The Secret Life Of Anthony Bourdain
— Updated on 12 June 2024

The Secret Life Of Anthony Bourdain

— Updated on 12 June 2024
Garry Lu
Garry Lu

Until the week preceding his untimely death, Anthony Bourdain had been in the throes of an intense love affair with Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. Like many of us enamoured with the gentle art, the Emmy-winning celebrity chef behind Parts Unknown and No Reservation had adopted this violent hobby to escape himself, unlock a measure of hidden potential, and in this specific context, replace unhealthy addictions with an exceedingly rewarding one.

“My then-wife was a full-time martial artist and invited four of the least likely people she knew to take a private training session in the hope it would be hilariously funny and pathetic,” Anthony Bourdain explained to Men’s Health in late 2017, referring to ex-wife Ottavia Bourdain (née Busia).

“She picked me, Doug from Big Gay Ice Cream, and two others. I’d never been in a gym in my life. I was 35 pounds overweight, a chain smoker, flabby, zero cardio. Taking stairs was not fun. To my shock and surprise, I endured, barely, that first session.”

“I found it very strategically and intellectually intriguing. I like problem-solving and I also like being the stupidest person in the room. I like being at the foot of a very steep incline where you never reach the top. It’s one of the reasons I like Japan.”

RELATED: The Case For Why Every Man Should Learn Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu

Shortly after the pivotal challenge extended by Ottavia, Anthony Bourdain dived headfirst into learning Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu; opting to make the famed Renzo Gracie Academy in Manhattan his home gym, where he was principally taught by none other than Igor Gracie in private, and occasionally the legendary John Danaher — who has instructed the likes of Georges St-Pierre, Chris Weidman, Gordan Ryan, Garry Tonon, Firas Zahabi. And regardless of where he found himself in the world, he made sure his gi travelled with him.

“Every day I’m home in New York… every day, I head down to the cellar locker room of the Renzo Gracie Academy.”

“When I’m not in New York — when I’m on the road shooting Parts Unknown — I go to whatever local gym, yoga studio, garage, cellar claims to teach Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu… places where the term ‘parts unknown’ can really apply,” Bourdain expressed via blog post.

“Will the ‘facility’ be an austere, Japanese-style dojo, a freezing garage, an airless, 110-degree closet, a military base, a boxing ring? I have trained in all these places: Glasgow, Maui, Istanbul, Beirut, Budapest, Kuching, Kuala Lumpur, Okinawa, Marseille — and all over the US.”

RELATED: The 10 Best Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Gyms In Sydney (According To Black Belt Kaine Wilken)

“Anthony Bourdain, before he died, he was obsessed with Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu,” black belt Joe Rogan explained to Robert Downey Jr during JRE #1411.

“Yeah, became really obsessed with it at 58, and got really good. He was training every day, and he was trained twice a day, every day. So he went from when I first met him, he was chubby, he was smoking cigarettes, he drank every night… still kinda drank every night.”

“He really got good… He was obsessed.”

Anthony Bourdain’s days inside a padded room simulating murder were about as confidential as the days spent in the kitchen: not at all. In fact, not only is there footage of the man competing as a blue belt in the Master VI division of the New York Spring Open circa 2016 (weight class unclear) linked further down this article… at one stage, Parts Unknown was used as the perfect excuse to train with renowned black belt Kurt Osiander in the San Francisco Bay.

He did, however, quietly seek refuge online. In the corner of Reddit known as r/bjj, between the years of 2014 to 2018, active posters and lurkers alike had a decent chance of encountering old Tony behind the digital moniker u/NooYawkCity. This was his secret life.

While many had long-suspected his identity years ago after piecing together the clues and taking notice of the signature writing style, the knowledge of his r/bjj activity only became mainstream last December when Rolling Stone published a compilation of his key moments; framed as a “lost diary” of sorts by author Alexander Darwin.

Bourdain’s entrants — described as “colourful, ruminative, simultaneously lacerating and humble” — once served as nothing more than a white belt looking for answers. Now, the very same entrants find themselves in rarefied air. The legacy of an individual who made it his business to search for greater meaning in this cosmic mess of probabilities, and relished tapping into a “raw culture.” You may indeed find what you’re reading to be almost intimate in its bare nature — despite whatever innocuous intentions were originally attached.

“When his celebrity was at its height and he couldn’t walk a street on this planet without getting recognised, Brazilian jiu-jitsu gave Anthony Bourdain a new, anonymous world to traverse, one where he was just one of us,” writes Darwin.

“This was the truest Anthony Bourdain, writing simply for the sake of it, unburdened by his reputation — he’d previously chronicled his passion for food and travel, and now, he needed an outlet to write about his new love: Brazilian jiu-jitsu.”

Check it out below.

Anthony Bourdain Brazilian Jiu Jitsu 2
Anthony Bourdain waiting outside the threshold of Renzo Gracie Academy, Manhattan. No shoes on the mats.

The Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Journey of Anthony Bourdain (otherwise known as u/NooYawkCity)

58 Year Old White Belt [June 29th, 2014 — 8:02 PM]

I’ve been training about a year and only recently gotten solidly hooked. From once every few weeks, to once a week to nearly every day. Now it’s an obsession. I’m in shit shape, gas early, and of course, hurt like hell after training. Given the limits of any reasonable expectations, am I out of my fucking mind?

Grinding Away [July 1st, 2014 — 4:08 PM]

58 years old, been doing privates for about a year, finally started joining the white belt classes. After a very tough first time out, freezing in the headlights, well-rehearsed techniques suddenly evaporating in memory, running out of gas, I had a much better second class. But I still don’t know how to breathe and my conditioning is shit. Within a couple minutes, I’ve pretty much blown any strength I might need to complete a submission. Any ideas on improving conditioning specifically for rolling? Some say only more rolling helps. That it will get better. I’m wondering if there’s at least some minimal other shit I can do between sessions.

Chicken Fried Steak [July 9th, 2014 — 10:29 PM]

58 years old and getting so gassed during warm-ups, that when we start to roll, I end up sticking my own head into an obvious guillotine — just to take a break. An utterly humiliating class yesterday, yet showed up for a private today with 250lbs of muscle and bone so I could get pounded like a chicken fried steak. Why am I doing this? I don’t know. I’m like a dope fiend at this point. If I can’t train I start going into withdrawal. Wander around, twitching, restless and pissed off. At least with dope, you feel GOOD afterwards. After training, I feel like a rented and unloved mule.

All the other (much, much younger) white belts all seem to be coming back from long breaks because of injury. Strangely enough, so far so good for me. I may feel like a fragile box of stale breadsticks but I’ve managed to avoid injury (if not discomfort). I have never enjoyed pain. I don’t care if it’s Gisele Bundchen coming at me in thigh boots wielding a riding crop, I’m not interested. Yet I insist on getting squashed on the mats every day and feel bereft if I can’t. This is not normal. When I talk about BJJ, old friends look at me like I have an arm growing out of my forehead. But I won’t stop. Can’t stop.

Monster X [August 14th, 2014 — 8:56 PM]

Rolled with another white belt today. He knew nothing — which is okay, because I know nothing. But he was built like a freaking dump truck and was about as graceful. Also, he’s a wrestler. What kind of wrestler, I can’t imagine.

He managed to kick me in the nose, WWE elbow drop onto my stomach, and generally throw me around his cage — when he wasn’t just laying on my legs or trying to artlessly squash me with his massive girth. Oh, yeah, he did try and twist my foot off. That was… interesting. I don’t think he even attempted a single recognizable jiu-jitsu technique that I’m aware of — and raising the subject in a helpful way is difficult as he communicates only in monosyllabic grunts and avoids eye contact.

What’s the polite thing to do here? I sure as shit don’t want to roll with this Killdozer again. Do I edge over to the other side of the mat when he approaches? Talk to the professor and beg him to put Godzilla back on Monster Island? Shoot him with a tranquilizer dart so we can track him back to see if there are others of his species? What’s the appropriate response to this?

Creonte? Dojo Dilettante? I Hope Not [September 2nd, 2014 — 12:53 PM]

I train out of NYC and I consider myself loyal to my academy and to my instructors. But for the next month, I’m working on the other side of the country — irregular, ever-changing hours — and the thought of not training is terrifying to me. What this means, is bouncing around between two or even three schools out here — depending entirely on class schedules and proximity.

It’s not even a matter of who the “best” school is. It’s all about who has a class at my level when I need it. When and where can I roll… Only way I can train regularly given my work constraints is to come off like a complete dojo-slut. Of course, all three schools are either affiliated or unaffiliated wings of the same family. Is anybody likely to have a problem with this? I’m in. I’m out. I’m gone in a month. Is this kind of thing frowned upon?

(Comment Response) [October 24th, 2014 — 12:41 AM]

I love all of it. The soreness, the carrot fingers, mat burn, the ego-destroying ass-kickings, just when you think you’re getting somewhere. I’m hooked. I know I will never be young again. I am well aware that I’m only getting slower, more fragile over time. That I will probably never live to see black belt or win any competitions. But I’m pretty sure I will suck a little bit less every month. That while I will never master this skill, will at least, hopefully, get better and better at it. And every once in a great while, I will sweep some young upper belt, or maybe even catch one in a triangle. And that makes me happy.

(Comment Response) [December 12th, 2014 — 3:16 AM]

For over 40 years, my life pretty much revolved around drugs. Booze and cigarettes almost the background music to my drugs of choice (heroin and cocaine). Drug-free but a drinker until I started BJJ — at which point the inevitability of getting smashed every day made alcohol a much less attractive option and cigarettes out of the question. Frankly, BJJ as an addiction has in many ways replaced my previous ones. If I’m away from my home academy, I find myself looking for someplace anyplace to train like a dope fiend looking for a methadone clinic. My emotional state when deprived of training would, in different circumstances, be called “drug-seeking behavior.

Rolling/Training In Okinawa [March 10th, 2015 — 11:50 AM]

I’ll be in the Naha area of Okinawa for a while and am looking for help with finding BJJ academy. An English speaking instructor would be optimal as I speak zero Japanese. Base access seems to be a problem for US military. Baffled and can use all the help I can get. Ideally, I’d like to do GenPop classes. Maybe an occasional private. Open mat? Any ideas?

(Comment Response) [April 22nd, 2015 — 4:12 PM]

After 45 minutes of sprawls and burpees, it’s time for live rolling. Someone puts on Rupert Holmes’ ‘Piña Colada Song’ and right away, the 270lb former wrestler who just got dumped by his girlfriend angrily passes my guard, slaps me into side control, and sinks his weight into my jaw. He’s wearing a new but filthy Atama gi. It feels like a cheese grater against my cheek as he grinds away at me. I can hear my teeth making terrible sounds and am pretty sure my crowns are going to explode any second. Jabba The Wrestler has been eating at Subway. I can smell rancid, sour, pre-sliced onions on his breath, which, sadly does little to mask the horrifying miasma of swamp ass rising from his sweaty thighs. As my teeth give way, the music changes to Don Mclean’s ‘American Pie.’ I pray for death but I’m already dead.

Taping Fingers: Does it really help? Or just look cool? [October 16th, 2015 — 12:23 PM]

I play a lot of open guard and [De La Riva] and I’m not convinced that taping does any damn good at all. My fingers increasingly look like overwintered carrots. I mean..let’s face it… if you’re yanking on a 200lb man’s pant leg with your fingers — and all you have “reinforcing” them against his best efforts to pull away is a few strips of tape, it seems that would hardly prevent or mitigate against damage. Is there ANY science to support this idea? Or am I fooling myself? Seems to me that the days I forget to tape, my hands are just as fucked up — and maybe even less so.

Anthony Bourdain Brazilian Jiu Jitsu 2
BTS: Anthony Bourdain and Kurt Osiander filming B-roll for Parts Unknown.

Perhaps the most poignant ode to Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Anthony Bourdain ever offered was the following blog entry (referenced earlier), which he happily penned under his own name…

I will never be a black belt. I will never successfully compete against similarly ranked opponents half my age, I will never be great at Brazilian jiu-jitsu. There is an urgency to my training because I’m sure as shit not getting any younger, or more flexible. I’m certainly not getting any faster. And as I head down the highway on my jiu-jitsu journey, the likelihood of the wheels coming off the car grows stronger every day. But I am determined to suck less at this jiu-jitsu thing every day if I can.

Jiu-Jitsu makes me very happy — regardless of how good or bad I am at it — and how dim my prospects of ever excelling at it. It’s become a family tradition: my wife does it pretty much as a profession, seeking to tear knees and ankles off people — or occasionally, helping to teach others how to do the same. My daughter does it because it’s fun — and because every young girl, if possible, should be free of ever being physically intimidated by a boy (I pity the first little boy who shoves my daughter to the ground).

When I recently got my blue belt, after over two years of training, it was, other than the birth of my daughter, pretty much the greatest day of my life. That belt doesn’t mean I’m any good at jiu-jitsu, by the way. It just means that I worked really, really hard at something. And that presumably, I suck at it just a tiny bit less.

That, dear readers, is what it’s really all about.

RELATED: “I’d F***ed Up Enough” — The Inspiring Story of Anthony Bourdain’s Big Break At Age 44

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Garry Lu
After stretching his legs with companies such as The Motley Fool and the odd marketing agency, Garry joined Boss Hunting in 2019 as a fully-fledged Content Specialist. In 2021, he was promoted to News Editor. Garry proudly retains a blue belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, black bruises from Muay Thai, as well as a black belt in all things pop culture. Drop him a line at [email protected]