Anthony Bourdain Asked Us to Have a Greater Sense of Obligation-to Trauma, to Triumph, and to Food
In Japanese culture, kintsugi is the labor-intensive method of repairing broken pottery by reattaching pieces using a lacquer mixed with gold. The reconstructed item, glistening with golden “seams,” is in many ways more beautiful than it was before—gifted with new meaning and purpose. The ethos of this art is often applied to people and the scars we bear, both physical and emotional, that mold us into wiser, more empathetic beings.
Last June, when news broke that chef, author, and television personality Anthony Bourdain had died by suicide at 61, culinary historian Michael Twitty tweeted outwhat many of us in the food-writing world felt at the time. “Anthony Bourdain was special,” Twitty said. “He called Africa the cradle of civilization, took his cameras to Haiti, honored the hood with Snoop, broke bread with Obama like a human being. [He] was an inspiration. He was so damn problematic, but embraced his cracks and filled them with gold.”
Twitty’s followers immediately drew the kintsugi analogy, and I pictured Bourdain, a self-admittedly flawed individual, tending to those flaws with his own heart of gold. Whether he would have expected it or not, the world mourned the broken pieces.
Incidentally, I first encountered kintsugi when I started as a 23-year-old editor at the food and travel magazine Saveur, where a colleague often showed off his patiently mended wares in the office. Impulsive and hot-headed by contrast, I’d taken on my role there with a chip on my shoulder, suspicious of my mostly white peers and disheartened by my own inability to make my voice fit where it felt like it did not belong.
It was around that time that I began re-watching clips of Bourdain’s No Reservations and Parts Unknown, hoping to ignite some kind of inspiration. I found it in Bourdain’s ability to humanize his subjects without exploiting them, and his humility in seeking out and understanding new cultures—even to the point of discomfort.
It’s certainly not an experience unique to me; plenty of young writers, and writers new to the food and travel space, cite Bourdain as a seminal influence. It was truly Bourdain who showed so many like me that food writing could go beyond cookbook writing or restaurant reviewing—that it had the potential, as a form of travel journalism, to encapsulate hundreds of years of migration, trauma, and triumph into a single bite. Bourdain gave us a greater sense of obligation.
Bourdain showed so many like me that food writing had the potential to encapsulate hundreds of years of migration, trauma, and triumph into a single bite.
“This sounds very dramatic, but Anthony Bourdain ripped open a new dimension to my world,” recalls Natalie B. Compton, a 28-year-old staff writer at The Washington Post’s new travel vertical By The Way, writing via email. “Growing up, I thought I knew what travel was supposed to look like from Rick Steve’s books and Lonely Planet. My sister showed me an episode of No Reservations a million years ago, and it changed everything.” She adds, “I probably wouldn’t have moved to Bangkok if he hadn’t filmed shows in Southeast Asia. And if I hadn’t moved to Southeast Asia, I might not have gotten a break into travel writing—Anthony Bourdain set me on a path to live my dream life.”
Bourdain’s shows and books confronted viewers and readers with uncomfortable realities and challenged them to dig deeper when they traveled. I’ll never forget watching the Hanoi episode of Parts Unknown—the one where Bourdain gleefully slurps bun cha with President Obama. What really stood out to me was his decision to include, at the end of the episode, a notoriously derogatory quote from William Westmoreland, who led the American forces during the Vietnam War: “The Oriental doesn’t put the same high price on life as does a Westerner. Life is plentiful. Life is cheap in the Orient.”
It was a chill-down-your-spine moment, after enjoying shot after shot of delicious noodle, to be confronted with America’s not-so-distant role in Vietnam. In a 40-minute episode, Bourdain had taught me more about my parents’ homeland than I’d learned in a high school or college class, helping me see how something as seemingly ordinary as food, or as luxurious as travel, could be my vehicle for writing about the painful circumstances under which my parents had come to America.
Katie Whittaker, a 29-year-old, Greece-based freelance writer (and my former colleague), cites an episode of No Reservations in which Bourdain was evacuated from Beirut at the start of the 2006 Lebanon War as the a-ha moment when she fully grasped her responsibility as a food writer. “It's the episode I think of when I was an editor at Saveur and people used to comment on our stories that ‘food isn't political’ or that ‘food writers are not real journalists,’” Whitakker says. “This totally changed how I viewed what food and travel writing can and should be; if you're writing about the food of a place, then you're inextricably wound up in its culture and history, and how both of those elements mold the present.”
Bourdain bolstered people so conditioned to being silenced, from the everyman behind lowbrow food to the new, mostly young generation of food and travel writers for whom he became an idol.
“Before Bourdain, I was writing in other people's voices,” says Illyanna Maisonet, a Puerto Rican food columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle. “It wasn't until I read Kitchen Confidential that I began to write in my own voice. To me, Bourdain was writing in the style of all those classic writers I was obsessed with: E. E. Cummings, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Frost, Walden, and Thoreau. He was all of those combined. And he somehow, miraculously, translated all of that in his travel shows.”
“Before Bourdain, I was writing in other people's voices. It wasn't until I read Kitchen Confidential that I began to write in my own voice."
Whether gulping spoonfuls of Lagos’ pepper soup while exploring the complexities of corruption in Nigeria, or munching down on piri-piri chicken in the Congo, which he introduced as “the most relentlessly fucked-over country in the world,” Bourdain spoke of the food from what some have referred to as “shithole countries” with the reverence his peers reserved for the hallowed halls of French fine dining. “You may find, in the kitchens of Europe, something as good, but you will never find anything better than this,” he once said of the Vietnamese noodle soup, pho.
“Bourdain was excellent at featuring cultures and people incredibly unlike him by focusing on what makes us similar instead of what drives us apart,” says Ali Wunderman, a 29-year-old, Montana-based freelance travel journalist and guidebook author. “I always ended his episodes with a better understanding of places he visited, including the ways in which Western society, or society at large, had worked to oppress people.”
Bourdain’s well-documented love of Vietnam was not as a white savior, but as an ally. In 2018, I wrote an article for Saigoneer, an English-language website in Vietnam, crediting him with having opened the minds of food media to the third-world country my parents came from, and making space for those who were the true experts of the cuisine. In the streets of Vietnam, Bourdain was often referred to as Anh Tony, or “big brother Tony.” And that’s what allyship is: not proclaiming yourself as one, but doing the work to earn the trust of the underserved communities that claim you.
“In his Parts Unknown episode in the Philippines, Bourdain dined with locals on the streets of Manila, drank with them, laughed with them,” says Jasmine Ting, a 23-year-old Filipina freelance writer based in New York. “He didn’t treat them like foreigners, he treated them as equals—or even as teachers and guides to take him through the cuisine and culture of the country. I think Bourdain’s relationships with POC [people of color] chefs and locals were genuine. People in the Philippines and Filipino chefs fondly refer to him as ‘Tito Tony’ (which translates to Uncle Tony). And when the cameras were off, he made real connections that lasted.”
Bourdain's willingness to speak up—about Donald Trump, about Harvey Weinstein, and more—earned him praise, but for some of his detractors, it was too little, too late. After all, he was not without his many critics, whether they questioned his self-professed complicitness in meathead culture, the whiteness that afforded him a platform, and even his empathy towards some Trump voters. But I believe, if he had been given the opportunity, Bourdain would have continued to shoulder his blame, acknowledging his own missteps and calling out friends who erred as well. It’s an example young writers would do well to follow.
“A man of great empathy with full awareness of his enormous privilege, he lived by the axiom that food is innately political and used his significant leverage to explore the conditions which gave certain food traditions rise, and how it affected the people,” says Jackie Summers, a 51-year-old veteran bartender and entrepreneur who didn't become a food writer until 2014. “But despite the obvious appeal of these stories, gatekeepers of media have still shown themselves reluctant to offer platforms for marginalized people to tell their stories in their own voices. The best way to honor the memory of this remarkable human would be to create space for more writers and creators of color to do what Bourdain did, without catering to white gaze.”
Today, there’s work yet to be done. Food and travel media remain some of the most stubbornly white-dominated industries. We young writers must be angry, be thick-skinned, but first and foremost, be human, so that we can piece together a broken system with gold and good intentions. Only then can we tell the stories that will inspire subsequent generations. I just wish Anh Tony could have been here to see that for himself.
This story originally appeared on Esquire.com.
* Minor edits have been made by the Esquiremag.ph editors.