Anthony Bourdain: The Man Who Ate the World
Posted June 8, 2018 1:30 p.m. EDT
Anthony Bourdain understood that eating was simply a way of taking the world inside you.
Bourdain, who died on Friday, took a lot of the world inside him in his 61 years on Earth, as a chef and a culinary enthusiast. As a TV host, he shared it with his audience. His globe-trotting, globe-eating series were full of wonder, humor and lusty eating pleasure. But above all, they were about people, for whom food is the most intimate form of expression.
Bourdain became a TV star after becoming a star author with “Kitchen Confidential” (2000), his ribald restaurant tell-all. (It was less-successfully translated into a sitcom by Fox.)
That was a boom time for food television, and Bourdain could easily have had a crowd-pleasing media career trading on his bad-boy image. His first show, Food Network’s “A Cook’s Tour,” based on his second book, was a kind of extreme travel diary of wild eating experiences.
But with his Travel Channel series, “No Reservations,” and later, CNN’s “Parts Unknown,” Bourdain began producing something more like a combination of cultural journalism and personal essay.
Encountering the world’s food meant encountering the world. A 2006 trip to Beirut was interrupted by war between Israel and Hezbollah, which became part of the show. He began to focus less on swanky tourist destinations and more on visiting out-of-the way locations and trouble spots.
In 2011, “No Reservations” went to Haiti, which was recovering from a devastating earthquake. The resulting episode was remarkable and layered, examining not only the nation’s poverty — reflected, as it often is, by dishes that are the result of getting by ingeniously with little — but also whether the show itself was contributing to the problem by engaging in misery tourism.
Bourdain didn’t have an easy answer. This was one thing that made him such a good journalist. He accepted that he didn’t already know everything, he assumed that he might screw up, he went into every encounter believing that people had something to teach him.
There are two ways of traveling, which are really two ways of looking at the world. You can see another country as simply an experience to consume, a place to collect trophies. Or you can look at it as an environment to interact with, something that changes you through the encounter and that you inevitably change by visiting.
Bourdain chose the second. Food, he recognized, is an expression of culture. It’s geographical, economic and political. It’s about where people live, how they live, how they have to get by. “What people eat tells a story,” he told me, around the time of that Haiti episode. “What they’re cooking and why they’re cooking it.”
Bourdain, of course, loved food as food. In Vietnam, a country he returned to over and over (once dining with Barack Obama for his CNN show in 2016), he described the carnal pleasure of a bowl of rice, sweet clams, peanuts, chilies and pork rind. But on his table, food was also history, telling stories of migrations, adaptation and conquest. It was the physical manifestation of what people do to survive.
For someone who came up as a restaurant rascal, Bourdain had a strong moral impulse, which showed in his reflections on the #MeToo movement and the failings of his own industry. But he was too aware of his own flaws — and too funny — to be a moralizer.
Instead, for all he taught in his series, he was a student. He presented learning about the world as an obligation and an unbelievable adventure, something we’re ridiculously lucky to be able to do.
More than a travel guide, more than a food host, Bourdain was an evangelist of the senses. We’re each given a vehicle, the body, to explore the world, and a set of instruments — touch, smell and especially taste — with which to take in information.
It’s painful to know that Anthony Bourdain’s trip has ended. But he left behind one hell of a travelogue.