On Anthony Bourdain and Living Unflinchingly
Public mourning in response to a celebrity’s death can feel excessive, performative, and often self-aggrandizing. I’ve certainly recoiled at a few overly-saccharine social media tributes, and I always find myself thinking, “This is a stranger. You didn’t know them at all.” But for me today, the shoe is firmly on the other foot. If I write for the next 6 hours it won’t be enough to sate me or encapsulate the devastation and loss I feel at the passing of Anthony Bourdain at 61. He doesn’t feel like just some celebrity to me; there is a way in which he feels like mine. I don’t know of any other public figure who has contributed so singularly to how I see the world. He wasn’t an actor or musician whose real opinions were only exposed during brief press tour interviews, Bourdain’s notoriety was built on who he was as a person and his nuanced and ever-expanding worldview, as well as his sharp and unequivocal stances on brunch, tourists, and vegans. I and so many others felt like we knew him. In a small way, I have to believe that we did.
I started watching No Reservations when I was around 14, the summer before going into my freshmen year of high school. At the time I was a deeply lonely teenager, and felt isolated in my small town. From first viewing, I was instantly wooed by Bourdain’s quick, dexterous way with words, love of profanity and chain-smoking, and prickly, unapologetic, anti-establishment ethos. What teenager wouldn’t be? I recorded every episode and would binge on the marathons that would sometimes air. As a girl whose furthest reach of the world outside of her home at the time was a week-long family trip to Los Angeles, his show allowed me to see parts of the world I only knew existed on a map, and some I didn’t previously know existed at all.
I read his book Kitchen Confidential soon thereafter, desperate to consume anything that came from his brain. I bought DVD box sets of seasons of No Reservations so I could watch all of the bonus footage that didn’t make it to air. At 16, when I went on a family vacation to San Francisco, I dragged my parents all over the city because I simply had to go everywhere he went. As a freshmen in college, far from home myself for the first extended period of time, I bonded with a few new friends on my floor who also loved him, and we would watch episodes of No Reservations huddled together in our tiny dorm rooms. I would watch anything he was a part of, ingesting every second of his subsequent shows The Layover and Parts Unknown, even going back to visit a few episodes of A Cook’s Tour (his first, but ill-fated, television show on Food Network). I still regularly tell anyone who will listen about the Tangier episode of Parts Unknown, a piece of television so stunning I can’t help but want everyone to see it.
Bourdain would say repeatedly that it was never his desire to make a show that displayed the “Best Of” a place; rather, he wanted to show the true nature of a place as he saw it, and capture the way people there actually lived. More often than not, it was not pretty or refined, but it had a permeating sense of authenticity (despite the many fishing scenes throughout the years where a stunt fish was employed). He saw street food and mom-and-pop restaurants as equal or perhaps more important to a place’s food scene as a Michelin-starred restaurant. The Washington D.C. episode of No Reservations comes to mind as a perfect example, where he not only spent time in the ultra-exclusive José Andrés restaurant ‘minibar’ but also in a small, family-owned Ethiopian restaurant in a strip mall. He was an obsessive, master storyteller, and food itself was a medium by which he would tell the story of a place.
Outside of history class, No Reservations was more or less my first introduction to modern foreign policy. He never shied away from a place’s political past or present, and regularly specifically drew attention to the ways in which America or another Western country had caused irreparable harm (The South Africa and Vietnam episodes of Parts Unknown come to mind in particular). Despite his callous exterior, it was clear that he had a deep and abiding love of people. He sat across the table and shared meals with people from every religious, socioeconomic, and political stripe, and got along pretty well with all of them. His Saudi Arabia episode of No Reservations, and Iran episode of Parts Unknown showed both countries with a kind of nuance and humanity that was wholly absent from any coverage of them I had ever seen before. As someone said today, “Anthony Bourdain had one of the only shows on TV that tried with all its might to teach Americans not to be scared of other people.”
On his death this morning, Anthony Bourdain had been on television for the better part of 20 years. He was the first to be critical of himself and admitted when he made mistakes, constantly re-evaluating his past and his body of work. But throughout, he had a dogged, enduring sense of curiosity, humility, and desire to tell stories that had not yet been fully told. As a lonely and scared teenager in suburban Massachusetts, his resonant drumbeat of people are good and the world is vast was life-altering for me. It was something he clearly never forgot himself. One of my favorite things he ever said was, “Maybe that’s enlightenment enough: to know that there is no final resting place of the mind; no moment of smug clarity. Perhaps wisdom…is realizing how small I am, and unwise, and how far I have yet to go.” I so wish he had stuck around to continue going far, and letting us go far with him.