The Essence of Bourdain
In Bourdain’s words, from Medium Raw after his stupendously bestselling Kitchen Confidential, “I did not want for love or attention. My parents loved me… Nobody beat me. I got the bike I wanted for Christmas… I was miserable. I was angry.”
Bourdain was irreverent. He was our internal monologue. He articulated what we felt, in a language that was eloquent and precisely redolent in its description of the human condition.
Most American viewers and many around the globe are familiar with his rich voice, his rock-and-roll, kind of crumpled hair and T-shirt, his boots, the tired face of a man well-traveled in life and world, the face a map of deep creases and unabashed wrinkles telling us the stories he’d traveled. We are familiar with his dark eyes that fix on his friend or stranger across the table, a plate or two of food between them. We know he listened carefully to the people across the table, asking simple questions with a respect that we all deserve. He brought a familiarity to how he reached across cultures with his travel shows. But his writing is what defined what we thought of Tony Bourdain. His cigarette, unapologetic, his not-quite-regretful face after a meal liberally punctuated by alcohol, his acknowledgement of a misplaced bravado after an evening of too much drinking in Mexico or Korea, his love for travel and how lucky he’d always felt to be able to combine that with his love for food.
Medium Raw told us where life took him, away from the restaurant scene but into a world that was his always. Why am I quoting from his second memoir, which was not the stupendous bestseller the first one was? Why quote him when he was famous (after two decades of hard knocks), when he was aware that he was very close to or already a sellout to American entertainment? Why talk about Bourdain, the somewhat schmaltzy aging, known as the rock-and-roll chef who hadn’t been a chef for years, who snobbishly pooh-poohed the obviously snobby high-elegance food and restaurants? Because Bourdain, if nothing else, owned that he was and continued to be pretentious. He owned being fake. He owned wanting to be liked. To be welcomed by an unwelcome rigid world of cooking.
He has always been you and I, only more self-aware, more curious. He was more of what you and I could ever be. That second book, a recollection of ‘selling-out’, of attacking the pretentiousness of Food Network, of so-called cooks like Rachel Ray, of him sheepishly admitting that he stopped calling Ray out after she sent him a fruit basket… isn’t such a well-written tome as Kitchen Confidential. It is however, a keen look at what we have done to food, and entertainment.
The Bourdain who became famous in his fifties was acutely aware of how he influenced people who loved to travel and who loved to eat. These people usually love both these activities. He was aware that what he reviewed, where he ate, which chef he recommended, be they hole-in-wall tapas places in Mexico, or the oldest kabab and biriyani shop in Isfahan, Iran, would affect how we, his viewers, his listeners, his readers could destroy the essence of that place. What makes Bourdain beloved wasn’t what he knew. It’s what he helped us feel and discover with him when he took us along.
Since that Friday in early June 2018, the social media is pouring out nostalgic snippets of memories of him. Most are tweets, links and video clips of what Bourdain represented. And he represented a lot of things. More importantly, he represented and still represents, many people, many genres, and many creative ventures. So, how did the Bourdain phenomenon start?
An overnight success, two decades in the making, Bourdain became a household and global name in his mid-40s. About my age now. There’s a difference though. Unlike my life as an immigrant and person of color, Anthony Bourdain was from an ordinary family that was American. An ordinary life. A life that could have stayed as such.
Growing up in New Jersey, in a typical American family, albeit with a French father who worked in Columbia Records, and a mother, a copyeditor at The New York Times, Bourdain claimed it was a ‘bourgeois’ existence.
His mother, Gladys, said, “He would be curious… from a very young age, he loved to try new things. He ate snails that first summer in France, too.” He remained curious, which ordinary people seem to lose sight of as life takes over. Bourdain has admitted to being the kid who, if dared to eat squishy things, would.
His father, in his own words, was a ‘man of simple needs’, a Frenchman from the Boudreaux region for whom most of everything he experienced was ‘marvelous’. In a poignant love letter about his father in Bon Appetit in 2012, Bourdain talked about how he, now a father in his fifties, was transforming into his father. I am sure we hear his voice when we read his words: “He taught me early that the value of a dish is the pleasure it brings you; where you are sitting when you eat it—and who you are eating it with—are what really matter. Perhaps the most important life lesson he passed on was: Don’t be a snob. It’s something I will always at least aspire to—something that has allowed me to travel this world and eat all it has to offer without fear or prejudice. To experience joy, my father taught me, one has to leave oneself open to it.”
“I am a simple man.”—which also became the young Bourdain’s motto. When I met him, on television that is, that’s what he was. A tall man who knew his place in the world, was curious about people in every place he took us, a man who loved roadside food stalls in Mexico, Thailand, Cambodia, Punjab, music, words, and doing the right thing.
Like most of us who have devoured everything Bourdain, the first time I experienced his writing was the 1999 New Yorker essay that launched him. He was already a fiction writer with little success compared to his explosive entry as an incisive memoir, food and travel writer. It was a confessional, a chat among friends while smoking near the back door of a restaurant, or bar. Secrets about why Monday’s fish wasn’t the best choice, or what a well-done really meant in chef-speak. He admitted that he was turning traitor, another side-confessional as he gave laypeople the secrets behind the kitchen doors—he was leaving that world for television. He told us that gloves in kitchens were unnecessary accessories, that refrigeration of meats and fish could be suspect, that brunch was a horrible word, that vegetarianism was a First World luxury (though he did concede that vegetarians from countries such as my birth land, for religious reasons, were exempt from his wrath), and that veganism is worse. It was raw, vivid, outrageous, and deliciously fun.
What I did notice however, was a soft sentence thrown in the middle of a bombastic love affair with food. He wrote, “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. In New York, the main linguistic spice is Spanish.” This was, in 1999, the first place where a Caucasian American, a respected chef of a major restaurant, acknowledged and admitted his dependence and respect on the ‘others’. The Others. Us.
If we unpack that, here it is in the open. Bourdain brought to us what his life as a chef was, who he depended on and why he was such a vocal supporter of the invisible class in the restaurant world. In his field notes for Parts Unknown, he wrote why Mexico was a brother of another mother, another love letter: “We love Mexican people—we sure employ a lot of them. Despite our ridiculously hypocritical attitudes towards immigration, we demand that Mexicans cook a large percentage of the food we eat, grow the ingredients we need to make that food, clean our houses, mow our lawns, wash our dishes, and look after our children. As any chef will tell you, our entire service economy—the restaurant business as we know it—in most American cities, would collapse overnight without Mexican workers… in two decades as a chef and employer, I never had ONE American kid walk in my door and apply for a dishwashing job, a porter’s position—or even a job as a prep cook. Mexicans do much of the work in this country that Americans, probably, simply won’t do.”
In the days after he’s been gone, that’s the love being reciprocated. The “Others” feel connected to him as much as he was to them.
Bourdain acknowledged how the restaurant business’s underbelly operated–he showed the rest of the world the life that was behind the swinging kitchen doors of New York restaurants. That memorable essay and subsequent bestselling memoir led him to satiate his curiosity by exploring the same questions in the world of travel and cuisine. This time, he took us traveling with food. Yes, young chefs aspired to be him. Yes, tourists turned into Bourdain-lite bloggers and travel writers. Yes, Bourdain sightings peppered our newsfeed. And even yes, drinking a bourbon with Bourdain in a dark bar was the story legends are made of. We loved his essence, the heady high he gave us by being original, by being truthful, by being vulnerable.
He morphed into a travel writer with food as his vehicle. It was only natural for an essayist who was honest about his past as a hardcore drug user in the eighties, his failures in his twenties, his smoking addiction, his need to be on the edge of self-destruction, and his love for all things unknown. That was exciting to him. So it was exciting to us. Travel shows like No Reservations (2005-2012, Travel Channel), Parts Unknown (2013-18, CNN) were his platforms for us to see the people he ate with, people he revered, and the food that started conversations with strangers and friends. The joy he showed on the screen still told us he was there for the food, but he was also there for the experience and the experience was ours for the taking.
An episode from Season 3 from No Reservations was where his former sous chef and then executive chef, the late Carlos Llaguno at Les Halles, took him back to his hometown in Mexico, in Puebla. Chef Llaguno passed away last year, but that one-hour episode was a celebration of friendship, tequila, tacos, Luca Libre fighters and life. Carlos’s mother fed Bourdain a home-cooked meal of refried beans, mole, and tamales, surrounded by their family members. Bourdain told us he was full, and yet couldn’t stop. The narrative of returning home to Puebla with Carlos subtly hinted to the viewers something very simple. Yes, immigrants come to America, sometimes illegally across the border. Yet, immigrants learn to adapt and work hard, much like Chef Llaguno, who was a top French cuisine chef. They strike up friendships in the community they build, and are naturalized through sponsorships or other legal methods because of how invaluable they are to the US. We have to look beyond what legal means when it comes to immigration. Look at this one story and see how the love for food can unite us. That was the message Bourdain’s episode gave—a camaraderie between fellow chefs, a love for Mexican street food, a difference of opinion on whether bullfighting should continue (Bourdain was for the bull, in case you’re wondering), and what it means to come back home.
Bourdain consistently talked about the role of Central Americans in American restaurant kitchens, calling out the James Beard Foundation on acknowledging the role these people have played in the success of many restaurants and cuisines yet relegating them to the shadows. A vocal critic of the current American administration, he called out its ‘ridiculously hypocritical attitude’ towards immigration.
Was Bourdain politicizing a fine meal? Was he bringing in politics and his views to a travel show? But of course! According to him, what he did in the last two decades of his life was move away from the chef-life/restaurant business and yet stay connected to food and travel. All the travel shows, No Reservations, The Layover, Parts Unknown, even his appearances on Top Chef or Yo Gabba Gabba were about the experience and the people in those lands. Which meant food. Which meant people. So, of course, it meant politics.
As we grew older, we grew with Bourdain. 2016 happened and everything anyone did in America became focused on politics, influenced by which side we were polarized toward. Europe wasn’t any better, and the rest of the world had wars, famine, and chaos at a magnitude we haven’t experienced in many years. Bourdain’s politics influenced his work, especially the places he actively travelled to, and the people he interviewed when he went there. But he did it with a finesse that made us stop, think, and contemplate the ‘other’ being people just like you and I. We mislabeled him a ‘bad boy’ of the chef world. Calling him a rock star was more so.
In the past decade or so, Bourdain strategically introduced us to countries that were part of America’s Axis of Evil. The Iran episode is one of the most widely shared ones among Iranians. Much like the Mexico trip, his Iranian trip showed us similarities common to all people. We love food, we love feeding our guests, we spend hours cooking our favorite family recipes to please a stranger who has been respectful of us, and has asked questions of us that tell us he means to bridge the gap, to reduce the ‘otherness’.
An unusual yet charming way Bourdain introduced us to the Iranian people was with a simple question to one of his local hosts, “People have been ridiculously nice to us. Aren’t you guys supposed to be the Axis of Evil?” A snarky somewhat-flippant rhetorical question that told us all and more about his trip—he knew his “words have consequences”, especially for the ones he would leave behind after shooting an episode. Over a feast of tardiq, fessunjon, chicken stews and kababs, Bourdain asked about the food, about the cook, the hostess who thanked him shyly, her eyes sparkling with happiness, watching him eat food that she may have spent hours working on. We headed to the cavernous market shop in Ishfahan, known for biryani. Bourdain’s proclamation that Iran was where biriyani originated made the Indian in me bristle, but even I quieted down when I saw the beautiful dish he ate. As he said, “Biryani — maybe you know the word. But this doesn’t look like any biryani I’ve ever had. Minced lamb shoulder, onion, turmeric, cinnamon, mint, and of course, saffron, more valuable than gold by weight.”
But of course, words have consequences. In the same episode, we met former Washington Post correspondent Jason Rezaian, and his wife, Yeganeh Salehi. Journalists who lived in Iran, talked about the two countries’ ideological clashes, reminisced about Persia, the history, culture and art of an ancient civilization still flourishing despite the government-sanctioned communication censorship and monitoring that Bourdain acknowledged without making it the focus of the show. He wrote about what happened next in a Washington Post editorial, when Jason and Yeganeh were arrested and imprisoned for over 500 days, wondering why the Iranian government would arrest a couple who had only a few days ago talked about their love for a country so steeped in beauty. There was no communication, no news, and that worried him immensely as was obvious in his essay. But we, his viewers, his readers didn’t know what he did about that. The journalists were imprisoned for nearly two years (and now live in Washington, DC).
While he may have worked tirelessly behind the scenes to help, after that Friday, Rezaian wrote in a June 13 opinion piece about Bourdain, “He never ceased drawing attention to our predicament. ‘Our posture right away was we do not want to break any eggs here. I mean, we were proactively in touch with everybody — with your family, with The Washington Post, and somebody was talking to the State Department,’ he told me later.”
When a people acutely familiar with “Death to America” posters on their streets now lovingly reminisce about an American who humanized them to those who have genuinely feared them for decades, this goes beyond writing and making a small travel show on food. Food is politics, as Bourdain has often said, much like food is life.
Bourdain’s carefully arranged trip to Vietnam to have a six-dollar meal with then-President Obama was a treat for half of the American population, a joy for many other countries. To watch them talk about Bourdain’s fear of what his child was going to experience softened a battle-scarred traveler for whom his daughter was precious. For Obama to reassure him, “It’ll be okay.”—made us heave a sigh of relief. The noodles were slurped and the meat chunks were handled by both like pros as they sat on plastic stools in a country that America had invaded decades ago. It was monumental in its simplicity, again bringing ‘others’ into the living rooms of American households telling us it would be okay. But 2016 happened and it wasn’t okay. It was as comedian Hari Kondabolu reminds us every day on Twitter, “This is not normal. And normal wasn’t that great either.”
Bourdain stepped up his activism even more. Season 11’s focus was on guns, God and Trump. He headed exactly where we didn’t want to as we nursed our liberal ballot battle wounds—West Virginia coal country. As always, he went straight for the food, paw-paw ice cream, fried rabbit with chow-chow and even bear meat. Talking about the election and why coal country would support Trump, Bourdain noted, “There are the nice people who live next door who like guns, and unfortunately, there seem to be a whole lot of people who aren’t nice at all… one would hope that there is at least some middle ground.”
I must say that episode made me cringe, and I wasn’t sure why he would go there. But go there he did. He never said or agreed to be our hero. He never said this little travel show of his was about beautiful locales with Starbucks and KFCs. He was always on point, and even bringing us this episode he told us, the others, that the ‘others’ for us were as human as we were. We disagreed on policies but, at heart, we were all human with human follies, joys and weaknesses.
In 2017, Bourdain accidentally became an ardent #MeToo supporter through his relationship with Italian director, Asia Argento. Argento, a prominent #MeToo activist, accused Harvey Weinstein of sexual assault when she was twenty-three. Of him realizing sexual intimidation and assault of women in his culinary field, Bourdain noted, “… I’ve known women who’ve had stories like this for years and they’ve said nothing to me. What is wrong with me? What have I, how have I presented myself in such a way as to not give confidence..? So I started looking at that.” While he may have come late to be a staunch ally of the movement, his posts were vociferous support for Argento and the movement, asking the questions that were changing how he had been accustomed to, knowing how he had an active supporting role to play next to his partner.
Even when he played a supportive role, his words affected us, the others, the others who belonged to multiple categories that he highlighted—the immigrants, the women, the cooks, the writers, the essayists, the musicians, the people, the others. Editors Helen Rosner and Greg Morabito with the Eater Upsell, got Bourdain to talk as candidly as we’ve ever seen/heard him do. What I noticed again was Bourdain’s very subtle way of making shock-value grandiloquent comments but with kernels of truth hidden in his almost-introverted words, sandwiched between bites that are more incisive. It’s easy to latch unto the shocking or thrilling parts, like when Kitchen Confidential was published and his followers came to his readings with drugs. One can almost see him rolling his eyes, thinking, that was a different life, my friend, did you miss a few chapters in the book? When asked by Rosner if he considered himself a journalist since he was in awe of Hunter S. Thompson’s work, he said no. He added, “I’m a storyteller-essayist, I’m always speaking from my point of view. My point of view always comes first, it’s always subjective.” That in a nutshell was what he was, a master storyteller, an essayist, a keen observer of people. As an essayist with the medium of television and film, he knew how images needed a story, it needed music which was integral to his upbringing with his father’s work at Columbia Records. He collaborated with musicians, film directors, invited people to discuss movies, music, asked musicians to participate in his shows. He actively focused on making each episode a multimedia essay—a focused beginning with the music setting the tone, a meaty middle with Bourdain sitting across the table of his host, continuing the conversation started with the question from the beginning, an exploration of the place and the journey. Finally, a tying-up of the question asked in the beginning to an end with a guitar or flute music trail which would leave another question unanswered or a soft truth hanging with the visuals. Each episode relied on his storytelling, his choice of music, his exploration of a culture foreign to the viewers, or a culture we already had an opinion on. Bourdain was a master storyteller and that’s what we fell in love with.
As the days turn into weeks, then months and soon years, the essence of Bourdain may change. We may remember only his big statements, his hatred of brunch food, or his trip to Kesar da Dhaba in Punjab, or his river trips down Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Hong Kong, maybe his Jerusalem/Lebanon piece. We may cherish his visits to nine African countries, to Ethiopian watering holes with Chef Marcus Samuelsson, eating futu porridge in Jo’burg, or bhajias (lentil fritters) in Zanzibar. We may even remember that his travel show showed still-active mines in Laos fields. After the show, White House officials committed to a $90-million bomb-clean up in that area—we may remember his little travel show made a political difference.
We may not remember that he used to have an introverted demeanor which he camouflaged with tattoos, a dangling cigarette, or even his crumpled look—T-shirt, jeans, dark uncombed hair that was almost white when he died. We may not remember the number of Emmys he and his team won. We may switch to the latest flavor soon, this is Twitterverse after all. But we should remember this from him about what he did, “If any of us really thought we could’ve been rock stars, or if anyone of us could play guitar, we sure as shit wouldn’t have cooked. We cook because there was nothing else for us, more often than not.”
If we wanted to tell him of what we are up to since he left us, we would tell him that they’re separating children at the US-Mexico border from their parents as they come to America asking for help. We would tell him that he would have been incensed. We would tell him we heard his eleven-year old daughter wore the boots he gave her to the concert where she performed eleven days after he left us. We would tell him we are worried for the future but we are fighting the otherness as best as we can. He was ours, he was us. We would tell him we miss him terribly.