days seemed somehow more aspirational. They read Cheever and Updike and tried to stay up on culture. We barbecued in the backyard, vacations were at the Jersey Shore in shared two-family homes. Was I aware of money? Yeah. I was aware we didn’t have enough sometimes.
By the way, Bourdain says he doesn’t make money from his books, and his own book imprint — Anthony Bourdain at Ecco Press — makes “no money” for him (so far): “I do it for love and for reasons of advocacy. There are people out there whom I feel should champion.” We can assume his TV shows (Parts Unknown) do make money, though not as much as we assume. He is one of the wealthiest chefs in the world, worth about six million dollars (which doesn’t sound like a lot these days – and that was probably pre-divorce).
The reports of my net worth are about ten times overstated. I think the people who calculate these things assume that I live a lot more sensibly than I do. I mean, I don’t live recklessly — I have one car. But I don’t deprive myself simple pleasures. I’m not a haggler. There’s not enough time in the world. I tend to go for the quickest, easiest, what’s comfortable. I want it now. Time’s running out.
Writing a book is probably the least bang for the buck. My Get Jiro co-author Joel Rose talks about this: you spend a year of your life, or more, writing a book. You get a chunk of money and they put it out there, and the overwhelming likelihood is you’re going to get very little back. My books do very well, but it’s probably the least profitable thing that I do.
Bourdain is now separated from his wife, Ottavia (the mother of his daughter, Ariane). So this revelation was kind of nice…
I’d like my daughter and her mom looked after, both while I’m alive and after. They shouldn’t have to worry if something bad happens, so my investments and savings are based on that. I’m super-conservative. Money doesn’t particularly excite or thrill me; the making of money gives me no particular satisfaction. To me, money is freedom from insecurity, freedom to move, time if you choose to make use of time.
And even though we all probably wonder if Bourdain is a difficult person to work with on his TV shoots, he acknowledges “the pressure’s on me to be the sort of person people will want to stick with.”
I like the idea of retiring on a hilltop, surrounded by people I care about, but the fact is, I like working with the people I work with because they’re talented people who could easily make just as much money working elsewhere, if not more… So the pressure’s on me to be the sort of person people will want to stick with.
Finally, we end with some nice things being said about the IRS. I kind you not. So, being rich enough to be completely honest and up-front with your government is perhaps the biggest luxury of all.
Nobody likes paying high taxes, but I don’t mind. Maybe that’s a luxury, but I don’t need to hire some hotshot to spend 12 hours a day figuring out how to chisel the government out of an extra few thousand dollars.
More meaty “bits”
It had been about a decade since I’d communicated with American Express in a timely manner.
I am fanatical about not owing anybody any money. I hate it. I don’t want to carry a balance, ever.
I think living like that made me very cautious. I held onto my job after Kitchen Confidential came out; I was hesitant about whether I should leave the kitchen, and I waited as long as I could. I was old enough to realize I’d been handed this incredible, lucky break and I was very unlikely to get another one.
P.S. This fascinating interview came to my attention via Food & Wine magazine, but originates from a recurring series on wealthsimple.com, entitled “Money Diaries,” in which “interesting people tell the unvarnished truth about their financial lives.”
Thanks to writer Laurie Woolever for this revealing glimpse into the life of a chef. I’m not recommending wealthsimple, by the way, and I don’t have any money to invest, anyway, but I do admire their online “magazine.” Good work.
*Excerpts from: As told to Laurie Woolever exclusively for Wealthsimple. Other sources: How Anthony Bourdain Became Debt-Free | Food & Wine.