Leadership

How succeeding later in life shaped Anthony Bourdain: 'I feel like I've stolen a car'

After news broke that Anthony Bourdain was found dead on June 8 at age 61, many people shared their memories of him on social media. One theme that came through in these memories was that Bourdain was kind to all sorts of people, from the well-known to the unknown. Condolences have poured in from former U.S. President Barack Obama, acclaimed chef Gordon Ramsay and countless others.

Although Bourdain became an international celebrity as a candid, exuberant lover of food and travel, he didn't break through until he was in his mid-40s. As a result, Bourdain experienced decades of both struggle and success, and going from one to the other made him feel like he was getting away with something.

"I should've died in my 20s. I became successful in my 40s. I became a dad in my 50s," Bourdain told Todd Aaron Jensen in a 2016 interview for Biography.com. "I feel like I've stolen a car – a really nice car – and I keep looking in the rear-view mirror for flashing lights. But there's been nothing yet."

As a younger man, Bourdain dropped out of college to go to the Culinary Institute of America in New York, where he took on several side hustles to make money. After graduating, he often put in 12-hour shifts, six days a week, and still brought home no more than $120 after taxes, reports WealthSimple.

"I didn't put anything aside, ever. Money came in, money went out. I was always a paycheck behind, at least. I usually owed my chef my paycheck: again, cocaine," Bourdain told WealthSimple. "Until I was 44, I never even had a savings account."

That year, everything changed. He wrote an article for the New Yorker titled, "Don't Eat Before Reading This," which he segued into the sale of the massively popular book, "Kitchen Confidential."

"Oh, man, 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. I was in horrible, endless, irrevocable debt," Bourdain told Jensen. "I had no health insurance. I didn't pay my taxes. I couldn't pay my rent."

He added: "It was a nightmare, but it's all been different for about 15 years. If it looks like my life is comfortable, well, that's a very new thing for me."

The fact that he was in midlife already when he became famous made him particularly appreciative of his good fortune: "I was old enough to realize I'd been handed this incredible, lucky break and I was very unlikely to get another one," he told WealthSimple.

"Once I did that risky thing, leaving the only profession I knew to become a professional writer and TV guy, I was, and continue to be, very careful about the decisions I make every day," Bourdain said.

In recent years, Bourdain was best known for inviting Americans along with him on journeys from Vietnam to West Virginia through his popular travel show "Parts Unknown," offering them tips on how to enjoy the local food and encouraging them to splurge on a place to stay that offers "charm and character."

In a March interview for "Wine Spectator," Bourdain reflected on how he had matured since his success. When asked how he wanted to be remembered, he said, "Maybe that I grew up a little. That I'm a dad, that I'm not a half-bad cook, that I can make a good coq au vin. That would be nice. And not such a bad bastard after all."

Plenty of other celebrities also broke through later in life and were also affected by the contrast between trying to getting by and making it big. At 36, Golden Globe-wining actor Jon Hamm had worked as a teacher and in food service and was rejected for seven different TV roles before getting cast as Don Draper in AMC's hit show "Mad Men." Even after he became a star, though, Hamm remained philosophical about money.

"You have to keep a healthy sense of perspective — don't sweat every choice too much or overthink things," he told WealthSimple. "If you take a wrong step, you'll find the right one. If you lose half your money, you'll find a way to make more. The older you get, the more crucial that is to remember."

His job at a Greek restaurant, he said, helped build character, as well as the patterns that he has relied on since: "I learned to love work and find meaning in it. To this day, I like going to work, clocking in and clocking out, the satisfaction of a job well done."

Like this story? Like CNBC Make It on Facebook!

Don't miss: