'The Journey Changes You' — Remembering the Adventurous Life of Anthony Bourdain
Anthony Bourdain spoke to the heart of food lovers, wanderlusters and adventure seekers all over the world. His lanky frame, on-purpose disheveled look and easy swagger made him appear like he was perpetually on the way to or coming from an expedition.
His face, as so many tribute photos are reminding us, had an authentic stamp of curiosity with a tint of both wonder and sadness about everything he was seeing. His words were always unpretentious, yet with enough dollop of prose and poetry to preserve the romance of discovery and exploration.
Bourdain died on June 8, 2018, in France in an apparent suicide, an act that shocked his friends, family and fans. The celebrity chef and tour guide who seemed to revel in all that life has to offer, who had an infectious excitement about grasping life's many wonders, and who introduced millions to new cultures and cuisines around the world, will be deeply missed.
Here are the ways he showed us the many flavors of the world through his genius and humanity.
He was a master storyteller, able to talk directly to his audience with a distinct voice that conveyed his love for food and people.
Bourdain became, almost by accident, the world’s tour guide, a borderless diplomat of sorts bridging wide cultural divides. He had an uncanny ability to look like he belonged everywhere and nowhere at the same time.
He listened without judgement and asked questions without even a hint of condescension. In a sleight-of-hand, he pulled you in with the food but won you over with deep, candid and revealing conversations. Bourdain taught us that there’s no truth serum quite like a meal shared with a friend.
Our Backstage Pass to the Culinary World
Even the self-deprecating Bourdain would admit that once the New Yorker published his insider essay on the restaurant business in 1999, he became an overnight success. Soon, the debt-ridden 44-year-old had a $50,000 publishing deal.
The book, "Kitchen Confidential," quickly became a best-seller, opening opportunities he never could’ve imagined. It might be hard to imagine now, in our food-obsessed world where every meal is staged and captured, but Bourdain was the first to talk about food as a full-time obsession, describing every detail as you would review music or art. And his style made it useful, relatable and engaging.
Just listen to the gasps from Oprah’s audience when Bourdain tells them how much butter is secretly in their dishes, when to order fish and why they shouldn’t be touching the bread that comes before their meals.
'Blood and Organs, Cruelty and Decay'
With Bourdain, every food lover who ever felt excluded or suffocated by the white-linen set finally had their very own insider. Not only that, he wrote like Kerouac and Hemingway, describing food with a combination of searing simplicity and lyrical sensuality.
As he wrote in "Kitchen Confidential": “Good food, good eating is all about blood and organs, cruelty and decay. It’s about sodium-loaded pork fat, stinky triple-cream cheeses, the tender thymus glands and distended livers of young animals.”
Love at First Tokyo
Bourdain’s love affair with the Japanese capital runs deep. Even before he was a household name, his boss sent him to the frenetic city to open a restaurant.
That first trip outside the U.S., he says frequently, changed his life forever. In interviews, when asked which city he would choose to live in, if he had to pick just one, Bourdain names Tokyo without skipping a beat. He often adds that he would be just as satisfied never eating anywhere else, either. There’s no other country he’s filmed more episodes in than Japan, tied only by Italy.
But for his die-hard fans, Tokyo might have a special place in their hearts too, for a different reason — it’s the city where they first met Bourdain, the poet, the food lover, the everyman. The first episode of the travel show that would launch his successful TV career, "A Cook’s Tour," has Bourdain zig-zagging through the city with a couple of locals picking out fish in Tsujiki Market.
“There’s a respect for ingredients here that goes against the grain of a lot of Western cooking,” he narrates in what would become his signature style.
Developing his Travel Style
By comparison to his great body of work, this first episode of "A Cook's Tour" feels almost a little tame. But it’s also easy to see why Bourdain was an instant hit. He’s affable with a glint of mischief in his eyes, firing one-line zingers while also managing to stay humble.
“I’m experiencing a pleasurable form of dementia,” he says of fresh-cut tuna, “that’s sex, man.” He was your most fun friend, off on an adventure, writing home to you, providing you the best postcard you’ve ever received.
“Thank you for one of the most incredible dining experiences of my life. I will be always grateful,” is something he said in that very first episode, but one he would repeat about Tokyo, over and over again.
A Shrine in Hanoi
The meal was as street food as it could get, a bowl of noodles and fish sauce called Bun Cha.
But the reason why the very table where Bourdain had this Hanoi staple is now enshrined in glass is because his guest was the leader of the free world. In 2016, during an official visit, Barack Obama cemented Bourdain’s status as the country’s chosen conversationalist by granting him an interview over soup.
“I’ve never seen a guy enjoy a cold beer, on a low plastic stool, more than President Obama, by the way,” he said.
In a tribute to Bourdain on Twitter the day after his death, Obama affirmed their mutual affection: “He taught us about food — but more importantly, about its ability to bring us together. To make us a little less afraid of the unknown. We’ll miss him.”
An Emotional Visit to the Philippines
Despite his rockstar image and bad-boy chef status, it was pretty easy to sense, one TV episode after another, that Bourdain was a softie. In his visit to the Philippines to open season seven of "Parts Unknown," we watch him fall hard for Filipino culture.
In his typical master storytelling style, Bourdain uses food as a secret password of sorts, gaining entrance into private worlds. Over lechon, what he calls the best pig in the world, and sisig, chopped-up pig head, he takes us into the lives of a traveling cover band, just one of many groups of overseas workers in the country who leave their families to make a hard living abroad.
During a shared meal of kare-kare, a go-to comfort food of oxtail stew, he reads an elderly Filipino woman a letter from one of his crew members, the man she raised while working as a nanny in the U.S. You are, like through so many of Bourdain’s offerings, laughing and crying at the same time.
This was Bourdain’s gift. He always found a patch of common ground that we could all stand on, no matter how foreign the place or the food.
His Heaven, an Oyster Counter in the Bay Area
Every Bourdain quote now will have new meaning for his fans re-watching his immense body of work. But perhaps none will feel as poignant as an episode he did in the Bay Area in 2005.
In one scene, he sits alone and content at the counter of Swan Oyster Depot, a seafood spot that he called “a touchtone of my worldwide wanderings. A happy zone.”
We watch him slopping up the guts of a crab with bread and calling it "Unicorn juice." He seems genuinely happy and at home here. Unlike so many other episodes, where he is constantly welcomed by strangers, the man serving Bourdain his seafood calls him "Tony" and "babe."
Bourdain goes on to narrate, “If I read about myself dying at this counter, I’d say to myself, that was one lucky guy.”
Liked Cronuts, Hated Truffle Oil
Bourdain was at the forefront of the “foodie movement,” before blogging and Instragramming your perfect plate became a profession.
You could trust his advice on the trends worth trying and the ones that reeked of BS. He gave passing grades to Rose or as he called it, “Hamptons Juice,” but begged people to run away from truffle oil and Kobe sliders.
Never one to mince his words, he said of the little burgers, “There is no food crime worse. It’s at the epicenter of douchedom.”
He also had choice words for brunch, his least favorite meal, and for artisanal cocktails that took longer to make than to drink. As for pastry mash-ups like the cronut, he begrudgingly admitted, they’re delicious.
He Showed Us Politics Over Food Is More Civilized
Bourdain’s show on CNN, "Parts Unknown," was also its highest rated. His switch to the cable news network from the Travel Channel was a sure sign that Bourdain’s shows have always been about more than just food and travel. They were about people, their culture, their realities and yes, their politics.
And unlike the talking-head debates on CNN, where it sometimes feels like no one is listening to each other, you could always rely on Bourdain to give you debates and discussion served with the camaraderie that comes with sharing a drink or a meal.
We see this in Iran, where he filmed an episode in 2014 at a time when, like today, U.S. relations were very strained. “It’s very different than what we thought it would be; it felt like a window was opening,” Bourdain said in an interview about the show, in which he sits down with an Iranian family for a full feast.
Opening Windows in Distant Lands
Perhaps Bourdain would never take the credit, but with him, it always felt like a window was opening to a foreign land.
His words and his narrative always made places less strange. He did this, too, in Myanmar in 2013, when the government began to open up to the outside world, and his show was one of the first foreign crews allowed inside. Bourdain insisted always that he wasn’t a journalist, but people trusted his storytelling skills nonetheless.
They knew they would get very human truths from Bourdain, the kind that cuts through polarizing politics.
Street Food Never Looked So Good
Bourdain elevated street food. There is no image more synonymous with his persona than that of his tall, lanky Western frame walking through a bustling night market or casually sitting on a plastic chair.
“So many of the greatest meals of my life have been enjoyed sitting in the street eating something in a bowl and I’m not sure exactly what it is,” he once said in an interview.
His shows gave travelers permission and inspiration to wander away from tourist traps and the hotel buffet to eat with the locals. He assured his fans that they won’t get sick or poisoned. His enthusiasm for eating anything on a stick, slurping simple noodles or just enjoying a cold beer bought from street vendors, was contagious.
He reminded us always of why these stalls that exist in almost every country, everywhere in the world, are so important. These are people cooking food for their neighbors, he told us, with a vested interest in making sure it’s good and safe.
He said, “These are great and joyous things that actually enable to you experience a culture, where it counts.”
He Was No Vegetarian, Except in India
We’ve seen him recoil over the idea of vegetarian burgers. He has eaten, all over the world, every part of every animal that you can possibly cook. He has waxed poetic about pork.
Meat lovers adore his shows for this reason. But, in an episode he filmed in Punjab, India, Bourdain has everyone’s mouth watering over naan, curried chickpeas and saag paneer.
He opens the show by saying, “See Tony eat vegetables.”
In his classic bluntness, he goes on to say that if American vegetarians seasoned their dishes with as much care and flavor, he would be less of a “dick about it.”
He told Anderson Cooper on CNN, “India, Punjab in particular, that’s a place that I could happily eat vegetarian for quite some time, without noticing it.”
He Was a Pasta Purist
Bourdain may have been gracious, but put chicken in carbonara and you’ve lost him.
Italy, as much as Japan, seemed to be a place of romance and home for Bourdain. He was passionate and protective about its traditions. He was open to any kind of experimentation, interpretation, fusion of all kinds of food. But, please, do not touch the pasta.
His fans who took their first trip to Italy after binging on his shows likely searched for the place he wouldn’t name where he shared pasta with his love Asia Argento. Possibly, his fans considered Puglia when they might have only planned on visiting Rome. Or they ate Cacio e Pepe daily, a dish that Bourdain described as better than his many acid trips and reading "Catcher in the Rye."
He Taught Us That Traveling is About the Journey
If you are a Bourdain fan, watching and reading the tributes that are coming in in the days after his death, there’s no quote you’ll see more than this one:
“Travel isn’t always pretty. It isn’t always comfortable. Sometimes it hurts, it even breaks your heart. But that’s okay. The journey changes you; it should change you. It leaves marks on your memory, on your consciousness, on your heart, and on your body. You take something with you. Hopefully, you leave something good behind.”
The quote is from an episode of "No Reservations," his show on the Travel Channel. Bourdain’s musings and missives, his poetic observations and everyday wisdom, will no doubt fill future books that will celebrate his travel philosophy.
Bourdain, who says in his very first show that he is looking for extremes in experiences and emotions, showed millions of his viewers the right way to see the world. He eschewed luxury vacations and sanitized resorts. He wasn’t about the R&R. He was always about the journey and the longest, winding, most adventurous way to get to the destination.
He Was a Dream Guest
He would eat cobra heart, sheep testicles, warthog’s anus, fermented shark, all to be a good guest. Bourdain was the antithesis to stereotypical American travelers and their nasty reputation for stomping into a foreign country insisting on their own way.
Instead, he approached every situation with great humility and decency. It showed on screen and made him the biggest star on TV. Bourdain understood the magnitude of being invited by a local to share their native cuisine. He knew that it was more than just food; it was about pride and love for their home. He never took that for granted.
He was always grateful and never failed to show appreciation. In turn, his hosts embraced him and as a result, the rest of us also got a seat to the table for an authentic experience. He was also extremely punctual. A self-confessed neurotic, he was a stickler for schedules — something, he said, he learned early as a cook in New York.
He Wrote a Cookbook for his Daughter
While Bourdain always made sure to display the diversity of his tastes and palates — he seemed just as joyful enjoying delicious modernist cuisine as he did sizzling pig ears — he was never, ever about fancy food. His favorite meal in L.A. was an In-N-Out burger, animal style.
So, it’s no surprise that when he began to cook for his daughter, it would be about simple, home-style meals made with love. Of course, that means something a little different with a father who made a living traveling the globe, trying cuisines from every corner of the planet.
In his cookbook "Appetites," recipes for Korean Army stew sit side by side with simple pasta dishes. Traveling 250 days of the year, Bourdain would often talk about his favorite way to spend time away from work — watching cartoons with this daughter and cooking her meals around the clock.
He Had the Best Gig on TV
Stephen Colbert poked Bourdain during an interview, “It sounds like a college student’s dream, you travel the world, you eat whatever you want, you get drunk, you have fun and then you go to the next place.”
In his classic self-deprecation, Bourdain said he got the gig by messing up in life before the lucky break. “My life was a botch, I was still dunking french fries at 44,” he said.
Part of what made him so relatable is that he never shied away from talking about his destructive past as an addict and delinquent. He often said that he knew he got a second lease on life and tried as much as possible not to mess things up.
Even in his last interviews, Bourdain seemed to be having the time of his life, full of gratitude and grace. When asked if he planned to retire, he said he was going to ride out his gig for as long as he could.
"Wouldn’t you?" he asked.