Two of my biggest passions in life are travel and food. The show Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown epitomized both and pulled at my heartstrings in the most beautiful ways. Tony, as his friends would call him, was born and raised in NYC. His love for food was kindled at a young age after slurping his first oyster on a trip to France.
Although I was much older, I had a similar introduction to this bivalve mollusk. When I close my eyes, I can still remember my first oyster, the smell and taste of the sea filling my senses. Every time I have one, it instantly transports me back to the Navy and being on the open ocean.
My passion for food struck hard and fast, like a dash of ghost pepper hot sauce straight to the tongue. My mom and sisters are all excellent cooks. I have vivid memories of watching them whip up meals and sneaking tastes behind their backs whenever I had the chance. Knowing Tony, if he were still alive, I think he would chuckle at that.
The Food Network, or as I refer to it, the ‘Feeding Tube’, was part of my journey. I consumed all the personalities from Bobby Flay to Wolfgang Puck. This was my master class before masterclasses were a thing. I learned how to properly poach an egg that would ooze out liquid gold when you cut into it. I also learned how to braise short ribs to the point where the fork just glides through the meat. Both are delicious but require attention to detail. Something I took away from my Navy days.
It wasn’t until I met Bourdain, the most famous iron-stomached gastronaut of them all, that I fell truly, madly, and deeply in love. Everything about him exuded confidence in all aspects of what he did. He consumed everything, and we’re not talking just about food. Books, movies, music, they were all food for his creative soul. We have to remember, he didn’t find his “fame” until he was 44 years old. This ambition is one of the inspirations for the drive I have today.
Don’t Eat Before Reading This
Tony had written a piece for a local weekly publication called the New York Press. Weeks went by and they kept bumping the publish date. Frustrated, he listened to his mom’s advice and submitted the essay to The New Yorker. They called him up, told him they were running the story and would be buying it. He put in the work, slaved in the kitchens, and now was his time to shine.
The essay chronicled his days and nights as a New York City cook. A new voice had arrived in the culinary scene. This single piece of writing quickly became a phenomenon and led to Bloomsbury’s Karen Rinaldi commissioning him to write a book. He was paid $50,000 for this soon-to-be New York Times best-seller Kitchen Confidential. His life’s arc had taken a monumental turn.
When I wasn’t traveling to one of my favorite gastronomical destinations, you would often find me watching an episode of Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown. It helped me get my fix when I needed a sense of inspiration.
I lived for each episode and salivated when the next season trailer was teased. It’s the next best way to explore the culinary world if you can’t physically travel. The one thing you could count on is for Bourdain to find the great foods you may not have heard of. Grab a seat, keep your passport in the drawer, and get ready to have your foodie minds blown.
In his season 2 episode in Puerto Rico, he opens with “Puerto Rico, the crown jewel of the Caribbean; old San Juan, Carriage rides, Spanish castles. All fine and good, but not the Puerto Rico I came to find.” My family is from Puerto Rico and I couldn’t agree more.
You can’t really explore culture without finding the roots of its food. Puerto Ricans are the combination of native Tainos who were invaded by Spanish conquistadors who brought along their African slaves. A story for another time but it makes for some amazing, mouth-watering bites from albondigas (meatballs) and bacalaitos (cod fritters) to my favorites, pernil (roast pork) & mofongo (fried mashed green plantains). They all use a sofrito base (an aromatic blend of vegetables, herbs, and spices), the backbone of Puerto Rican cooking. This is all food that will fill up your soul. Hold the piña colada, Tony!
New York City
One of my favorite episodes came in season 3. Tony was coming home to New York City. As always, he started each episode off with a reflective statement that sets the tone. “I’m getting increasingly depressed about the fact that I lived almost all of my life, and I don’t know shit about the boroughs.” Amen my friend, amen. It was that honest and brutal self-reflection that made him so appealing and loved.
This was a man who had been all over the world, and said he “ knew Singapore, for instance, better than the outer boroughs of his own city.” He missed the boat on the culinary capital of the USA, and he lived there most of his life.
I would often find myself tailoring one of my weekly evening meals based on the previous week’s episodes or one of his excellent cookbooks. I remember one particular meal, it was the French classic Boeuf Bourguignon. This was Tony’s favorite dish and I was determined to make it. I ran out the door and sped to my nearest mall. I needed a Dutch oven, a flame orange Le Creuset.
This classic beef dish braised in red wine doesn’t require fancy produce or culinary school mastery. Its most important ingredient is time. Low and slow. It’s a hearty rich stew filled with carrots, garlic, and parsley. The demi-glacé makes the sauce silken and very flavorful. The best part is, it’s even better the next day.
“Goes well with a few boiled potatoes. But goes really well with a bottle of Cote de Nuit Villages Pommard.” Says Bourdain. Who am I to argue?
There were other dishes that were more exotic, such as Buddae Jjigae (Korean army stew), a Macau-Style pork chop sandwich, or the heavenly Korean fried chicken. Living in NYC certainly helped in finding the more exotic ingredients to replicate these recipes but it wasn’t impossible for anyone else to find them.
The End of the Beginning
It has been over three years since his death, yet it still feels raw like it was just yesterday. He was one of America’s greatest storytellers, his tales were so rich and entertaining. He had a significant impact on my culinary journey that I carry with me to this day. He opened up my world map and encouraged me to visit places and explore their cultures. The way he romanticized his adventures made me want to be him.