Food travel shows often have a really bad habit of just being a chance for a milquetoast host to vacation through other peoples’ lives, talking a lot while eating their “weird” food.
Said host then seems to meander through a city or town’s TripAdvisor highlights while reading factoids from Wikipedia, all of which provides about the same level of insight as a quick trip to Epcot Center.
With food TV, we viewers are practically trained to be standard-definition tourists, experiencing a place superficially, with maybe a dash of local history framed shallowly and even sometimes stereotypically.
And then there was Anthony Bourdain.
In a sea of shows featuring replaceable episodes mining worldwide food culture for content following what often felt like the same plot every week, Bourdain chose to be different.
He chose to highlight actual human beings in the places he went, trying to understand their histories and treating them like the fully realized people they were. He was a guest – in their homes, their restaurants, on their land – not just a consumer and definitely not a tourist.
Through his travels, Bourdain showed us how to be a human among humans searching for actual, meaningful connection.
Filipino food is having a moment now in the US – making our four-million strong community felt – and yet Bourdain was the first food celebrity I can remember who didn’t approach our food as a “Fear Factor” array of embryonic duck eggs and blood stew.
And maybe it’s biased of me to gush like this about him here. After all, he called Filipinos the most giving of all people on the planet, showcased the musical talents a large majority of us are all naturally born with and gave us the highest possible compliment by saying that Filipino lechon was the finest pig in the world (which is true).
But throughout his career, the best thing he ever did for us was to reach out to living, breathing, thinking, feeling Filipinos, ask them who they are and sit back and listen to their answers. He didn’t try and package the Filipino experience into an easily digestible sound bite; rather, he let people be people in their full, messy, complicated and diverse beauty.
In the season seven premier of “Parts Unknown,” Bourdain went to Manila. There, in one sequence, he gushed about how Jollibee, a local Filipino fast food restaurant, made him overcome his hatred of fast food, he crashed office Christmas parties and hung out in a biker bar listening to perfectly covered Billy Idol.
Cut to the next scene where Bourdain wandered purposefully through some of the poverty-stricken streets in Manila, recounting the country’s troubled and often violent past, and sharing stories from journalists who feel they need to be armed to be safe.
Several of my Filipino friends openly cried during the Philippines episode because of how frankly and honestly it unfolded.
While many people may now see Filipinos as ubiquitous, welcoming background characters in hospitals and cruise ships (when we are seen at all), Bourdain brought these often overlooked expatriates to the foreground.
He showcased the sacrifices they make for their families every day, and through warehouse after warehouse of balikbayan boxes, showed their intense yearning for the land of their birth and never-ending care for the people they love.
“Filipinos speak about home with immense pride and love,” he said. “And if you’re an overseas Filipino worker, longing.”
People that appeared on Bourdain’s shows opened up to him, giving him their life stories because he actually handled them with care, rather than rushing to commodification. He found beauty in the sad, and the poignant, and even in the mundane, everyday. Watching his shows, you got the feeling that his on-camera partners meant as much to him, if not more, than his audience.
It’s a testament to the last two decades of Bourdain’s work that so many people in the days after his death credited him for showing them the world through their screens. And, given that, it’s an even bigger testament that so many, in this age of increasing accountability for cultural appropriation, called him one of the only celebrities that they trusted to showcase their heritage.
“Food is culture” is a platitude you hear from pretty much everyone with a sauté pan and a camera these days, but Bourdain showed us what that really meant. Nobody in the world worked harder to use food as an equalizer and as a tool to make people see the humanity in each other.
From the Philippines, to Cambodia, to Burma, to Ethiopia, to the Ozarks, to Detroit, to Haiti after all of the other American cameras had long gone, he reached out to various communities with his willingness to treat them like people and not set pieces, and to give them an opportunity to tell their stories in their own ways.
His singular focus on highlighting those most often ignored is the source of Bourdain’s greatest legacy: a generation of cooks, writers and creators of all stripes that feel powerful in their own voices. After years of being ignored, countless communities across the country and around the world understand what it feels like to be seen and heard and are unwilling to move backward.
When he died the world lost an advocate and champion of underrepresented communities who was willing to take a back seat and not impose his pre-written stories on top of other peoples’ lives. He listened to everyone he highlighted on his platform, and he showed us all how to do the same.
Above everyone in his industry Anthony Bourdain demanded depth and color, and with his loss, the world threatens to be more two-dimensional and more black-and-white.
Now it’s up to all of us to, just like he did, to expect, demand and provide better. To share our confidential kitchen secrets, to eat without reservation and to open ourselves up to exploring parts unknown.
Eric Atienza lives, works, eats, drinks and writes in Chicago, Illinois.