TV celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain, who took his own life earlier this month, would have been 62 years old today. I thought this might be a good occasion to remember him briefly, because although he was best known as a “foodie” he was so much more than that.
Bourdain once described his TV shows as “stand-alone essays”. That was, indeed, what they were, outstanding literary pieces set to food and film excellence. Some years ago, I began watching his show, Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations on the Travel Channel while I had my lunch, and quickly became an avid fan. Although I appreciate good food of all sorts, I’ve never given any importance whatsoever to the finer points of the culinary arts. But that wasn’t why I watched Bourdain’s program. I watched it because it was, perhaps, some of the finest writing on television. And it was, as well, a cultural gold mine, a guided tour of the world from the vantage point of native dinner tables and backstreet food stalls, where Bourdain not only delved courageously into abundant and outrageously varied food and drink, but also into the politics, history and grassroots culture of the places he visited.
Bourdain was the type of guy every writer wants to meet (and be). I remember feeling a moment of grief when I heard he had done a show in Buenos Aires and I felt as if I’d missed a chance to see if I couldn’t, perhaps, meet him and talk to him for a while. I would have liked to have gotten to know him well enough to call him Tony.
But writers, I think, must have also envied him his powers of observation—a kind of radar that seemed to come on automatically as soon as he touched down in yet another country—and his ability to take those observations and mold them into a powerful, accurate, yet pleasant and compelling portrait of the places he visited.
In my own case, I couldn’t help also envying him his gig, not so much the part that concentrated on typical cuisines and how they were made, but surely the part where he stood up from the table, walked the streets in the company of locals, and described so eloquently what he saw, smelled, felt and heard. He was, without a doubt, a traveler, not a tourist, a philosopher, not an investigator, and he did a full immersion course in every culture in which he found himself, literally breaking bread with the world.
But the pieces he crafted were never travelogues per se. Clearly, it was more literature than TV show. Like an audiovisual version of Henry Miller’s The Colossus of Maroussi, Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, or John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley. His competition was never other foodies, but the memory of other great TV travelers who preceded him, like CBS roving correspondent Charles Kuralt, or “the world’s foremost globetrotter” and 1950s CBS TV personality Lowell Thomas.
From the time I had watched Thomas as a boy and Kuralt as a teen, there was a voice inside me that told me that this was what I wanted to be, a traveler and writer. Seeing Bourdain’s show brought that longing back, made me want to be on the road again. Numerous times over the years, I’ve longed to put aside my other journalistic activities, the politics and the financials, and write about what really matters in life: the people, places and customs of different world cultures, what we all have in common and what sets us apart.
Few have done that as well as Anthony Bourdain.