Anthony Bourdain wasn’t just a TV chef, he was an ambassador.
There’s a scene in the 2015 Miami episode of Anthony Bourdain’s CNN show Parts Unknown where, having tucked into barbecued shrimp and roast pork with Iggy Pop, these two older men who first epitomized and then somehow survived the rock-and-roll lifestyle size each other up on the beach. It’s an oddly moving moment, and very strange to watch now. Bourdain drops his ever-present smirk to try to understand how man who wrestled with so many similar demons has found a strange sort of peace.
“You seem like a curious person,” Iggy Pop tells Bourdain, with a weight that reveals how much a compliment this is.
“It’s my only virtue,” Bourdain snaps back, suddenly uncomfortable, a self-depreciating smile on his face.
Bourdain’s under-assessment of his own many virtues aside, curiosity was certainly one of his strongest. More than anything, Bourdain had an appetite; not just for new food but new experiences, new places, new people. A brilliant, acerbic writer, Bourdain sent an essay to the New Yorker in 1999, “Don’t Eat Before Reading This,” that ended his chef career but gave him a new calling. That essay was expanded into the bestselling memoir Kitchen Confidential, which led to a second book and show on the Food Network, both titled A Cook’s Tour. It was with A Cook’s Tour that Bourdain’s curiosity became his guide, and it served him well over the next 16 years creating globe-trotting television.
The appeal of Parts Unknown and his two shows for the Travel Channel, No Reservations and The Layover, are exactly the same: we want to watch Bourdain’s curiosity overwhelm his prickly demeanor. Over and over again, in one location after another, Bourdain’s seen-it-all attitude melts away, as he digs into something new. When chastised by fans in Singapore for not having a favorite chicken rice spot, Bourdain’s response was not to get angry, or defensive—it was to find some Hainanese chicken rice spots to eat in. Unlike similar shows that exoticize “weird food,” Bourdain was never interested in treating other people’s culture like a freak show. He wanted to try it all, and he wanted to understand the people who made it in the first place.
“Meals make the society, hold the fabric together in lots of ways that were charming and interesting and intoxicating to me.” Bourdain said in a 2007 interview. “The perfect meal, or the best meals, occur in a context that frequently has very little to do with the food itself.”
We have been losing the people who have redefined food for America. Some have died, and some we don’t want to hear from anymore as their behavior away from the kitchen has come to light (Bourdain, to his credit, became an outspoken ally of the #MeToo movement, moving past his early thoughtlessness on gender issues to call out men in the film and culinary industries for the their part in the culture of harassment and abuse of women). It’s easy to forget that it was not so long ago that sushi was a food people were afraid of, and that harissa didn’t used to be on shelves next to ketchup. Bourdain was a part of that push to understand global cuisine. More than that, it was a push for understanding on that cuisine’s own terms. Bourdain wasn’t interested in fancy restaurants; he was interested in what your grandma had on the stove.
With Bourdain’s passing, a huge silence has been created in the conversation about food. In a time when so many people are “discovering” other cultures’ foodways and claiming them as their own, the loss of someone like Bourdain is powerfully felt. He was never so interested in the food that he overlooked the people who made it. We need more people with that sort of curiosity.