Vinay Menon: Anthony Bourdain put the world on our plate
Anthony Bourdain made the world a smaller place.
On Friday, as news of his death shook the planet he shrunk, Bourdain was mourned on every continent. This was grief without borders, heartbreak that is universal. In the shorthand of celebrity, Bourdain was a “superstar chef” and “television star.” But in the longhand of humanity, he was so much more.
As former astronaut Scott Kelly observed on Twitter: “Just saw the sad news that Anthony Bourdain has died. I watched his show when I was in space. It made me feel more connected to the planet, its people and cultures and made my time there more palatable. He inspired me to see the world up close.”
Imagine being such a force of nature that you could be felt in zero gravity.
The details of what happened on Friday were sparse, and the “why” may never make sense. But while on location for Parts Unknown, his popular show on CNN, Bourdain, 61, returned to his hotel room in Strasbourg, France.
His friend, Eric Ripert, later found his body, lifeless and unresponsive.
CNN said the cause of death was suicide. As with designer Kate Spade, who hanged herself earlier this week, this was a blistering reminder that external triumph is no match for internal pain. Darkness does not discriminate, and that pain, if left unchecked, does not yield. What you do and what you have is secondary to how you feel and what you see.
But whatever his torments, it was Bourdain who helped us peer far and wide.
Part epicurean swashbuckler, part travel guide, part bon vivant, part lovable grump, part acid-tongued carnivore willing to eat anything once — fermented shark, warthog rectum, seal eyeball, cobra heart — Bourdain let viewers ride shotgun as he touched down in exotic locales, fork and glass in hand.
As CNN noted: “His love of great adventure, new friends, fine food and drink, and the remarkable stories of the world made him a unique storyteller.”
This reputation as a raconteur was burnished in 2000 with the publication of Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly. Bourdain’s gonzo confessional — sautéed from insightful and often ribald anecdotes over a quarter century in the restaurant biz — was a publishing phenomenon. At the dawn of a new millennium, it also ushered in the age of “celebrity chefs,” a concept he found absurd.
But as it turned out, Kitchen Confidential made Bourdain a household name. The memoir was more than a look back. It became a lunge forward as he glided from print to television, starting in 2002 with A Cook’s Tour on the Food Network. Three years later, Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations landed on the Travel Channel.
Then in 2013, when Parts Unknown premiered on CNN, Bourdain galvanized his unofficial role as a global ambassador. While in pursuit of gustatory bliss and regional understanding, his meals became teachable moments.
Parts Unknown was a master class in cultural anthropology.
As former U.S. president Barack Obama, who shared noodles and beer with Bourdain two years ago in Vietnam, tweeted on Friday: “He taught us about food — but more importantly, about its ability to bring us together. To make us a little less afraid of the unknown.”
Of all the qualities worthy of admiration — his roving spirit, his moral compass, his humour, his compassion, his sense of time and place, his energy, his wit, his honesty — it was this trait we will miss most. At a time of rising nationalism and xenophobic fear and loathing, Bourdain was fearless in his love of others.
This was not cultural appropriation. It was cultural appreciation. To understand the world, you needed to experience the world. This was Bourdain’s guiding philosophy.
“If I am an advocate for anything, it is to move,” he once said. “As far as you can, as much as you can. Across the ocean, or simply across the river. Walk in someone else’s shoes or at least eat their food. It’s a plus for everybody.”
Curious by nature and in constant flight — his Twitter bio was simply “Enthusiast” and his location was “In Transit” — Bourdain understood not everyone could move. So if you couldn’t see the world, he’d bring the world to you by making it seem much smaller than it was. He’d seek unity and reverence in far-flung kitchens.
As he once observed: “For a moment, or a second, the pinched expressions of the cynical, world weary, throat-cutting, miserable bastards we’ve all had to become disappears, when we’re confronted with something as simple as a plate of food.”
Earlier this month, in what is now his final tweet, Bourdain expressed his enthusiasm for a song composed by Michael Ruffino. Written for a Hong Kong episode of Parts Unknown that was scheduled to air this month, “Rising Sun Blues (King Kong Mix)” is everything Anthony Bourdain was while we were lucky enough to have him: moody, cosmopolitan, beautiful, enchanting and, ultimately, haunting.
The song, he wrote, was “gonna stay with me.”
Those four words left a tear in my eye.
A renegade to the end, Bourdain lived on the edge. But while doing so, he brought us together. No matter the distance, he bridged divides.
He inspired us to see the world up close.