My introduction to Anthony Bourdain was with the first ever episode of No Reservations. It took place in France, and thinking back, it was as morbid a foreshadowing of Bourdain’s mental issues as one could ever think up, to the point where I shudder remembering the details of it as I write it here. Belying the jovial title of the episode, “Why The French Don’t Suck”, the episode is incredibly dark for something meant to explore the joys of a country’s culinary delights. But it was meant to be dark. It was an introduction into exactly what kind of chef and yes, storyteller, Bourdain was.
It wasn’t enough that “Tony”, as many people including strangers call him, was a celebrity chef and obsessed with discovering new foods in new lands. He wanted to teach us about it. Us, the stubborn, closed-boxed, isolationist, snobby, and anti-cultural Americans who make a sour face at almost anything that doesn’t fit into the embarrassingly small mold of what we consider “good eats'” (shout out to one of Bourdain’s best friends, Alton Brown). This required being much more creative than your average foodie. How do you get children to eat food they scoff at? Make it a story, play a game, distract them with anything, literally anything else. No Reservations became a revolutionary show because it was as much a food show as it was a TV-drama. What crazy place is Tony going to get into trouble in this time? Who are the interesting people he’s going to meet in this country? It was like watching Indiana Jones if Indiana Jones was a drunk, wise-cracking uncle who also worked as an executive chef at Brasserie Les Halles.
Anthony Bourdain was not one to make a soft and welcoming entrance. In his first ever TV episode, he succumbs to several hallucinations after having drips of pure absinthe and bites of pitch black blood sausage in a barely lit dim basement bar called “Cantada II”, and sleeps being haunted by demons in the same hotel room in which Oscar Wilde stayed during the time of his death. The camera shifts side to side, the lights flicker, and Bourdain wonders himself, trapped in the bed, in an echoey voiceover, whether he too will live his last waking moments here.
The episode was a remarkably artistic and weighty beginning to a show dedicated to food and culture. Every episode thereafter became the chapter of a narrative, with Bourdain as the central character charting his way through countries and meeting people who had their own stories to tell. The camerawork and editing on the show was as important as the food and conversations. Unlike many food shows where I mostly long to see perfectly seared scallops or thin white noodles resting in a steaming broth with crisp pork belly, Bourdain’s shows were unique in their ability to captivate me with everything outside the contents of a plate or bowl. I wanted to know the people, I wanted to watch him in a canoe sailing down the Amazon, I wanted to see him speaking to a local Burmese activist about political turmoil.
The entertainment factor for Bourdain was as much about the story he wanted to weave regarding a country as it was about the food. In an episode on Iceland, a tourism commercial for plays, with a narrator speaking in romantic terms about the beautiful sunsets and lush golf-courses and incredible docks and seaside restaurants. As soon as the commercial finishes, it cuts to Bourdain inside an ice cave in the middle of a blizzard freezing his ass off and chattering his teeth. Bourdain always strived to be relatable, that was his thing. He was in a different land, surrounded by things very different from those that we have in America, and he acted not as a tour guide for us, but an ambassador. He always had a great reason why we should step outside of our enclosed boxes, regardless of whether it was comfortable for us or not.
Americans naturally have a hesitation and skepticism towards things we aren’t used to. Whenever Bourdain talked about food, he would address it the same way a guy tasting a burger at your local pub might. Simple but effective terms. He had a bitterness and disdain for many food critics, considering their approach to be elitist, cryptic, and worst of all, inauthentic. They dressed in designer clothes and sat behind a table and daintily picked at and picked apart a dish going into their textbook terminologies for what flavors complement one another and what weird French word describes that particular taste between sour and tart that English has no equivalent for. Bourdain sat in a streetside hut. Plastic table. Plastic chairs. Cold beers. Across from the freaking President of the United States, and shoved all sophistication and decorum to the side, slurping noodles obnoxiously from a hot broth bowl with pork belly. “This is killer”, President Obama says. The only analysis one could ever need to suddenly crave a good bùn-cha.
Bourdain’s tireless desire to get Americans to understand a world they, for the most part, shut away from, went much further than cuisine. He knew that food was intrinsically tied to history and politics of a nation, and thus, and most importantly tied to its people. Tony never minced his words when visiting developing countries which the United States utterly destroyed with its murderous foreign policy campaigns. His castigation of Henry Kissinger is well-documented. From No Reservations to Parts Unknown, it was clear that Bourdain’s shows aimed to recognize humanity above all else. To recognize the destruction we experience and the spirit that endures. His episodes in Libya amidst the Benghazi fiasco, Myanmar amidst the Rohingya pogrom, and Turkey amidst the mass protests of Erdogan’s re-election balanced the reality of a tumultuous political fire with the fire that cooked lip-smacking local foods and a fire within the nation’s populace that upheld their hopes.
It was incredibly ironic that a show like Parts Unknown was on CNN, because it sought so hard to tear down every wall of mystification that cable news programs put up when speaking of other countries and cultures. There wasn’t a reporter with a microphone poorly explaining in oversimplified and theatrical terms why the country was in a state of unrest. Instead, it was regular people, sharing food during iftar after a day of fasting who spoke about their personal experiences and beliefs in the direction of the nation. They were having a conversation not a debate. They didn’t always agree with each other, and we, at home, didn’t always agree with them, but everyone listened, and everyone shared a meal.
When I watched Anthony Bourdain, I got the sense of a person who was deeply devoted to the idea that food would make the world a much smaller, and better, place. He understood very well the political and social divisions that existed between countries, but he also knew that food was one of mankind’s cardinal pleasures. No Reservations and Parts Unknown are two of the most incredible shows I have ever witnessed because they held the food show to a higher standard. Anthony Bourdain challenged himself to teach us and challenged to learn and believe that wherever in the world we may be, we will find someone just like us, and if we’re lucky, it will be on the side of the road, sitting in plastic chairs, at a plastic table, with a cold beer, and eating something that’s killer.