Sitting at the table with Anthony Bourdain

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With my first long summer break from university approaching, I’ve mapped out a month-long journey across Europe, a chance to immerse myself in new cities, sample new cuisine and embrace the unfamiliar. Once I decided on this adventure, it was a given that I’d binge-watch Anthony Bourdain’s food and travel series; whether it was No Reservations or Parts Unknown, anything to provide a glimpse into the cultures I’m eagerly anticipating. Watching Bourdain was like finding the ideal mentor, a chef turned best-selling writer of Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly and later a TV sensation. Bourdain’s knack for cultivating human connection, while simple, felt as if it was a lost art in today’s fast-paced world. He revealed that true understanding of someone blossoms when you sit down, share a meal and listen; a poignant reminder that authentic connections can be fostered in these seemingly ordinary yet meaningful encounters. While food was what brought these people together, Tony showed us the people, the process and a world outside our own, he bore witness to the complexities of our shared humanity, offering a glimpse into the lives of those whose stories might otherwise go unheard. 

He bore witness to the complexities of our shared humanity, offering a glimpse into the lives of those whose stories might otherwise go unheard

Emerging from a past of addiction, Bourdain never tried to pretend to be something else. While his fame skyrocketed after his memoir was published, his influence transcended the culinary realm to become a critically-acclaimed cultural icon and a beloved figure. Unlike his contemporaries, he rejected the allure of the celebrity chef; refraining from the reality TV show competition, false persona and chain restaurant named after himself.  “All the TV Chefs are so cuddly and adorable… maybe I’m the antidote or something”, he quipped in his usual sarcastic and witty way. In a world yearning for certainty, Anthony’s ambiguity in a landscape today dominated by curated social media personas remains reassuring. Bourdain resonated with me and an audience all over the world by baring his humanity, refusing to play a character, his attributes not buried deep inside, but on the outside of his shell. With raw emotion, searching and earnest television and writing was crafted, with a fervency that has not been replicated since his loss.

Reflecting on Bourdain’s legacy as both a traveller and cook, I am reminded of parallels to my own first year at university. Although now regarded as a great American storyteller, Tony began as a voyeur. A Cook’s Tour marked his first experience travelling, and I couldn’t help but find comfort in witnessing someone else’s exploration of the world for the first time. While I may be transported to these places vicariously from my college bedroom, there was a reassurance in Bourdain not trying to be the role of a seasoned guide, but attempting each encounter for the first time, as I have tried to do throughout this year. His fearless approach to the unknown, ability to challenge preconceived notions, and to engage in meaningful conversation that fosters understanding serve as lessons to not just me, but everyone Bourdain has touched, whether you are exploring a new place or not. Restaurateur and close friend of Anthony, David Chang encapsulates this feeling after Tony’s death in 2018, saying “it was almost never about food, it was about Tony learning to become a better person”. 

His fearless approach to the unknown, ability to challenge preconceived notions, and to engage in meaningful conversation that fosters understanding serve as lessons

Beyond showcasing exotic cuisines and far-flung destinations, whether that be cobra heart in the vibrant streets of Vietnam, or fresh oysters in a floating restaurant in Croatia, the narrative of Bourdain often delved into the complexities of the human experience, shining a light on marginalised communities and challenging societal norms. A powerful model of self-reflection and empathy, Anthony liked nothing more than to leave a destination being completely wrong about the people and culture he presumed. This willingness to confront his own biases serve as an example, whether you are travelling this year or simply for the rest of term at university. I encourage you to watch and appreciate Bourdain’s approach, an opportunity to see that growth always begins by stepping outside our comfort zones and engaging with the world around us with an open mind. 

Image: San Antonio Current via Flickr

2 thoughts on “Sitting at the table with Anthony Bourdain

  • Great article. Tony will be missed.

    Reply
  • Spot on! Very refreshing piece.

    Reply

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