On Anthony Bourdain
I write, I travel, I eat, and I’m hungry for more.
This was the opening to Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations, a travel show that ran for seven years on the Travel Channel.
Bourdain was discovered dead earlier this week in his hotel room while traveling for his latest show, Parts Unknown; suicide was listed as the cause of death.
I’m not sure if there was another public figure who actually affected my life as much as Bourdain did. Those words listed at the top became a mantra of mine in my early post-high school days.
Bourdain had a voracious appetite, he was a rebellious iconoclast, approaching the world with an eagerness to learn that’s rare in our world.
The lyrics for the Parts Unknown intro go:
I took a walk through this beautiful world / felt the cool rain on my shoulder / Found something good in this beautiful world / I felt the rain getting colder.
The lyric portrays Bourdain perfectly, a hardened cynic that was nonetheless so inspired by what he saw around him that he felt the need to share its beauty with his audience.
His show was filled with gorgeous shots (all inspired by the film classics that he and his crew loved) and earnest conversations that intersected food, culture, history, and politics. He knew that the best way to understand someone was to sit across from them, eating the food they call their own.
I haven’t kept up with Parts Unknown over the last couple years, I don’t have cable and it just wasn’t a priority when episodes were released to Netflix. But his episodes were always there as comfort for me. When there was nothing to do throw Bourdain on and see what was going on in Myanmar or Vietnam or France.
I honestly don’t know if I would be who I am today without his works, at least not entirely.
He taught me to explore, to approach people with compassion and dignity, to learn from them.
His approach to eating, especially when it was something foreign to him, was to always ask his host the best way to do it, something I’ve tried to adopt while getting to know the fantastic pleasures of others.
He said at one point the best meal he’d ever had was a bowl of pho from a small restaurant in Vietnam. This a) inspired me to try pho for the first time and b) made me realize that the most fantastic culinary (and life) experiences come not from hip, trendy, or fancy places, but from those who cook with historical, cultural, and familial traditions.
I don’t think I would have ever have dragged my family across Kauai, making sure everyone tried plate lunches, loco mocos, poke, and spam musubi without his influence.
He railed against foodie culture, seeing past its often false passions and appropriation; he hoped instead for real conversations and real food.
In doing this he captured the complexities and beauties of life, believing in a gray area that must be accepted when traveling the world and entering into people’s lives. Life is never simple, but it is beautiful.
He talks about this in a little interview for a war blog in 2014, saying:
There is rarely, however, a neat takeaway. You have to learn to exercise a certain moral relativity, to be a good guest first–as a guiding principle. Other wise you’d spend the rest of the world lecturing people, pissing people off, confusing them and learning nothing.
He wanted to learn about the world and he did just that, emparting that knowledge after deep reflections.
Just last weekend my son was sick with a fever and could not sleep without being held. My wife and I rotated our shifts, staying awake as he slept in our arms.
I watched a new mini-series of Bourdain’s, which features highlights of little pockets in Los Angeles: Little Iran, Little Great Britain, Little Ethiopia, Little Armenia, Little Guatemala, and the Filipino population in Chinatown. It’s far from his best produced work, but it was as salivating and educational as ever.
When we found out we were pregnant I wrote that the two virtues I hoped I could pass along to my son were curiosity and compassion—that he would be interested in the beauty around him and treat it all with great love. Bourdain exemplified those characteristics in his life’s work and as we attempt to guide our son into “this beautiful world”, I can only hope he finds that same complex beauty.