What Anthony Bourdain Meant to People of Color
Posted June 12, 2018 6:06 p.m. EDT
NEW YORK — Shivana Sookdeo was in line at a food festival in Prospect Park several years ago, and turned to see Anthony Bourdain standing near her. “Hey kid, you hungry?” he asked.
From there, they struck up an easy conversation, she said in an interview, and eventually got to talking about her parents’ home country, Trinidad.
“It wasn’t like talking to a celebrity,” she said. “It was like talking to an old friend.”
After Bourdain was found dead Friday, at the age of 61, Sookdeo described what he had meant to her. “I felt I could trust him to see what I saw in Trinidad, as if the heart of the country would be safe in his hands as a person and traveler,” she wrote on Twitter. “You trusted him with Your Heritage.”
Her tweets — shared and liked tens of thousands of times — struck a chord. To many people of color and members of marginalized communities, Bourdain was a rare traveler they trusted to get their cultures “right.” Through his writing and his television shows, the Travel Channel’s “No Reservations” and CNN’s “Parts Unknown,” Bourdain brought curiosity and empathy to parts of the world that were most likely unfamiliar to much of his audience.
“He thought of himself as a guest, and was fascinated and genuinely in love with the idea of food as a way to understand the country and its people,” Sookdeo said. “People respond to that kind of sincerity.”
Others shared her sentiment. “He didn’t look down on foreign places he visited and their ‘quaintness/backwardness/insert-usual-derogatory adjective,'” journalist Rania Abouzeid tweeted. “He dived in, hungry to experience. His wasn’t the Orientalist gaze. He saw humanity (& food) everywhere, and connected with it.”
Ahmed Ali Akbar, the host of BuzzFeed’s podcast “See Something Say Something,” praised Bourdain for “subverting cliché.”
“Especially for a white journalist who works with people of color, it’s rare — and it’s powerful,” he said.
Jenny Yang, a comedian and writer, put it succinctly. “Bourdain never treated our food like he ‘discovered’ it,” she said. “He kicked it with grandma because he knew that HE was the one that needed to catch up to our brilliance.”
Gustavo Arellano, a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, first encountered Bourdain through his 2000 memoir, “Kitchen Confidential,” and was struck by the originality of Bourdain’s voice and his frank discussions of the interplay between food, power, politics and history.
“He was the first one talking about the Latinos working in kitchens,” Arellano said. “He was a prophet, in the sense of speaking the truth.”
While filming an episode of Bourdain’s “Parts Unknown,” Arellano witnessed firsthand Bourdain’s broad appeal. “We wrapped around midnight, and there was a crowd of people wanting to talk with him,” he said, adding that Bourdain made sure to speak with everyone.
After Bourdain’s death, Arellano said, “I had these macho guys saying to me, ‘I’m in tears — he felt like an uncle or a cousin to me.'” After a particularly dangerous experience filming an episode of “No Reservations” in Lebanon in 2006 — during which he and his crew had to be evacuated by Marines — Bourdain’s philosophy evolved, moving away from familiar travel-show tropes to deal plainly with the political realities of the places he visited.
“The uplifting sum-up at the end of every show, the reflex inclusion of a food scene in every act — that ended right there,” he wrote. “I just saw that there were realities beyond what was on my plate, and those realities almost inevitably informed what was — or was not — for dinner. To ignore them had come to seem monstrous.”
Laila El-Haddad, a cookbook author and activist, appeared on a “Parts Unknown” episode centered on Jerusalem in 2013. In Gaza, El-Haddad strove to give him a view of Palestinian life that was “counter to the image most people have,” she said. “And he got it. He understood.”
Bourdain was praised in many circles for showing aspects of Palestinian life that may have been unfamiliar to viewers. In 2014, the Muslim Public Affairs Council awarded him its Voices of Courage and Conscience Media Award for the episode, and he used the opportunity to speak out against what he saw as grave injustice.
“It is a measure, I guess, of how twisted and shallow our depiction of the people is that these images come as a shock to so many,” he said in his acceptance speech. “The world has visited many terrible things on the Palestinian people — none more shameful than robbing them of their basic humanity.”
Bourdain’s visit to Gaza and his blunt criticism of the treatment of Palestinians was “a watershed moment,” El-Haddad said.
Arellano also commended Bourdain for using his fame and platform to advocate humanitarian causes and speak out against bias, particularly against immigrants.
“He used his power to shine a light on marginalized communities,” Arellano said. “He chose to take unpopular positions that were truthful.”