“I’m never a reliable narrator, unbiased or objective.”
– Anthony Bourdain
In January 2016, I was starting my 2nd semester of graduate school after a near-fatal car accident and the break-up of my five-year relationship. My apartment, with which I had planned to share with my ex-boyfriend, was now just mine. It was quiet. Empty. Exorbitantly expensive. In those nascent days of 2016, when dawn would break cold and clear along the Central California coast, I was always awake before the sun. I had to figure out how to put myself back together.
I started with my fridge. At the school library one day, I printed out photos of my heroes: Chimimanda Ngozi Adiche. Roxane Gay. Brian Doyle. Zadie Smith. Anthony Bourdain. I taped to my fridge the faces of people whose work I admired, whose writing stayed with me long after I had finished their books. These were the faces I wanted to see staring back at me in the morning. I wanted a reminder: to get outside, to travel, to write, to say the things that are hard to say, to open my eyes.
Anthony Bourdain died today. I’m writing this in a hurried daze of disbelief, in the darkened square of my corner office in Lilongwe, Malawi. It’s Friday afternoon, all my colleagues have left. But I have to write, is there any other choice?
My hero died today.
I started following Anthony Bourdain as a teenager. I was banned from watching MTV, but could watch unlimited Travel Channel, the network where his show “No Reservations” played almost every day. It aired right after “Samantha Brown’s Great Hotels”. Samantha Brown is a bland, thin, blonde women who takes her audience on aesthetically pleasing thirty-minute tours of upscale hotels. Usually, there are shots of ponds with lily pads. She wears a lot of soft pinks. She eats small meals of cubed vegetables with sprigs of fresh herbs. She smiles into the camera and says, “Delicious!”
Bourdain was something different. His show starts with a jarring rock intro and the proverbial, “The Following Program Contains Content That May Be Inappropriate For Some Viewers. Viewer Discretion is Advised.” (“Jackpot!” 16-year-old me always thought) He permanently looked hungover as he swaggered down the sidewalks of Vietnam, Malaysia, Sicily, Buenos Aires, Kampala. In the first few seasons of No Reservations, he’s still wearing his old rock t-shirts and ill-fitting jeans, which hang from his thin frame. As the theme song ends his narration begins. He introduces the country, where he is, how he got there, and what he hoped to eat.
He ate everything he was offered. He sought out back-alley restaurants down dirty streets where someone’s great-aunt was rumored to cook the best noodle soup. He spoke in rapturous tones to the camera about the beauty of a bowl of perfect pork broth and cartilage. He urged viewers to eat street food- diarrhea be damned!- because that’s where they would experience the best meals of their lives. The camera would follow him as he whizzed down the Amazon on a boat, sweat dripping off his face, complaining forcefully into the camera. He would narrate over long shots of him hiking through a dense jungle, relaying his own annoyance and boredom and need for a drink. He was always the brunt of his own jokes.
No Reservations and his subsequent shows were different because they focused on the everyday lives of citizens. This was not a show about luxury hotels and fine dining, although occasionally he visited a Michelin star chef. This was about real life, about real people. What did they have to say about their own country? What made them happy? What made them hopeful? What was their favorite hungover meal? Local journalists and artists took him to their favorite places to eat, and often back to their families’ homes. While the show was about food, it often veered into the political. He talked about Feijoada in Brazil, a Portuguese beef and bean stew. Humble ingredients, he noted but made great by slaves who had no other ingredients, who through scarcity and creativity and force of will created the national dish of Brazil.
This is where I first learned: Food is inherently political.
What made Anthony Bourdain special was his candor, his ability to weave minuscule moments into a greater narrative about society, history, and ultimately, humanity. He didn’t shy away from the brutality of war, but he didn’t exploit it either. There’s a famous moment in his show about Haiti. He’s sitting outside, at a small restaurant you see often in that part of the world, with plastic tables and chairs and a big metal pot of something cooking. He sits across from a Haitian friend, who asks the women who owns the restaurant how business is going. She shakes her head, not good. At first, it looks like the restaurant is busy. Around Bourdain are dozens of bodies, but as the camera pans out, you see that he is surrounded by people standing and staring at him. His narration cuts into the scene:
“When you make television anywhere, people stop and stare. Crowds form. Usually, they are just curious. Here we notice the kids. Just gathering outside the view of our lenses. Not looking at me and the cameras, but looking at what we’re eating. One plate of food would be a good day for any of them. And here, I’m painfully aware I’m eating three.”
The camera pans to faces of children, their eyes focused on the food below them. Bourdain’s lunch partner points out that there is a lot of extra food that the woman has to sell, and most people are waiting around her trying to get a piece.
His narration returns. “What would you do?” He asks us. “Hungry kids and a hard working business woman. A brief conference with the producers and I think, in this case, easy to make the situation better right? We decided we will buy the lady out. Pay full price for every meal she can muster, and feed them.”
The camera moves back to the restaurant woman, She’s ladling heaping piles of rice and beans into Styrofoam containers. A line of people appears. At first, everything is normal, but then, pushing. People pulling each other out of line. A man with a belt hits another, smaller person.
“What happens is predictable, but also a good metaphor for what happens to so much well-intentioned aid efforts around the world. Hungry people anywhere behave like hungry people.” The camera flashes to line, now crowded and pulsing and angry.
“We didn’t think it through. Feel good, obvious-seeming solutions. But there are no easy answers. And because of that, because we thought with our hearts and not our heads, it all turned to shit.”
See what he did there? He didn’t blame the hungry people. He didn’t blame Haiti. He pointed out a hard truth- that solving the worlds systemic problems require a hell of a lot more than good intentions. He could have cut that scene out and avoided looking like what he was: a white savior. But instead, he kept it in. He said, “I was trying to do something benevolent but it was the wrong move.” He exposed himself and his audience to something much more real.
In the end, his shows were a different perspective on traveling. He honored the street cooks of the world, people who spend forty years cooking one dish and selling it in the town where they were raised. He celebrated greasy, cheap, local food. Grandmother food. Back alley food. Food that might get you sick, but that was your own problem, and it was worth it for that distinct pulse of flavor. You could tell when he loved a country, just a slightly more jaunty step in his walk, a slightly less nihilistic joke to his off-screen producer. You could also tell when he didn’t like a country or an activity (i.e. fishing scenes), and while he never apologized for it, he never disrespected a place or people that welcomed him.
His attitude was hugely influential. Check my bio on Facebook, which I haven’t updated in about eight years: “I’m Lizzie Falconer, I write, I travel, I eat, and I’m hungry for more,” a direct rip-off from No Reservations. When I first saw him on the Travel Channel, I thought, “I want to be the female Anthony Bourdain.”
He was everything I wanted to be: a curious, irreverent, quick-witted chef turned traveler, with a sharp eye for the faults of our nation, an insatiable appetite, an ability to cut through the bullshit and write a line with such a sense of voice that even reading it on a page you knew it was him.
Would I have studied International Relations without No Reservations? Would I have chewed the feet of a guinea pig with my host mother in Ecuador without his voice in my ear? Would I have climbed mountains in Nepal, chased the best sushi in Joberg, been stabbed with needles in Bolivia and eaten mystery meat in the back alley of a Chinese market without Bourdain as a role model? I don’t think so.
Role models matter. And even though he’s gone and his work has ended, mine hasn’t. He’s still my hero.