Anthony Bourdain – a tribute to a traveller, storyteller, foodie and authentic person
The chef turned writer and celebrity who died this week in France is remembered for his travelogue-style food programmes, his everyman style and the way he used food as a metaphor and a way to explore deeper themes
It hurts. Anyone and everyone interested in food and food culture is feeling it. Anthony Bourdain wasn’t just another TV host and writer. A testament is the incredible outpouring of grief and tributes from fans all over the world.
Smarter and more eloquent people than me have eulogised his tragic suicide and the funny insightful travel and food programmes he presented. I won’t rehash another Wikipedia obituary here. Rather, I like to think about why he had such a profound effect on so many of us.
Beloved icons and celebrities pass all the time but not many have this kind of singular, personal impact. For me, the last two might be Prince and David Bowie. I think Bourdain’s cultural resonance echoes just as loudly. More than anyone else in popular culture, he gave food commentary meaning, substance and context.
The most frequent term used to laud what he did was “storyteller”. So, what exactly was the story he told?
I liked his shows because his voice was rooted in an authentic personal tone. From day one, he was the cynical ex-chef who spent too many years in a gulag kitchen to spew any kind of restaurant hype. Yet he still had a sense of wonder for the world, its people and their food. And he was willing to drink it all in with Dionysian abandon.
As many have noted, he didn’t really do food shows. They were travelogues, filmed as social journalism aspiring to be visual essays of absurdity. Food was always just a metaphor. It was the excuse to delve into deeper ideas. He philosophised and acted as the prism to see traditions and countries in different lights. Sometimes he showed a brighter perspective, other times the dark neglected corners.
We in Asia should appreciate how he captured our milieu with thought, integrity and without a patronising note. In showing fascinating dishes and foods that impressed him, Bourdain’s wry narration also allowed for backhanded critiques. He let in when he noticed greedy restaurateurs, pretentious chefs and exploitative practices. Other travel programmes show you the stuff tourism officials want you to see. Bourdain gave those places the finger.
He took us on late night runs for hangover food. He knew if he tempted us with greasy noodles, sausages, buns and meat on a stick from the 80 plus countries he wandered, maybe those places wouldn’t be considered foreign and scary. In a way, No Reservations and Parts Unknown are disguised campaigns for diversity.
He understood the symbolism of sharing a meal with Barack Obama in Hanoi. If you didn’t think food is politics, contrast their embrace of street food while sitting on plastic stools with the current president’s gastro aversion to anything other than McDonald’s and KFC.
Bourdain’s inclusive ideology is often spelled out in Heart Of Darkness allusions – his favourite book – and a disdain for conventional television narratives. He was a middle-aged man honest enough to know he wasn’t hired to look pretty. Best of all, he never tried to sell you anything.
We connected with his voice because he was real and he had something to say. Bourdain had no agenda to hawk frozen foods, cookware or luxury products. I haven’t even mentioned how he proved eating should be a democratic activity. Bourdain showed it’s OK to have spicy noodles for breakfast and it’s fine to eat cheap convenient snacks late at night. And hawkers should be revered as much as Michelin-starred chefs.
If you want to honour Anthony Bourdain, go do something you’ve never done, eat somewhere you’ve never tried, and live less cautiously and without fear.
If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts, help is available. For Hong Kong, dial +852 28 960 000 for The Samaritans or +852 23 820 000 for Suicide Prevention Services. In the US, call The Lifeline on +1 800 273 8255.