Anthony Bourdain - Legacy of a Storyteller
I was deeply saddened by the news that Anthony Bourdain, a man who embodied the very essence of "embracing the journey" and "living a full life," had chosen to end his own. It's hard to understand the depth of pain and darkness that would lead someone, who spent the better part of the past decade traveling around the world and connecting with people along the way, to believe that death was the only way to move past those feelings. But that's the thing about depression - sometimes it's loud and in your face and manic, and other times it lurks behind the quiet smile of the person sitting across the table.
I first got to know Bourdain in the rain-drenched valleys of eastern Thailand in 2006, as he regaled me with the tale of how he "just had the closest near death experience I've ever had." If you are imagining a scene like the one where he sat down on low stools over bowls of cold noodles and beers with President Obama, let me stop you right here. I was on a temporary assignment along the Thai-Burma border for a few months. With not much to do after work I read voraciously. When a copy of A Cook's Tour landed in my lap, I felt like I had found my tribe. Here was someone who traveled to eat and wrote like he spoke - I was hooked. So, while we weren't actually sitting together chatting about our respective near death experiences on the treacherous roads of southeast Asia, his description of the Highway of Death in A Cook's Tour - something which I myself was experiencing day in and day out as I moved around the area - felt incredibly familiar and led to an instant kinship with a man I'd never met.
Over the twelve years since my first introduction to him, I have learned a great deal from Bourdain, and he has continued to influence me deeply. Towards the end of A Cook's Tour Bourdain talks about the joy that comes with traveling to other places to eat. He says "the journey is part of the experience - or was for me - an expression of the seriousness of one's intent." This one line has resonated with me over the years and is the reason that my first order of business when planning a trip is figuring out where and what I'm going to eat over the course of my travels. His humor, authenticity and desire to convey stories about people, interwoven with rich descriptions of their food and culture, secured his place in history as one of the best storytellers of all time. His willingness to respect cultures and stave off offense at any cost, even when the price was steep and came in the form of food poisoning and a round of antibiotics, taught me about about selflessness, being open to others, and what it means to really be "all in." The wonder and curiosity with which he explored the world, inspired me to be curious and fearless in my own culinary adventures and experiences. His utter delight and mouthwatering descriptions of a twenty course meal at the French Laundry taught me to approach food as art and kicked off my foodie bucket list.
Bourdain had an innate ability to make every person he encountered feel special. This skill, coupled with an uncomplicated formula of asking simple questions over shared meals resulted in beautiful, candid, and sometimes heartbreaking stories of love, loss, family, life - and of course food. He taught us that behind every dish on the table is an individual with a unique story just waiting to be told. His storytelling demonstrated the underrated power of simple conversation in helping people find common ground with each other. During a time when hatred, fear and vitriol spewed out on other channels, the cameras that followed Bourdain around the world created a safe, "food as love" filled space for us, as he made the people with whom he ate feel relatable and familiar . As we followed him on his adventures, we got to experience humanity in its purest form - through the most basic act of breaking bread together.
I hope that Bourdain will be remembered for his amazing body of work. He was a complicated and unapologetic mix of crude and brash, layered with sensitivity, humility and generosity. He was a chef, a nomad, a father, a champion of women, a culinary ambassador, and a storyteller. He wasn't perfect- far from it in fact. But through his imperfection and authenticity, he inspired me, and so many others, to experience life and embrace the journey. He used the the art of storytelling to connect us to the world, teaching us that the people in far off places were just like you and me, living their lives with hopes and dreams for a better future. And more than anything, he used his platform to give voice to those who may not have otherwise had one. For me, all of this, and the new generation of explorers he created, who travel the world under the motto of "will travel for food" and continue to share their stories, will be his lasting legacy.