Bourdain

I’ve watched food-centric television for years. Even some baking contest shows, despite my net indifference to sweet pastry.

In all that time there have only been two food-TV personalities who have led to some kind of significant change in my thinking or actions, and they both have the same initials: Alton Brown and Anthony Bourdain.


I got indoctrinated in both of them via Food Network in 2004. One day I casually saw an episode of a travel show called A Cook’s Tour. The “host” was at a farmhouse in Portugal. In narration he spoke about how he was about to watch a pig get slaughtered. He’d cooked pork for years and mused on the sordid realization that he’d never actually observed the killing of one of the “ingredients” he’d used for years, so he forced himself to see the farmer doing it. He was profoundly disturbed by the sight (which was not shown on TV, of course), but narrated how it was his responsibility to witness it at least once.

New as I was to Food Network, I realized this was not one of their typical food shows. We weren’t going to get the perky secret to making a perfect upside-down cake every time.

A Cook’s Tour lasted two seasons and I never caught another episode. I neglected to write the host’s name down, but in ensuing months I wondered where I could find this guy’s work. I finally caught him again on the Travel Channel show Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations. Within about five seconds of seeing him I knew I’d found my man. For a while No Reservations became “appointment viewing,” which has only rarely been my thing.

There’s never been another TV show, travel, food or otherwise, like No Reservations. It worked because its central figure had a cynical, doubtful default view of humanity and hype—and almost without fail, by the end of nearly every episode, Bourdain disproved his own skepticism and fell in love.

A prime example of Bourdain’s narrative arc was an episode of No Reservations subtitled “Decoding Ferran Adria,” produced at the “food laboratory” of the groundbreaking chef in the outskirts of Barcelona. Adria was the kind of food figurehead Bourdain was apt to distrust: conceptual, intellectual, far removed from the line-cook mentality Bourdain always cherished. Tucked away in the chef’s remote facilities, Bourdain was treated to a constant stream of Adria’s deconstructed and transformed bite-sized food inventions. After each one, Bourdain chuckled. He unabashedly loved Adria’s food.

Notably, the last thing Adria introduced him to was a perfectly cooked, no-frills plate of shrimp at a local hole-in-the-wall. Just to prove all hyper-professional cooks have the same central reference point of great food.

Anthony Bourdain loved nothing more than to be proven wrong about his jaundiced preconceptions. With a few exceptions, No Reservations episodes ended on an uplifting note. The only television show I’ve ever considered creating—to the extent that I started a treatment for it about ten years ago—had the elevator pitch “No Reservations, but with music.” There was, of course, no way in the world my show could have compared with Bourdain’s.

Bourdain became something of a role model of middle-age for me. He was a superb writer and underplayed his own influence. To this day I use shallots in my tomato sauce instead of onions when I can because of his advice in Kitchen Confidential.

I met him briefly in Seattle at a signing for his book The Nasty Bits, which has a passage about certain rules Bourdain had in his kitchen: “In any kitchen where I am in control, there is a strict NO Billy Joel, NO Grateful Dead policy. If you are seen visibly enjoying either act, whether during or even after your working hours, you can clean out your locker now. You're fired.”

(Once Billy Joel went into one of Bourdain’s kitchens, took a picture with the line cooks, and left a note: “I guess you do allow Billy Joel in your kitchen after all.” Bourdain and Joel went on to become friends. Bourdain never wavered in his hatred of Joel’s music. It did not come between them. That says a lot about both.)

Bourdain was in the Pacific Northwest at that time filming an episode of No Reservations. During the trip he went clam-harvesting on the shores of a South Puget Sound location he couldn’t quite recall (turns out it was outside Shelton). He described the act of plunging his arm into the mud in search of a clam as “fisting Shamu,” and wondered aloud if the remark would pass the censors’ smell test and actually make it on the air. It did not.

I could go on about all the episodes of No Reservations, and his final series for CNN, Parts Unknown, that had big impacts on me -- Vietnam, Tokyo, all the ones in Italy, the Texas-Mexico border, Paris, the American Rust Belt, Iceland, Atlanta (he takes Alton Brown to a strip club), and especially the Beirut episode in which his hotel was locked down for nine days during a violent conflict.

Bourdain was our last weapon against American xenophobia. He demystified other cultures as routine. He sought commonality on a genuine basis. Elevated positions and star power didn’t impress him; enduring struggle and producing value under minimized or adverse conditions did. He was a little cocky and had a razor tongue, but loved the moments when someone from a small village disarmed him.

I don’t know what finally got him. I don’t know what’s getting a lot of people lately.

Maybe it’s the general sense that the world Bourdain loved to show is imploding. I certainly feel that way with our new tantrum-based geopolitical strategy.

Most likely it’s something I can’t even begin to know about, and trying to analyze it would be an exercise in impotence.

I’m unable to resolve how someone so committed to undoing the worst perceptions of the world—starting with his own—could be so triumphant at it, and yet still decide it was time to leave at his own hand. I’m reminded that depression and hopelessness are not proportionate to fame, success, wealth, empathy and support of others, or even having a good time on the surface. But even though I comprehend that, I still honestly wonder how bad a shape we’re in if it became so difficult that even Anthony Bourdain couldn’t endure it.

In that way, the little snapshots he left of the temporary communities he forged might be the last of their kind for a long while.
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