Anthony Bourdain was the traveller that I dream of being

I mostly try to avoid calling a celebrity a hero of mine. Being someone whose work I enjoy does not a hero make, and especially in recent years I am wary of heaping too much praise on (particularly a male) celebrity when I don’t know what they could have been doing behind the scenes on set or in the recording studio. But I have no hesitation in saying that Anthony Bourdain, who was found dead today of apparent suicide, is one of my heroes.

My three favourite things are travel, food, and writing, and Bourdain was an inspiration to me in all three. I’ve read several of his books, seen all of his shows (most episodes of No Reservations more than once), and any time I am going somewhere new one of the first things I do is check if Bourdain had done a segment there and what he had to say about it. He travelled the way I want to travel, and he ate the way I want to eat—not because of the variety and amount that he got to experience, but because of the way he honoured each place he went and each meal he ate.

One of the reasons I love Tony Bourdain’s work so much is because of the obvious love and respect he had for every place he visited and for the culture and people in it. In most episodes of his shows, he had a local guide or someone more familiar with the area than he to take him to the places they liked to eat, whether that be a Michelin-starred restaurant or a chain convenience store. While he did visit some of the best restaurants in the world on his shows, he was equally likely to seek out a hole-in-the-wall, or better yet, a homecooked meal from a friend or crew member’s family.

In arguably the most famous episode of Parts Unknown, Bourdain and President Obama eat, not at Hanoi’s most lavish fine-dining experience, but at a noodle shop where they sit on plastic stools and drink beer from the bottle. And he never showcases these places like he’s revealing some big secret about casual dining abroad the way some other tv hosts do; he simply eats food that he enjoys with the people who enjoy it everyday.

Moreover, despite frequently trying foods that would be far removed from his western audience’s palate, Bourdain never pandered to his viewers with an exaggerated “ewww” when he encountered an “exotic” delicacy. And after eating, he never feigned shock that a strange and foreign food could actually taste good. After all, if it wasn’t good, his hosts wouldn’t be serving it. That doesn’t mean he liked absolutely everything he ate, nobody would expect that, but he never passsed judgement on it just because it was out of his realm of experience.

What made Bourdain one of the best travel/food writers and presenters was more than just the way he spoke about travel and food. He was never afraid to tie in politics and current events to round out his discussion of a place or dish. Whether it was the effect of post-colonialism on the Congo, the opioid epidemic in New England, or the occupation of Palestine, he never shied away from moving beyond what people are eating and into everything that surrounds it.

The other thing I love most about Bourdain has nothing to do with food. In the wake of the #metoo movement, he was one of the few male celebrities who publicly examined his own contributions to a culture of toxic masculinity, rather than just saying “Well, I didn’t assault anyone so I’m not one of the bad guys,” and leaving it at that. His first book, Kitchen Confidential, is held up in an often-celebratory way as an example of the hard-drinking, hard-partying “bro culture” of life as a chef, although Bourdain said that’s not how he meant it to be received, and he wasn’t afraid to reflect on how that made him complicit in a culture he abhorred.

In an interview with Isaac Chotiner, Bourdain said:

I’ve been hearing a lot of really bad shit, frankly, and in many cases it’s like, wow, I’ve known some of these women and I’ve known women who’ve had stories like this for years and they’ve said nothing to me. What is wrong with me? What have I, how have I presented myself in such a way as to not give confidence, or why was I not the sort of person people would see as a natural ally here? So I started looking at that.

It’s this honesty and self-awareness that made Bourdain’s work so memorable, no matter the topic.

I think it’s time for me to log off and binge-watch a few favourite episodes of No Reservations and feel sad, so I’ll leave you with this incredible profile by Helen Rosner, and a plea that if you are struggling, please reach out. To me, to a trusted friend or family member, to a professional, to a hotline around the world. There are still so many places to see, and there is still so much food to eat.

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4 Replies to “Anthony Bourdain was the traveller that I dream of being”

  1. Some nice reflections here on the work of an incredible person, who as you say, inspired many in the way they travel. Thanks for sharing.

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