Anthony Bourdain, who died in France on Friday at 61, was always more of a teacher than an avatar. For the millions who watched his television series, “No Reservations” and “Parts Unknown,” he redefined not just the travel show, but the whole point of travel itself.
If you were paying attention, he offered a wonderfully inquisitive, quietly humble and profoundly empathetic way to move through the world.
Bourdain’s medium was food: eating it, making it, sharing it. He rose to fame not through his knife skills, but by his tales from the kitchen, which were bawdy and funny and sometimes dark. And he skyrocketed to superstardom when he started appearing on TV. What set his shows apart wasn’t the cinematography, although they were always shot beautifully, nor his decision to visit places both far-flung and nearby, although that, too, was a smart and creative choice – his episode in the Bronx, for example, is one of his best.
What truly made Bourdain special was his fundamental desire to connect with people, and the fundamental openness he brought to that effort. It’s easy to travel – and to make a travel show – where you check off the boxes: the great art museums, the masterful architecture, the tallest whatever or biggest something else.
Bourdain eschewed all of that in favor of something more penetrating and democratic: how people all over the world use food to bond, to express their creativity, to nurture their loved ones, to carry forward tradition and memory, and to indulge in new experiences. Touching on the near-universal pleasure of eating allowed those of us watching to explore the world a little differently through Bourdain.
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What we saw, over and over again, was empathy and humanity. Nearly everywhere, people take great pride in the food they make, and nearly everywhere, feeding others is a way of showing affection, love, devotion, and hospitality. And Bourdain wasn’t mostly eating the fanciest, highest-end food prepared by professionally trained chefs. He ate what was good – food prepared in a street-side stall, or in a plastic-chair, hole-in-the-wall – or in a home kitchen.
Food was a tool through which to learn a little bit more about the values, history, and priorities of the person feeding you. Food was a tool through which to understand a place, to broaden your own understanding of the world, and maybe to break open the door to a new chamber within yourself.
Bourdain was also special in the genuine respect he showed his hosts – which didn’t mean being obsequious or fawning, as some well-meaning travelers are, or condescending and arrogant, the way many less-well-meaning travelers can be. His irreverence and cynicism made him a relatable and trustworthy host, so different from other professional television personalities on feel-good exploration shows, for whom everything seems to be amazing and stunning and unique and magical.
His curiosity made him an ideal guide, away from the tourist stretches, through back alleys, and into homes. Physically and personally, he loomed large, and yet an almost adolescent devil-may-care attitude dappled his work – the motorbikes, the ATVs, the cars with their tops down. And of course, the darker side of that affinity for risk-taking that he sometimes discussed: the substance abuse issues, the depression, the exploring and eating and pleasure-seeking as a way, perhaps, of getting himself out of his own head in order to feel something closer to good.
Perhaps most notable was the simple way in which Bourdain treated people wherever he went like human beings, with all of their human virtues and flaws. The people he met, and Bourdain himself, were often generous, sometimes frustrating, always complicated. They weren’t cardboard cutouts of a culture; he wasn’t a caricature of an entitled globetrotter.
He didn’t shy away from politics, nor offer simplistic platitudes to salve the consciences of often advantaged-by-birth viewing audiences. His show was as much an adventure as it was a challenge to those who watched it: be better, be more thoughtful, be more welcoming.
Today, the Instagram-documented travel journeys that highlight street food over the tourist strip seem ubiquitous past the point of cliché. But this way of traveling – seeking to experience a place, not just see it – is, for the lucky few of us who get to voluntarily move beyond our own borders, a profound gift.
In a world where small-mindedness seems to be growing and walls are rising and life experience sharply diverting along lines of class and politics, Bourdain brought a powerful, outward-looking ethos into living rooms around the country.
For all of human history, there have been people who have burrowed into their well-known holes, hewing close to family, tribe, culture, race or nationality. And there have been the notable fewer who struck out, not to own or conquer or take or evangelize, but to see, experience, absorb, and enjoy, with all the discomfort and exhilaration and great humility that entails.
Bourdain was quite obviously one of the latter. How wonderful that he took us along with him for as long as he did.