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Anthony Bourdain is My New Favourite Guy

It’s complicated that he had chosen to end his own life. I can’t judge that. (Little update in 2020, I’ve added the story of how he imagines his own funeral)

But I guess the saying “we can learn more from the dead” is quite true. I wasn’t a big fan of Anthony Bourdain. In my country (Indonesia), I cannot easily access his TV shows and books.

What surprises me after reading several of his obituary is his writings. I haven’t read any of his book. But his essay is enjoyable. Several interviews of him are also awesome. I think he really showed how humble he is and how he learn many things by traveling and trying to connect to people around the globe.

At many points, I can only dream to live a life with meaningful legacy like him.

This writing will be mostly about Anthony Bourdain’s views, wisdom, or opinion in many things that I feel like relate. And some of my personal stories/reflections on the side.

About writing and his writing.

I really like to listen to him reading some excerpt from his Appetite book in an interview on NPR podcast.

What is it that normal people do? What makes a normal happy family? How do they behave? What do they eat at home? How do they live their lives? I had little clue how to answer these questions for most of my working life, as I'd been living it on the margins.

I didn't know any normal people. From age 17 on, normal people had been my customers. They were abstractions, literally shadowy silhouettes in the dining room of wherever it was I was working at the time. I looked at them through the perspective of the lifelong professional cook and chef, which is to say as someone who did not have a family life, who knew and associated only with fellow restaurant professionals, who worked while normal people played and who played while normal people slept. To the extent that I knew or understood normal people's behaviors, it was to anticipate their immediate desires. Would they be ordering the chicken or the salmon? I usually saw them only at their worst - hungry, drunk, horny, ill-tempered, celebrating good fortune or taking out the bad on their servers.

What they did at home, what it might be like to wake up late on a Sunday morning, make pancakes for a child, watch cartoons, throw a ball around a backyard - these were things I only knew from movies. The human heart was and remains a mystery to me, but I'm learning. I have to. I became a father at 50 years of age. That's late, I know, but for me it was just right. At no point previously had I been old enough, settled enough or mature enough for this, the biggest and most important of jobs, the love and care of another human being.

In the beginning of that interview he also humbly told how his youth life filled mostly with anger and bitterness. And then he found home in the kitchen brigade. And it’s an interesting take on the book that he seems to try to be or feel normal. In that podcast, he mentioned about what he wanted to write.

I just wanted to write about my life from the point of view of a working journeyman chef of no particular distinction, honestly.

At some points this reminds me about the importance of writing ability. At least, writing our own stories. At other points writing also kind of scaring me, as for now I am not ready yet to be more open about myself. But the main point, it’s interesting that for Anthony Bourdain, writing is an important way to tell a story about the kitchen from his point of view. The part about Brunch People and Vegan in his New Yorker essay (Don’t Eat Before Reading This) is so witty. Well, some people might find that offensive. Ha-ha.

I think it’s a good advice from him as well about how he initially handle his writing process. His advice might be worked for other hobbies or side hustles. He said he didn’t have the luxury or burden to contemplate the world for writing. He had to wake up at 5 o clock in the morning, write for a couple hours and then go to work, go for the real job as chef. So he just keep writing with no burden of what kind of audience will read his piece. He found that liberating and saying he was expecting to keep that business model (writing as side hustle) before his book getting him into more book and TV show offerings.

About being in the kitchen.

I think he’s also a family man and a team player. At many occasions he explains that most of the time he need to take one for the team. Especially because he’s the face and the frontman of the show. Going back to his first essay, his message about what kitchen really is, especially in US, is so deep:

In America, the professional kitchen is the last refuge of the misfit. It’s a place for people with bad pasts to find a new family. It’s a haven for foreigners — Ecuadorians, Mexicans, Chinese, Senegalese, Egyptians, Poles.

I love the sheer weirdness of the kitchen life: the dreamers, the crackpots, the refugees, and the sociopaths with whom I continue to work; the ever-present smells of roasting bones, searing fish, and simmering liquids; the noise and clatter, the hiss and spray, the flames, the smoke, and the steam. Admittedly, it’s a life that grinds you down. Most of us who live and operate in the culinary underworld are in some fundamental way dysfunctional. We’ve all chosen to turn our backs on the nine-to-five, on ever having a Friday or Saturday night off, on ever having a normal relationship with a non-cook.

He also mentioned about how he like George Orwell’s book Down and Out in Paris in London, especially the part where Orwell worked as a dishwasher. It’s interesting to see how Bourdain also started in the kitchen as a dishwasher. About how he learn discipline. And maybe his love to the kitchen started there. The feeling that finally he found a place that feels like home.

I guess that Orwell book gonna be next on my reading list.

About traveling.

There is one obituary I liked, it’s from NY Times. Anthony Bourdain: The Man Who Ate The World. I like how James Poniewozik describe the way of Bourdain’s travel.

There are two ways of traveling, which are really two ways of looking at the world. You can see another country as simply an experience to consume, a place to collect trophies. Or you can look at it as an environment to interact with, something that changes you through the encounter and that you inevitably change by visiting.

Mr. Bourdain chose the second. Food, he recognized, is an expression of culture. It’s geographical, economic and political.

When I was younger, that was what I feel about travel. The curiosity to learn about the destination. I don’t want to think that the travel destination or the environment as a trophy. Moreover, I don’t want to be a bling-bling tourist with credo “tourist is the king”. It’s getting harder to act just as traveler that knows nothing and just want to try to understand what’s this new place is all about or to contemplate about our self.

But, Bourdain understand that traveling is double-edged sword, as he explained on his NPR interview.

It’s a double-edged sword. Ideally, I’ll go to a place like — I’ll find a little bar in Rio, let’s say, some little local place that perfectly expresses the neighborhood. You know, it’s not on the — it’s not a tourist-friendly place. It’s, for lack of a better word — I hate this word, but I’ll use it anyway — authentic. I’ll feature that on the show. The response I’m looking for is to hear from someone from the neighborhood saying, how did you ever find that place? I thought only we knew about it. It’s, you know, a — truly a place that we love and is reflective of our culture and our neighborhood.

But on the other hand, that’s kind of a destructive process because if I name the place — and I don’t always when it’s a place like that — I’ve changed it. The next time I go back, there’s tourists. There’s people who’ve seen it on the show. And then I might hear from the same person from that neighborhood say, you ruined my favorite bar, (laughter) you know? All the regular customers have run away. And it’s filled with, you know, tourists in ugly T-shirts and flip-flops.

I guess it’ll always be double-edged sword. I think what I usually tried is just to enjoy the place as it is; respect the small gift sellers, snacks sellers, the waiters in the cafe or restaurant, and keep trying to learn about the culture and history of the place I visit. And keep hoping that everybody can be respectful while become a visitor, not act like a colonizer. The hard part also how to try not to be the savior. Especially in places in Indonesia, some kids now prefer to get money from tourist or traveler. I don’t think it’s good for their long term life, and even for the place for the longer term.

I wish the deep root culture will still be alive in unique places in Indonesia. That’s also one of the reason I still think a lot to joint travel-volunteerism activities that I guess on the rise as well in Indonesia and maybe in other part of the world.

Overall, I liked how he describe what he learn from his travels. As he mentioned in his Fast Company’s last interview with him.

Be open to experience, be willing to try new things, don’t a have rigid plan. Accept random acts of hospitality, without judgement or fear. Don’t be afraid to wander, don’t be afraid of bad meal. If you don’t risk the bad meal you’ll never get the magical one. But the most important: be humble, be grateful, be aware of the fact that you were probably the stupidest person in the room, you are the least prepared, the least equipped person to know who’s really in charge of what’s really going on.

About careful choices.

There is one part that I also think meaningful that Bourdain explained after his big breaks as a writer/TV personality.

I didn’t go for easy money, I said no a lot to what seem liked a lot of money. Well, look, what’s good for you in the short run is not necessarily good for you in the long run. You’re starting out as a writer, you’ve written one book and a TV show, and then somebody offers you a million dollars to represent an anti-diarrhea medication. That’s a lot of money in a short run, but you’re always that guy with the shits.

See…? He’s a witty word-wizard. Ha-ha.

About being punctual and about work.

This one is as always, easier-said-than-done kind of advice. It’s simple and important.

I’m relentlessly, pathologically, punctual. I think that came from all those years as a chef, more importantly as a cook. You show up late as a cook you letting your people down in very tangible way. Somebody else has to physically do the work do the setup for you.

I write lists, I keep my schedule up to date, I am never late. As part of that, if I say to you I’m gonna meet you tomorrow at 12 mins after five, I will be there 5:02, hanging out across the streets discretely observing what time you show up and I’ll be making some very important decisions based on your arrival time.

The very important thing I learned as a dishwasher and a cook: you show up on time, you stay organized, you clean up after yourself, you think about and respect the people you work with, and do the best you can.

I guess this clean up after yourself is one of important message that not most famous people talk about. Most of the time at work, we work with some people that just can’t clean their stuff up, clean their work, leave only the good things and leave with proper handover to people who work after you. Even if we don’t talk about work, it’s still hard these days to see people clean up their pop-corns and snack leftovers after watching movies in the cinema.

About not being a journalist.

What other view I also like from Bourdain is his interest to be a listener and story-teller.

DAVIES (NPR interviewer): You say you’re not a journalist. You’re a storyteller. But you must think carefully about how you deal with that stuff.

BOURDAIN: Well, there’s nothing actually more political than food — I mean, who’s eating, who’s not eating. Also, it’s — I found it’s just very, very useful to not be a journalist. I mean, journalists drop into a situation, ask a question. People sort of tighten up, whereas if you sit down with people and just say, hey, what makes you happy? What’s your life like? What do you like to eat? More often than not, they will tell you extraordinary things, many of which have nothing to do with food.

I wish I can at least try to ask that kind of questions on any next travel. Hopefully I can still connect to people.

About enjoying food emotionally.

He talked in NPR interview about why he wrote mostly simple recipes in his Appetites cook book.

It’s also reflective of, I think, age and all those years in the restaurant business. Most chefs I know after work do not want to go out to dinner and be forced to think about what they’re eating in a critical or analytical way. They want to experience food as they did as children, in an emotional way, the pure pleasure of that bowl of spicy noodles or even a — you know, a bowl of soup that their mom gave them on a rainy day when they’d been bullied in school. I mean, that’s a happy time when you can escape this world, you know, and lose yourself in food. So these are recipes that hopefully — where I try to evoke those kinds of feelings and emotions.

He talked about this context again in his speech on World Street Food Congress in Manila 2017. That’s the other thing that feels so deep from Anthony Bourdain, his love to street food. One of the famous stuff of course is his Bun Cha session in Vietnam with Barack Obama. There is something with street food that possibly can relate to anyone in emotional way.

I’m not a critic. I was 30 years in the restaurant business. I don’t want to think about my food. I don’t want to evaluate it and write tasting notes and score them on a basis of one to ten… I want to experience food emotionally, like a child. I want to be lost in the moment. I want to take a bite of food and it takes me to another time or in another place, whether it’s my childhood or somebody else’s childhood. Anybody’s grandma’s food is preferable in my mind than a fine dining restaurant in almost every case.

Those words are deep. Especially for me that I thought in the last two years I often craving for comfort food. Haha. Whether it’s snack or warm food.

I think this is gonna be the first time I write about this. Sometimes I go buy snacks or crackers that remind me about my childhood time when my parent went to groceries with the family, initially I just got along with what they choose. It was funny-sad moment that I know those snacks sometimes bring me to childhood memories when I went out with my parents. Those memories sometimes went south to sad moments because next memories I remember after that were sad and related to big exodus my family did back then. Ha-ha. Other food that I found comforting was a simple rice with Indonesian simple omelette (telor dadar) or Indonesian well-cooked sunny side (telor ceplok). Most likely I eat those with addition of some sweet soy sauce.

My own art on one of my comfort food.

The emotion I feel with those food is that similar moment when you get home from school and your mom cooked a simple food to comfort you or just some late breakfast on Sunday. Sometimes it bring back bad memories or bad feeling because I realize that actually those simplicity is enough to feel fulfilled and happy. I don’t need my parent to bring me out every weekend to fancy restaurant if they don’t have the money. At other point, sometimes it’s good to remember that be able to eat is already a great luxury. When I was in university, back in the day many students consider eggs with rice is already great luxurious combo.

Well, enough with the emotional stuff. Ha-ha.

Continue with Bourdain’s view about street food.

Food is a reflection of who we are, it’s always telling you a story. When you allowed them to cook for you, when you sit down without judgement, or preconception, and say, “What do you do that’s good, made your best shot, I’ll have that.”

You know street vendors in Mexico, who rolls up a taco and hands it to you. They make it with their hands, they hand it to you with their hands, they make it fresh. There’s an intimate transfer going on. They are telling you, “This is where I come from, this recipe is reflection of what my parents thought me, reflection of my region, my, anguage, my culture, my history. This is what I love, this is what I good at, this is who I am, and I would like to share with you.”

This is why street food is so, so vital.

He is questioning why New York, city of immigrants, do not have real market like they have in Singapore.

They solve one of street food problems in an elegant way. They, at least, understood, that street food, these heritage street vendors, multi-generational operation of people who have been doing more or less the same thing very well over time. That these are business that are worth saving, this is something to be treasured, and preserved [against the] terrible onslaught of fast food restaurant of generic chain.

Is the appearance of a Starbucks in the history of the world a good sign for a neighborhood? No, it’s a sign of an apocalypse.

I know in the end of the day the world is still complicated. Maybe a rise in fast food chains at least can add some more jobs to the neighborhood. But maybe that’s not so good for long term. I guess that’s why Bourdain appreciate a lot, and in many points I agree, the heritage street food.

What I can feel most is especially street foods in Jogja that was not initially purposed for tourism. Especially small hawkers and vendors near neighborhood or village areas. I believe that most of them, are the best of their own. Nasi Angkringan (small portion rices with slices of scrambled egg, fish, chicken) might be the best example that food is about culture in Jogja. Most of the time I can’t imagine how they are making profit. But you can sense that they are happy just to be cooking and selling their best “small foods”, having chit-chat with customers, and stay at their place for long time without heavily thinking about expansion. This special culture might be getting very rare these days.

I guess those awesome stuffs is the reason why Anthony Bourdain is my new favourite guy.

It’s hard not to feel sad and feel a bit hopeless, that I’m still hoping I can have a meaningful legacy like he did. For now I guess what I learn the most is to be a better listener to my surrounding, enjoying food more and more, and supporting street food vendors whenever possible. And don’t forget to always be punctual and provide the best at work.

Now I crave for some good warm street fried rice. Long live emotional food. Ha-ha.

And one more thing, hopefully one day I can clicked with any hobby properly that I can still enjoy this life.

Have a peaceful rest, Mr. Bourdain.

Here’s one artwork I liked capturing Anthony Bourdain.

Artwork by: Rahiem Milton.

Check his other awesome artworks on Instagram.


I have one more awesome thing from him, from interview with John Sellers from Thrillist.

About snobbery.

So what’s the difference between food snobs vs. beer snobs, in your opinion?
Bourdain: Well, I think snobbery is bad, period.

My new favourite guy, period.

I would like to add, probably the last addition to this piece, about Anthony Bourdain’s view about his own funeral. Sometime in 2019, I’ve managed to watch Parts Unknown Season 12 Episode 3. One of the last few episodes. It felt more emotional because that episode tell some stories about Indonesian wisdom, and also about his recent view about Bali and its spirituality.

There is a discussion between him and his friend, in a secluded place in Bali. Initially, the discussion was about Ngaben (traditional cremation ceremony of Balinese people), and then it continues about how he imagines his funeral.

Leave me in the jungle.

I don’t want a party: ‘reported dead.’

You know, what actually happens to my physical remains is of zero interest to me, unless they can provide entertainment value. Throw me into a wood chipper and spray me into Harrods, you know, at the middle of the rush hour. That would be pretty epic. I wouldn’t mind being remembered in that way.

When he said “reported dead” on screen, my eyes were wet. In some way, I try to understand his decision and his point of view about death. The last scene of that episodes shows a scene about final offering and delivering the ashes from Ngaben ceremony to the beach. Bourdain was not in the scene, but his voiceover hits differently because I know he already left this world.

“All stories should end on a beach. All the good ones do, anyway. Why should this one be any different?”

Thank you, Anthony Bourdain.

Sometimes, I like to re-watch that episode just to remember how good his life was. And of course, I’ve decided to read his collection of stories in 2021. I should spare some time to review his comics that I’ve bought too.




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