“Travel changes you. As you move through this life and this world, you change things slightly, you leave marks behind, however small. And in return, life – and travel – leaves marks on you.” Anthony Bourdain’s musings on travel, food and life itself, spoken in a warm baritone on his television show Parts Unknown, were one of the things the celebrated chef, traveller and writer was most famous for.
Bourdain died on June 8, 2018 at the age of 61. He had travelled extensively while producing numerous TV shows about local food and culture around the world. Through his travels, Bourdain opened up the world for his viewers and presented an alternative to the glossy pages of travel guides. He showed a grittier, truer version of the world, and his reflections on what it meant to experience a new place prompted his viewers to assess how they too had been changed by travel.
Dishwasher to globetrotter
Bourdain was a New York City chef who worked his way up in the industry. Starting as a dishwasher, he became a line cook after graduating from the Culinary Institute of America. In 1998, 20 years after graduating, he became the executive chef at Brasserie Les Halles, a French-style restaurant in New York City. His claim to fame, however, was a 1999 essay in The New Yorker that spurred his best-selling memoir, Kitchen Confidential, a no-holds-barred account of the dirty underbelly of the restaurant industry.
He was funny and an absolute smart ass, but his no-nonsense attitude was fuelled by a deep passion for the food industry, despite its flaws
Through his memoir, the public was introduced to the character of Bourdain: he was funny and an absolute smart ass, but his no-nonsense attitude was fuelled by a deep passion for the food industry, despite its flaws. In his book, Bourdain detailed everything from why you should never order fish in a restaurant on a Monday to how he kicked his addictions to heroin and cocaine.
About his ambition to become a chef, Bourdain wrote: “I wanted it all: the cuts and burns on hands and wrists, the ghoulish kitchen humour, the free food, the pilfered booze, the camaraderie that flourished within rigid order and nerve-shattering chaos.” He professed his love for the “weirdness of kitchen life” and the people he worked with, including “the dreamers, the crackpots, the refugees and the sociopaths”.
After his death, chefs who knew Bourdain personally and those who had gained an intimacy with him through his memoirs and television programmes spoke about how he had impacted the industry. Abram Bissell, Executive Chef at the Modern, told Bloomberg: “Losing someone who said out loud the things we, as chefs, think on a daily basis… We take for granted how much someone we don’t really know can impact us every day. He gave culture to our industry; he brought it to life.”
Although he cared deeply about good food, Bourdain was staunchly unpretentious about where it came from. He sang the praises of fast food chain In-N-Out Burger and dismissed beer snobs in a 2016 interview with Thrillist: “I would say that the angriest critiques I get from people about shows are when I’m drinking whatever convenient cold beer is available in a particular place, and not drinking the best beer out there,” he said. “But look, I like cold beer. And I like to have a good time.”
Bourdain’s first move into television was A Cook’s Tour, which premiered in the US in 2002 and featured Bourdain travelling the world in search of rare local delicacies. The show was very much focused on food, but in later projects food became more of a side act, or an entry point from which Bourdain could talk to locals about politics and culture.
A pivotal moment
This shift first occurred in 2006. While filming No Reservations in Beirut, Lebanon, Bourdain and his crew were evacuated as conflict erupted between Hezbollah and Israeli forces. “I was having an extraordinarily positive time there until the war broke out,” he said in an interview with National Geographic.
The experience had a visible effect on Bourdain and his approach to travel and television. He returned to Beirut in 2015 with Parts Unknown, and in field notes written after the filming, he admitted that back in 2006 he had come away from the experience “deeply embittered, confused – and determined to make television differently than I had before”.
He wrote: “I didn’t know how I was going to do it or whether my network at the time was going to allow me, but the days of happy horseshit—the uplifting sum-up at the end of every show, the reflex inclusion of a food scene in every act – that ended right there. The world was bigger than that. [I want to tell] the stories [that are] more confusing, more complex, less satisfying in their resolutions.”
Bourdain had always seen food as political to some extent. Immigration was a key issue for him, and he told the Houston Press the entire restaurant industry would collapse overnight if strict immigration laws were enforced. But after his experience in Beirut, he said there were “realities beyond what was on my plate, and those realities almost inevitably informed what was – or was not – for dinner. To ignore them had come to seem monstrous.”
Bourdain had long believed in championing the underdog and giving a voice to the disenfranchised, but after his experience in Beirut, he doubled down on these actions. He began travelling to places such as Palestine, which most people in the Western world see only through news headlines, but he avoided exoticising foods that strayed from the typical American diet, urging his viewers to “eat without fear”.
After Bourdain’s death, Rania Abouzeid, a journalist based in the Middle East, praised this quality on Twitter:
Thing about #Bourdain was he didn’t look down on foreign places he visited & their ‘quaintness/backwardness/insert-usual-derogatory adjective.’ He dived in, hungry to experience. His wasn’t the Orientalist gaze. He saw humanity (& food) everywhere, and connected with it. RIP
— Rania Abouzeid (@Raniaab) June 8, 2018
Bourdain’s travel shows were unique because of his ability to give himself over to the experiences of travel. While it was clear he had done his research before arriving in a new country, he did not come in professing to be an authority on a country’s food or culture. Instead, Bourdain talked to locals and learned along the way.
While he did explore difficult subjects, much of Bourdain’s back catalogue simply indulges in the joy of travel. As a self-professed “big believer in winging it” while travelling, he managed to disentangle himself from the obligation of visiting each and every ‘must-see’ tourist spot. While he may not have created it, he certainly predicted a new era of experience-focused travel.
An episode of The Layover displayed some of Bourdain’s best advice when he set out what to do on a trip to Paris: “Most of us are lucky to see Paris once in a lifetime. Please, make the most of it by doing as little as possible. Walk a little. Get lost a bit. Eat. Catch a breakfast buzz. Have a nap. Try and have sex if you can, just not with a mime. Eat again. Lounge around drinking coffee. Maybe read a book. Drink some wine. Eat. Repeat.”
Bourdain was not afraid to anger or offend people when he used his platform to speak his mind, and his expletive-strewn soliloquies were some of the best bits of his shows. He had a different way of moving through the world, and it was through this that he gifted us these slivers of insight.
But while Bourdain could jump into new places with a laser focus, he also tried to link up our shared humanity. The retired US astronaut Scott Kelly said he had watched Bourdain’s shows while in space because it made him feel “more connected to the planet, its people and culture, and made my time there more palatable”. Could there be a better compliment?