He was one of those people that you have no idea who he is and then suddenly don’t remember a time when you didn’t know who he was. I don’t even know when I started watching him–I just remember watching No Reservations marathons on the Travel Channel. I don’t know if it was his writing and narration, his bad boy image, the exotic places that he visited, or the often weird, but seemingly delicious, food that he ate.
Anthony Bourdain was a writer before he was a cook. It was an article that he wrote that became a book that led to hosting a TV show. Funnily enough, he hated the term “celebrity chef” and would often creatively insult popular chefs. He was never the overly cheery, friendly personality chef that the food networks would often portray. Unlike these other personalities, he didn’t have a gimmick. He was real, witty, sarcastic, intelligent, kind, interested, and a complete and total badass. I choose to believe the person we saw on camera was who he was in reality.
On the surface, his show seems to be about a jaded (but seeking enlightenment) New York chef exploring the different cuisines of different countries. But just below the surface, it is a deep and serious sociological and cultural study. It is the antithesis of xenophobia. It is a celebration of the different. Every episode is supported by a script that is purely Bourdain: intelligent, humorous (oftentimes in a dark way), sometimes humble and sometimes sarcastic, but always heartfelt. Every episode shows Anthony exploring the exotic and the mundane–they have character, they have color, and they have meaning.
In one episode he says:
“ I arrived in this country spectacularly ignorant. I will leave spectacularly ignorant.”
“South Africa.” Parts Unknown. CNN, 26 Oct. 2013
That is the soul of all of his shows. He humbly arrives with an open mind, sometimes feeling intimidated. But while there, he does his research, relies on locals, learns, asks questions, and when he leaves, he doesn’t leave as a self-absorbed american who claims to have done it all. He humbly claims there is so much that he still doesn’t know.
After 9 seasons on The Travel Channel filming the show No Reservations, Anthony Bourdain created a new show, Parts Unknown, for CNN. The tone between the shows shifted. Instead of just being a show about food and travel, it now subtly focused on the politics of food. Bourdain would often say “food is political.” He would talk to people–both well known and common–as they shared a meal–often times at small local restaurants where he would eat anything put before him. Through these conversations, he would learn about the culture and politics and the customs of the country.
Then on June 8, 2018 I read news that felt like a punch to the gut.
Anthony Bourdain was dead–a suspected suicide.
Celebrity death is a very public event. It is often shocking, sometimes unexpected. Often, you reflect on how such-and-such celebrity may have influenced your life, then you move on. We don’t personally know these people, we didn’t have a relationship with them, we didn’t know intimate details about their lives. Their death is tragic, but we move on.
But Anthony Bourdain’s death affected me. I was shocked. I was sad. I cried. I mourned.
I mourned a man I did not know. And even more, I was mourning a man who seemed to be happy. He seemed to be fine–he was in a relationship, he had a daughter, he had a hit television show, he practiced Brasilian Jiu-Jitsu when he was not traveling. He seemed to have a great life.
Seeming is not reality.
In all actuality, I had no idea what he was going through. I didn’t know him personally, I didn’t have a relationship with him. I didn’t know intimate details about his life. But that doesn’t take away from the way he impacted me.
His writing lives on through his TV shows. It is so powerful and his experiences so vivid that you and I are able to live vicariously through him. He taught that while humanity has many differences, we also have commonality. Anthony Bourdain chose food as his common denominator and then expanded on that to better understand people, motivations, politics, oppression, happiness and the reverence of life.
In one of the most memorable scenes, Anthony Bourdain met with then President Obama at a literal hole-in-the-wall restaurant in Vietnam. They sat on plastic chairs, ate bun cha, and drank beer and just shot the shit. It was not contrived nor was it political. It was two guys enjoying food and sharing parenting advice. They talked about the food of Jakarta, Indonesia and Hawaii, where Obama lived while growing up. They talked about whether or not ketchup goes on a hot dog. They just enjoyed each other’s company.
The day Anthony Bourdain died President Obama sent the following tweet:
To make us a little less afraid of the unknown. For any man to take on that task would be a feat of Herculean strength. Anthony Bourdain just did it. He opened the doors of the world and invited me in.
June 25th would have been Anthony Bourdain’s 65th birthday. It has lovingly become known as Bourdain Day. To honor Anthony Bourdain, don’t have dinner at a fancy restaurant, have a cold beer and order some mystery meat on a stick from a questionable cart on the street.
To you, Anthony.