Why People Loved Bourdain
I think it’s fascinating how many people were touched by the work and spirit of Anthony Bourdain. I have always been a massive Bourdain fan, but am admittedly ignorant when it comes to many aspects of pop culture. I guess I had no idea just how popular Bourdain was. I spent a lot of time this weekend wondering why that is.
“I’m Anthony Bourdain. I write, I travel, I eat, and I’m hungry for more” is the opening narration in the introduction to “No Reservations”. Of course, Tony stood for more than mere writing, travelling, and eating. In pursuing those three actions with gusto, perhaps to his chagrin, he became a cultural icon for the 3 ism’s of humanism, pluralism, and globalism, values held sacred to many across the planet.
Anthony Bourdain had a trademark formula for human connection that is so simple, so replicable, and yet so lost in today’s world. His ingenious discovery was that when you sit down and share a meal with someone, anyone, you have a better chance of understanding them. you ask the right questions over intoxicating aromas, a real connection can be made.
I always found his canned intro to be an ironic way to start a show due to how oversimplified the writing was. “I write, I travel, I eat...” But i think this simplicity was part of his attraction. Tony was an everyman, who first became famous for accurately exposing the innards of NYC restaurant kitchens. He was a class warrior, an unabashed truth teller. He showed genuine interest in people from all walks of life. And it seemed he always sought out people like him, regular folks working in a kitchen. These are people who, unlike politicians, will always tell it to you like it is.
Bourdain’s television shows were a rare, and sometimes solitary, window to the world for Americans. His cameras were often the only way we could peer inside places like Iran, Senegal, Gaza, and Vietnam, which despite being subjected to American foreign policy, are rarely visited by American television crews. Since most US news companies do not operate foreign bureaus anymore, the quality of information coming out of most countries either poor or non-existent.
When was the last time an American news company produced an hour-long program on the Democratic Republic of Congo ?
Bourdain not only brought us to these exotic lands, he introduced us to how people actually lived there. Wherever he went, he went a traveler looking to learn, to experience, to be surprised, to be delighted. He was no tourist. I would argue that he did not know the meaning of “foreign” travel. In every corner of the world, as long as there was a kitchen with some onions sizzling on a pan, he was home.
While Tony may not have considered himself a journalist, he was one. He hired many of the same fixers that news companies hire when they report abroad. He shared meals with and featured many local journalists and commentators on his show. These local journalists are usually unknown entities in the United States but are the best sources of information inside a country. Chances are you will learn more from a Bourdain episode about a country than you will learn from most news programming. Unlike some “journalists,” Tony was able to cut through spin like a piece of sashimi.
I can tell you, as someone who had a poor man’s version of Bourdain’s job while traveling around the world producing stories for Current TV and the NYT for most of my 20’s, it is not easy to travel and work like that for so long. Try lugging around hundreds of pounds of gear through airports, car rides, boat rides, and setting up logistics for all production and staff needs in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Tony and his crew at Zero Point Zero pulled off a remarkable feat, time and again, for so many years, in some of the toughest places on earth.
I can also tell you that as a storyteller, he was a singular talent. I have never seen any host so naturally suave and relaxed on camera. He made it seem effortless. And he wrote for broadcast better than anyone — with a voice that was authentically his own. His prose was logical, flavorful, and always packed a punch. He poetically narrated edited sequences when the visuals were carrying the story. And when he needed to, he neatly assembled political complexities and cultural nuances like a perfect pastrami sandwich.
Even though I never had the chance to meet Anthony Bourdain, I am truly saddened by his loss. We didn’t just lose a ridiculously talented TV personality, writer, storyteller, traveller, and eater. (And selfishly for foodies: the best way of knowing where to eat when we travel.) We lost something far more vital. We lost a window to the world. We lost a man who ingested millions of delicious calories while inspiring millions of people to write, travel, eat, and always be hungry for more.