This week’s question remembers chef, writer, and television host Anthony Bourdain:
What’s your favorite Anthony Bourdain moment?
There was a brief window in my life when I thought I might follow in my father’s footsteps and become a chef; for a year I worked as a line cook, then pantry chef, then, for a few short months, sous chef at a restaurant in Milwaukee. While I was learning everything I could about food and how to prepare it, nothing spoke to me like Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential, his memoir about working in the restaurant industry that kick-started his second career in entertainment. Bourdain is an incredible story-teller, and even years later some of his kitchen anecdotes stick with me. I’ve said his “don’t touch my dick, don’t touch my knife” line more than once to a handsy bastard who goes to grab my chef’s knife out of my hand while I’m dicing at the kitchen counter. But the parts from Kitchen Confidential that had a deeper impact on me are the ones where Bourdain artfully strips away so much of the myth and machismo surrounding food. He instructs that the best food is often the most simple; that the most divine dishes are made with three or four ingredients—fresh, good ingredients, prepared thoughtfully, served piping hot. There’s so much artifice and bunkum surrounding food and cooking culture, and no one called bullshit on that like Bourdain did.
While deeply, profoundly drunk—drained plastic shots littering the table in front of them—Bourdain and chef Sean Brock decide to head to a Waffle House in Charleston, South Carolina. Bourdain introduces the 24-7-365 chain with his typical lyricism, calling it “an irony-free zone where everything is beautiful and nothing hurts” and “a beacon of hope and salvation” for late-night drunks everywhere. Then he admits he’s never been there before, somehow. Brock orders up a tasting menu of the restaurant’s offerings—pecan waffles, a patty melt, a salad swimming in thousand island dressing, then a pork chop and t-bone to cap things off—which Bourdain takes to with relish, alternately declaring it “better than the French Laundry” and feuding with Brock about whether or not Heinz 57 is any good. (Bourdain is decidedly against.) The clip is largely a testament to what wonderful company Bourdain was—affable, opinionated, vulgar, and endlessly curious, a reminder that part of being a good traveler is being a good person.
It was in the pages of The New Yorker where Anthony Bourdain became “Anthony Bourdain,” thanks to the unfiltered essay that served as the basis for Kitchen Confidential. Eighteen years and a few reinventions later, the magazine helped demythologize the man, in a wide-ranging profile by Patrick Radden Keefe headlined “Journeyman.” (You can find it online under the SEO-friendlier title “Anthony Bourdain’s moveable feast.”) I had always been Bourdain-agnostic—I laughed long and hard when, in the ClickHole-adjacent stage show The Program, an AI described the Parts Unknown host as “The ultimate bad boy—the worst boy in the world”—so the article didn’t immediately scream “must-read” at me from the table of contents. But I was also on the train back to Chicago after saying my goodbyes to my dying grandmother in Michigan, so I had both time on my hands and a need for distraction.
And, my god, what a distraction Bourdain’s quotes and Patrick Radden Keefe’s reporting are, a candid panorama in which the subject does his characteristically brash evangelizing for unfussy cuisine served in out-of-the-way places, but also demonstrates all the ways that he wasn’t just some gristly cartoon in sunglasses and a Sex Pistols T-shirt, slurping noodles in between cutting soundbites about food trends. The curiosities on display go beyond food (at the time of publication, Bourdain had recently taken an interest in Brazilian jujitsu), while the anecdotes and encounters that make up the meat of the profile are both a glimpse at the evolution of his public persona (“I’m not doing it just because it’s there anymore,” he says while drinking beers near a stand serving dog in Hanoi) and the generous spirit that made that evolution possible. There’s also a vulnerability coursing through the piece, like when Bourdain acknowledges the unintended scorching effect his spotlight can have on a small business, and the toll that constant travel and consumption has had on his personal life and psyche. Bourdain had a way of peeling away cultural and social surfaces in order to show the human beneath—even when that human was himself.
Of all the mind-expanding trips around the world I was glad to take with Anthony Bourdain on Parts Unknown, it was a domestic jaunt to Houston I’ll remember most. The episode, which aired during the tumultuous 2016 election season, felt like a big fuck-you to the extreme bigotry flaming up on the American political stage, highlighting the city’s extreme diversity by talking only to chefs and people in the city’s huge immigrant and minority communities: He goes to Little India and a quinceañera, meets with refugee students and Vietnamese fishermen and Congolese farmers, and delves into “slab” car culture with rapper Slim Thug. I’ve long loved Houston and defended it when it’s (frequently) been dismissed as a wasteland of swampy heat, cement, and traffic, and yet, through Bourdain’s empathetic and politically sharp lens, that episode still showed me a whole new side to the United States’ fourth-largest city, and by extension, America itself.
Anthony Bourdain’s shows were the only travel shows I considered more of a cultural education than a guilty pleasure, and the world is truly poorer without his talents. But there was a lot to like about Bourdain besides his eloquent writing about food: His impish trolling of craft-beer snobs and habit of always trying the local swill as soon as he touched down somewhere. His love of movies, particularly heist movies. But the thing about Bourdain that meant the most to me, personally, was his thoughtful approach to male allyship. He took powerful men like Harvey Weinstein and Mario Batali to task while recognizing that his main role was to support the women on the front lines of the feminist struggle. He didn’t excuse himself by saying, “Well, I never harassed anyone,” instead engaging in intense self-reflection like the Medium post where he wrote, “In these current circumstances, one must pick a side. I stand unhesitatingly and unwaveringly with the women,” and the interview with Slate where he shared how it troubled him that the women in his life had never trusted him with their experiences before the #MeToo movement started picking up renewed steam last fall. “Why was I not the sort of person, or why was I not seen as the sort of person, that these women could feel comfortable confiding in? I see this as a personal failing,” he said, adding that he felt a sense of responsibility for helping to create a macho chef culture where women were expected to just absorb the abuse they endured without complaint. At the end of that interview, he told the writer, “Hope you can do some good.” Hopefully he can rest knowing that he led by example.
Anthony Bourdain was so talented, passionate, and inquisitive, which made him a singular TV personality, author, and chef. But he was also just such a good guy—not just some nice person who tips well, but someone who extended a hand behind him on his way up, instead of pulling up the ladder. I don’t speak from any personal experience, though I did see him in person on the Chicago stop of his tour a few years ago. But there are plenty of testaments to his generous character out there; his graciousness is evident in his many trips abroad in Parts Unknown, which often showed him singlehandedly dismantling the notion of the “ugly American.” The Cuba episode of Parts Unknown remains the travelogue’s exemplar. Bourdain used his platform wisely, exposing his viewers to new cultures and cuisines, and he showed the same consideration at home, frequently highlighting the underseen cooks and kitchen helpers who keep restaurants in business.
It’s already been said how willing Bourdain was to let the places he visited speak for themselves, but it’s was always a wonder to see just by virtue of his massive stature. At 6’ 4”, heavily tattooed and a face that looks as though it was carved from stone, even by the standards of countries that don’t see many Westerners, he would stand out. But for all of his palpable physical presence, it’s amazing how he made every effort to slip out of being the point of focus and letting the locals and their environment take center stage. There may have been occasional attempts to play up his grumpy persona (see attempts to get him to perform karaoke in the Korean episode of No Reservations), but that’s usually just narrative window-dressing for how eager Bourdain was to demure to those who understood the food they were serving and the context in which it was presented. He would hunch over to obscure his height, and just listen.