When I think of the perfect life, often the same themes repeat — travel around the world, visit new places, try delicious new foods, meet interesting lifelong friends, and strive to make a change for the better. Anthony Bourdain was the encapsulation of this dream. For me and for millions of people, his infinite curiosity, respect for other cultures and joy for community is a blueprint for the good life. And so, for many, Bourdain’s death on June 8 at 61 years old was devastating.
Bourdain was born in New York City on June 25, 1956. Early in his life he developed heroin and cocaine addictions; despite self-described near-death experiences, after graduating from culinary school he climbed the ranks to become the executive chef at Brasserie Les Halles, developing a relationship he would continue for the rest of his life. Then in 2000, his book “Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly” was published to critical acclaim. In it, he describes the difficulties of kitchen life, whether it be hard drugs, intense work schedules or the strict hierarchies and power structures built into the restaurant industry. He quickly rose to stardom and then in 2002 started a long and prosperous TV career.
His shows were, to many, a welcome introduction to a world few will likely encounter in its entirety. His travels around the world not only shed light on numerous delicious and exciting dishes, but also cultures, people and traditions that were previously unreported on or underrepresented. For me, the child of a Hong Kong emigrant and a California native, food was always a contentious struggle of what was normal, what would be accepted by my peers. Rachel Khong, a Bay Area-based writer of Malaysian heritage, summed it up in an Instagram post about Bourdain: “We had never seen our home country on TV like we did on No Reservations. He loved assam laksa — my favorite food! — as much as I did, back when I didn’t know how — didn’t have the vocabulary — to explain it to other people.”
Bourdain’s episodes on Asia and the Bay Area always astounded me. He was one of the few people who enthusiastically embraced difference, whether the curry fish balls on Hong Kong’s Nathan Road or the carnitas tacos in San Francisco’s Mission District. Bourdain never talked over the people he was travelling with — in fact, he didn’t even consider himself a journalist. His role was the listener, someone who would embrace change, who would hear the stories of the places he went, and who would respect and honor the hospitality given to him. Michael Twitty, a culinary historian, also acknowledged Bourdain’s commitment to marginalized communities: “Anthony Bourdain did not exploit race or religion or other human conflicts, rather he illuminated how food played a role in the deep passions behind those conflicts and challenged us to not see bad or good but human.” Bourdain’s goal was not traditional reporting, but allowing the stories and cultures around the world to speak for themselves and showing the immense pleasure and insight found in immersing yourself in something new.
Bourdain was undoubtedly a political figure. His series “Parts Unknown” led him to places that today are mired in regional conflicts or viewed by Americans with prejudice — places such as Myanmar, Iran and Kurdistan. In his book “A Cook’s Tour” Bourdain described his experience in Cambodia:
“Once you’ve been to Cambodia, you’ll never stop wanting to beat Henry Kissinger to death with your bare hands. You will never again be able to open a newspaper and read about that treacherous, prevaricating, murderous scumbag sitting down for a nice chat with Charlie Rose or attending some black-tie affair for a new glossy magazine without choking.”
Bourdain’s episodes in the Middle East shed light on many American-created problems in the region. He won an award from the Muslim Public Affairs Council, and in his speech said, “The world has visited many terrible things on the Palestinian people, none more shameful than robbing them of their basic humanity. People are not statistics. That is all we attempted to show.”
Anthony Bourdain was also a fervent supporter of women’s rights and taught many of us how to act as male allies. In a 2017 interview with Slate, Bourdain, unlike many of his peers, contemplated his own role in perpetuating or supporting misogynistic tendencies. He wondered if his own language in “Kitchen Confidential” and other books may have romanticized machismo or an overtly aggressive kitchen environment. When his girlfriend, Asia Argento, described her own traumatic experience with Harvey Weinstein, Bourdain was willing to call Weinstein what he was: a rapist. I saw in Bourdain someone who wasn’t afraid to speak out against injustice and wrongdoing, even to his own personal detriment. He urged chefs to rethink the oppressions that they may have been perpetuating and used his platform to condemn sexual abuse in the industry.
Bourdain proved life shouldn’t be measured in days or months or years, but instead in the never-ending adventures of experience, of learning and meeting new people. An ethos of respect and celebration of others, of places still to be discovered and connections still to be made represents the best of Bourdain. His sense of adventure and camaraderie remains with me and millions of others who are determined to change this world for the better.