Anthony Bourdain, who died on June 8 at the age of 61, was by his own admission a better storyteller than a chef. He was of course a pretty successful chef. He had some blunders—a Times Square restaurant that went out of business—but many successes. He ran the kitchens in several prestigious New York kitchens: Supper Club, One Fifth Avenue, Sullivan’s, and finally, beginning in 1998, Brasserie Les Halles. His career was as good as one could hope for in New York’s dining scene.
But Bourdain the writer was more impressive. In the mid-’90s, Villard published two of his crime novels: Bone in the Throat in 1995 and Gone Bamboo in 1997. Both were suffused with his smart-ass sense of humor: like that of a teenage boy who had not grown up but had grown slightly cleverer. Gone Bamboo was a straight crime novel but Bone in the Throat foreshadowed his career to come. It told the story of an Italian chef who finds himself an unwitting accomplice to several crimes, including murder. It was farcical and outlandish: why would the mafia choose to murder someone in the kitchen where a chef works, and then force the chef into their operations? But the implausible setup introduced the premise for the rest of Bourdain’s work: What occurred in the kitchen was not far afield from the most important events that occur in a nation. If you wanted to learn about the world of official and unofficial geopolitics, find the nearest chef.
His landmark New Yorker piece, “Don’t Eat Before Reading This,” made this clear. Although talking about the refuse of animals (“the tender thymus glands and distended livers of young animals,” for instance), it’s hard not to read this as a glimpse into Bourdain’s view of the world at the time. Writing and cooking in New York amidst a historic economic bubble, Bourdain portrayed the seamy underside of the decadent feasts of the rich. “The members of a tight, well-greased kitchen staff are a lot like a submarine crew,” he wrote. “Confined for most of their waking hours in hot, airless spaces, and ruled by despotic leaders, they often acquired the characteristics of poor-saps who were press-ganged into the royal navies of Napoleonic times.” New York’s wealthy didn’t just eat the brutalized organs of young animals; they ate from the palms of workers ruled by a dictatorial military hierarchy.
The kitchen Bourdain describes in that piece is a human-scale depiction of the dual sides of the Clinton era: Prison expansion and globalized market deregulation. He describes kitchen staff as “dysfunctional,” as “sociopaths,” and as “misfits”:
A few years ago, I wasn’t surprised to hear rumors of a study of the nation’s prison population which reportedly found that the leading civilian occupation among inmates before they were put behind bars was “cook.” As most of us in the restaurant business know, there is a powerful strain of criminality in the industry, ranging from the dope-dealing busboy with beeper and cell phone to the restaurant owner who has two sets of accounting books.
The kitchen wasn’t just the last stop before prison. It was also the home of the racketeering huckster. Seafood suppliers sold old “junk” to chefs, who then sold that already aged fish three days after purchase. They saved cuts of steak that were “tough, riddled with nerve and connective tissue” for customers who liked their meat well-done, who could not “notice the difference between food and flotsam.” They did this all to “earn at least three times the amount” the foodstuff first cost. Chefs, in Bourdain’s account, profited off diners by exploiting lax regulations on what they could dish out. The kitchen staff were at once the delinquent and the speculator, veering either toward prison or unsavory but somehow legal profit.
Bourdain began to change with A Cook’s Tour, which premiered on the Food Network in 2003 and marked Bourdain’s entry into television, though it was not as refined as what would come. His introductory narration for each episode, spoken in his signature deep baritone, was written with less confidence than that of his later shows. “First thing you hit when you hit central Tokyo,” he said in the first episode. “You think Blade Runner. It’s very science fiction. It’s very atmospheric. This is far from home.” In many ways he had not yet honed a mode of thinking about the world beyond the northeastern US, where he grew up. His show could not escape its audience—Americans hoping to get a glimpse of the world they had not seen—and so it still felt more like a tour for the privileged than a view of life as lived elsewhere.
But there were glimmers of what would make him special in his off the cuff remarks. In that first episode in Tokyo, after a long meal of finely prepared Japanese food but before a toast of ice-cold sake, he looked at the camera and said, “The church of food, I mean that’s the only church I know.” He was a writer’s talker, the sort of person whose remarks could be transcribed as verse:
The church of food, I mean
That’s the only church I know.
Food was Bourdain’s route into something bigger than himself. He would trod that path more frequently, and become a better hiker, over the course of his next show, No Reservations, which debuted on the Travel Channel in 2005. The search for Lebanese food catalyzed a now famous episode of that show. “We went to Lebanon hoping to make a happy food and travel show about a resurgent country, a newly refurbished, reconstructed city,” he narrated at the beginning of that episode. “It was so much more sophisticated and tolerant and beautiful than I thought it was going to be, but much more importantly [it was a place] where people are proud of their food and their culture and their country.” He knew food in Beirut would be great because of its history of occupiers: Its culinary tradition, he assumed, was influenced by the Greeks, Romans, Phoenicians, and the French.
Bourdain was searching for this sedimented culinary history on a plate when the 2006 Lebanon War broke out. Bourdain and his crew moved north of Beirut to a hotel. They hid there with other expatriates for days, until a fixer delivered Bourdain and his crew to a US marine corps boat that turned away countless others hoping to escape. The idea behind his first novel came to life: Food had led him into the heart of a conflict. And it shook him. At the end of the episode, reflecting on the ways his travel had changed him, he said,
I’d begun to believe that the dinner table was the great leveler, where people from opposite sides of the world could always sit down, and talk, and eat, and drink, and if not solve all the world’s problems, at least find for a time, common ground. Now, I’m not so sure. Maybe the world’s not like that at all. Maybe in the real world, the one without cameras and happy food and travel shows, everybody, the good and the bad together, are all crushed, under the same terrible wheel. I hope, I really hope, I’m wrong about that.
That continued fear about the world beyond the dinner table cast a shadow on much of his work after that episode. Bourdain developed it fully into a late style when he left the Travel Channel and debuted Parts Unknown on CNN. This series was self-conscious about the medium, and alluded frequently to other films: his episode on Jamaica opens with the James Bond view through a gun barrel, clips from famous westerns preface the one on New Mexico, and he enacted the slow-motion party sequence from La Grande Bellezza in his visit to Miami. The writing was crisper and darker. “In Vegas there’s winners and losers,” Bourdain narrates over a shot of himself playing video poker and eating a hot dog at a gas station, “and God knows I’ve been both.” The episodes featured longer summaries of recent political conflicts, economic crises, slow-burning environmental tragedies, and outbreaks of violence in the episode’s region. What could he, an outsider, say about this world? his show seemed to ask. What could he even know about it?
In need of a life raft, he clung to food, seeing it neither as evidence of capitalist decadence nor as the great unifier but instead as a survivor. Against all odds, culture lived on in the cuisine people served in their homes and in the hole-in-the-wall restaurants he sought out. The taste of each dish told the story of a people, their region, and their history. Surprisingly, this came through clearest in the episodes with the least discussion of conflict. In Copenhagen, he ceded space to René Redzepi, head chef at Noma, who waxed about cooking with the fauna native to a region as they wandered through a field of weeds, stopping occasionally to pluck one and taste it. He even managed to reveal the long history of a people embedded in Lyonnaise cuisine, which has become so synonymous with luxury internationally that it never really seems French. He spoke of the lineage of the great Lyonnaise chefs—complete with a family tree detailing who trained under whom—and described the culinary innovations each chef introduced.
The episodes about regions of great migration, which frequently covered cities outside of Europe, revealed that Bourdain’s sense of food could follow a people beyond their national borders and recent history. In an episode on Tanzania, a snack of Mandazi (a fried dough Swahili dish) and Bagias (a fried lentil dish) became a way of describing Indian migration and Zanzibar’s multi-ethnic history. In Houston, conversation over a meal at a restaurant that blends Indian and Pakistani food transitioned smoothly to a portrait of Houston as a city in which people from all over the world are co-mingling. The mixing of culinary cultures for Bourdain was the best record we had of ethnic migration and mixing. In this, Bourdain was like Hortense Spillers in “Peter’s Pans.” After pages of dense criticism attempting to reckon with a history of physical, economic, and epistemic violence against African-Americans, Spillers sketched a culinary tour of the food of African-derived people as evidence of the past’s lingering, far-reaching and ever-changing grasp on the present. For Spillers and for Bourdain, the blending of flavors on a plate was history in motion.
It was his reverence for food that ultimately led to his progressive racial politics. He was a fierce champion of the value of Mexican and Indian food. “I would like people really to pay more for top-quality Mexican food,” he wrote in a memorable Reddit AMA. “I think we should pay more attention to it, learn more about it, and value it more. This is frankly a racist assumption that Mexican food or Indian food should be cheap.” One of the few positive things Bourdain wrote about New York cooking in his first New Yorker essay focused on its racial inclusivity: “It’s a haven for foreigners—Ecuadorians, Mexicans, Chinese, Senegalese, Egyptians, Poles.” Late in his career, he had less faith that the kitchen or the dinner table was a “haven,” but he was glad they survived.
Bourdain’s politics were a work in progress. His travel shows could not escape documentary film’s ethnographic, colonial origins, in which natives were exposed to curious, ogling Western eyes. The very title of Parts Unknown constituted an act of Columbus-ing. To whom was Hanoi, a city of 7.7 million people, unknown? Even if the hole-in-the-wall restaurants he found didn’t have Michelin stars, his guides still had to know of the restaurants to take him there. Beyond the genre’s limitations, he was also, at times, too nice. His desire to be good company led to too much masculinist joking with his host at a visit to Thailand’s Ladyboy Cabaret.
But the best moments of Parts Unknown shone a light on what lies beyond the frame of its camera. Even the otherwise mediocre episode on Jerusalem lingered on long shots of the security wall, gesturing to what Bourdain could not see or show. “Certainty is my enemy,” he said in that episode. “I’m all about doubt, questioning oneself and the nature of reality constantly.” Then, moments later, he reversed and revealed that, for a moment, he believed in God. Where Kierkegaard doubted Christianity even as he professed to be a Christian, Bourdain doubted skepticism even as he professed to be a skeptic.
Then there were the episodes in which Bourdain shines a light on the hold of local tourist industries on what outsiders can see and know. The funniest was an episode in Sicily. There, Bourdain attempted to go spearfishing in the translucent Mediterranean waters only to have his guide throw dead fish overboard while he was underwater, pretend that Bourdain caught live fish, and marvel at the frozen fish in their hands:
“Is this what it’s come to?” I’m thinking as another dead squid narrowly misses my head, almost a decade later back in the same country and I’m still desperately staging fishing scenes, seeding the oceans with supermarket seafood, complicit in this shameful, shameful incident of fakery. There I was, bobbing listlessly in the water. Dead sea-life sinking to the bottom all around me. You’ve got to be pretty immune to the world to not see some kind of obvious metaphor.
That staged fishing incident so frustrated Bourdain that he drank Negronis until blacking out and then dined at the restaurant of the very same host, supposedly on the frozen fish he caught that day, all of which he had to narrate over despite having no memory of the night.
By far the best expose of local tourist industries came in the episode on Jamaica. Early in the day, Bourdain met his host and a group of fishermen in Oracabessa for breakfast, where they drank steel bottoms, a cocktail made up of one part rum and four parts beer. Bourdain asked the fishermen about business, which had declined because of overfishing and restrictions on where people could fish, but the host dominated the conversation. Then Bourdain asked if the local fishing industry would die and the tourist economy would dominate the region. One conversant spoke over the host and detailed a new development plan that would privatize not just the beach on which they lived. While he was attempting to explain the land dispossession they all knew was coming, someone said it was the truth, to which the host muttered under his breath, “We no care about truth man. We kill people for truth man.” (As often happens when transcribing patois, the captions are slightly off in the episode.) The protestor tried to explain that the development would privatize the road on which children walked to school, but the host cut him off. Then he walked the protestor away and told him that, for Bourdain’s show to work, they had to “sit back and be cool.” Viewers of the show will never know what else the protestor would have said or what incentivized the host to censor the locals, but it was hard not to admire Bourdain’s skill as a journalist in eliciting the sort of conversation that the powerful try to cut short.
Bourdain had less faith in what he knew of the world than in the fact that he did not know much about it at all. He could not escape the limitations of his medium—the yearning outsider gaze of the camera, the way people related to an older and famous white man with a camera, and the local guides who never could tell the whole story—but he did expose them as they arose and we were the better for it. The title of Parts Unknown might generously be read as an example of this. To whom were these parts unknown, even after visiting them? The answer, of course, was to Bourdain. The strength of his late style derived from his honesty about what he did not know, the use of food as an entryway into what he could know, and the opportunity to watch him learn. Like an endless rug constantly being pulled out from underneath his feet, his skepticism threatened to undo everything he professed to be true, and over and against his skepticism, he told stories about food, all as a means of keeping his footing, and it was inspiring to watch.
A good television voice-over will, without our noticing, manipulate us. When you hear Morgan Freeman’s lush lilt on your Waze app, you’re a blind follower: wherever the actor is telling you to go, you go—it’s not like that other lady who makes you second guess every command to perform “a slight right at the fork.”
In a 2014 episode of Parts Unknown, Anthony Bourdain directed his viewers to “forget about the politics” of Iran, because “the food here is amazing.” But, unlike Freeman, you know Bourdain, the wiliest and most sardonic narrator (perhaps ever), didn’t actually want you to forget about the politics. Instead, he demanded that you suspend your previous impressions of the place. In forgetting politics, he meant: wave goodbye, at least for the hour, to all of the opinions you’d formed from all the articles you’d read, the cable news you’d watched, and the American politicians you believed.
Bourdain’s seemingly frivolous request for us to “forget” was radical and meaningful. The subtext of asking us to forget? Well, it was him giving us permission to do something many Americans almost never do when we watch television: look at non-white and non-Western countries without all of the casual paternalism that’s been hammered into us since birth. There is no doubt that seeing Iran differently, as a place filled with real humans who eat food and have beating hearts, was so delectably easy because Tony Bourdain was our guide.
But let’s say we actually took Bourdain literally, followed his advice and pretended that he didn’t go on to have all of the incredibly substantive and moving conversations around Iranian dinner tables about sanctions, religious freedom and women’s rights. The show, according to Bourdain himself, would still have been political because “there’s nothing more political than food,” as he told Food & Wine two years after the episode on Iran aired.
No one is more affected by the politics of food than working people, which is why Bourdain traveled to visit and break bread in the world’s most underrepresented and overlooked places. In the four days since his death, the most moving recollections and tributes have come from those who were generally underrepresented: from the local chefs whose food he ate to the local people who sat and ate it with him—it was their unvarnished stories describing quotidian life that made the show go on season after season. And it is them, the ones whose politics we were asked by Bourdain to “forget,” whose words are shaping Bourdain’s legacy.
“RIP Anh Tony,” wrote food writer Andrea Nguyen, using the Vietnamese honorific for older brother in an Instagram post on Friday—the comment underneath a photo featuring President Obama and Bourdain in Vietnam. “Bourdain did much to spotlight overlooked cultures and cuisines, including Vietnam’s. The table where he and Barack Obama ate bun cha (grilled pork and rice noodles) in Hanoi was encased like a museum piece at the restaurant.”
The spotlight Nguyen speaks of is the same one that so many others on the margins of food and politics have referred to in the last few days. It wasn’t just that Bourdain addressed politics simply by eating the food of everyday working people alongside everyday working people, but it too was his personality: a perfect alchemy of genuine curiosity mixed with impeccable comedic timing. Bourdain would employ his classic unmistakable dry and disarming wit while simultaneously demonstrating his genuine curiosity about the lives of each person he interviewed.
During an episode on Vietnam, Bourdain said to his host of his soup: “You live in a great country, man. Any country that can produce this is a superpower, as far as I’m concerned.” It’s a brilliant quip—Bourdain at once salutes the food of the people while uplifting them to a status they never enjoyed: superpower. In Iran, in a voice-over he said, “people have been ridiculously nice to us, I heard you’re supposed to be the axis of evil?” In one sentence Bourdain undresses American political rhetoric that has succeeded in demonizing an entire nation. Later in the same episode, a dinner party guest leans over the table and proclaims: “we’re not the axis of evil, we’re just normal evil like everyone else!”
Bourdain applied the same tactics at home. “Black folks love this man because he didn’t appropriate, when it came to us, all he could do was celebrate,” said culinary historian Michael W. Twitty in a tweet last Friday. “He told the world we were the center of Southern&Brazilian food and he let us speak for ourselves. #AnthonyBourdain was the John Brown of food media.”
Bourdain’s celebration of black American food had the same effect as his praise for Vietnamese soup. When Parts Unknown traveled to Detroit, Bourdain became giddy at a roadside soul food stand, telling the cook that her greens were some of the best he’d ever had and, that he knew good greens because he’d “been all over the south.” Delight washed over the cook’s face. As Bourdain walked away from the meal, he exclaimed that there should be a line around the block for greens like that. The only way he was able temper his excitement was by following up with a joke about how hipsters would ruin the experience if they were privy to it.
Bourdain wasn’t the “John Brown of food media” due to wit alone. His shows were full of moments of sobriety and serious reflections about the communities he was visiting. In an episode of Parts Unknown that took place in a predominantly white town in western Massachusetts with epidemic levels of heroin use, Bourdain remarked at the end, “we were happy to write off whole cities, whole neighborhoods, whole generations, of young men and women, as long as it was an inner city problem, an urban problem, which is to say a black people problem, a brown people problem,” referring to the drug war, a set of policies that criminalized drug use in communities of color. He went on, “Maybe now, now that it’s really come home to roost, now that it’s the high school quarterback, your next door neighbor, your son, your daughter, granny, we can accept that there’s never been a real war on drugs,” he said. “War on drugs implies us versus them, and all over America, people are learning there is no ‘them.’ There is only us. And we’re going to have to figure this out together.”
Though each episode is self-contained, it’s important to look at his television series holistically. It is the poverty experienced by black and brown people in Detroit that undoubtedly transformed his, and therefore our, understanding of western Massachusetts.
It was his wit, his genuine quest for understanding, and most importantly the sum of his own life experiences that made Bourdain’s show the most uniquely honest on television. “First time I shot up I looked at myself with a huge grin,” he said to a group of recovering addicts in a small western Massachusetts town. “Something was missing in me.” The group nodded their heads and echoed “yes” and “mmhm.”
It is the lot of us in the less well-worn paths—the drug users in western Massachusetts, the Detroiters selling greens on the side of the road, the Iranians around the dinner table in Tehran, and those of us who never made the show, the viewers, or, as James Baldwin would say, the witnesses—who are left now to figure out a way to ask people to “forget” the politics, when we really mean, remember them always.
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