Anthony Bourdain (June 25th 1956 – June 8th 2018)
“The first time I went to Vietnam, I thought ‘I have to have more of this.’ I want to come back to Vietnam again and again and again, and if this part of the world is so wonderful, the world must be filled with many more wonderful, heartbreaking, challenging, and beautiful places.”
I was 16 years old, working at a Waffle House in Kansas City and failing right out of high school, when I first read Kitchen Confidential. More than it made me laugh out loud, more than it made me think about the food industry and eating differently, it felt so human. So genuine. The voice was coming across like a friend over the phone, honest and clear. There was something there that gave me hope, that consoled my teenage angst at wanting to get the hell out of where I was as fast as I could.
Fast forward ten years and I’m 26, barely graduated from college, working the line and flipping burgers at a bar. I had just gotten a job in South Korea to teach English, the ticket was already booked and I was just waiting to get the hell out of the States. A friend whose couch I was crashing on had a copy of A Cook’s Tour, and I read it in one or two sittings, taking it with me to the bathroom or the kitchen for another beer. I literally couldn’t put it down. Compared to the cynicism and brashness with which you described the world of a New York chef, here was a vulnerable, perceptive, knowledgeable guy who was sensitive to and curious about the world. A Cook’s Tour seasoned my experience of travelling and being abroad, and was practically my instruction manual for the past ten years of romping around Asia.
You were not only a supremely artful, perceptive, and hilarious writer, you were also the best teacher I had for how to go about moving around the world and immersing myself in other people’s cultures. You would actually research the histories and cultures of the places you would travel to, and you actually gave a shit about the wider human context of travel and walking in other people’s shoes. You were brilliant and witty, book-smart and reflective, coarse and intoxicating. People mattered to you. Stories mattered to you. Although you wore your cynicism on your sleeve, you were deeply interested in and compassionate towards people.
You showed us all a different world than the news and the movies did. You showed us how inherently similar we homo sapiens are, no matter the continent, no matter the culture, no matter the story. You showed us how to respect other people’s cultures and histories without naiveté, how to embrace the ways of others without abandoning our own.
You were hilarious. Maybe only Mark Twain or Charles Bukowski can make me laugh out loud the way you could.
You stayed humble throughout your whole career as world-famous, globetrotting chef. You said in an interview that you could always still smell the waffle iron from making endless brunches at dead-end jobs in New York, and how you could be right back there again if things went south. You had a bullshit detector a kilometre long. You didn’t try to be good (and that’s a major reason why you were so fucking good).
You revolutionised the way we think about food, and the way we think about what eating means. Stripped of all pomp and ceremony, you were able to make a bowl of pho or a pork taco look more delicious and compelling than anything from a five star restaurant.
You were the greatest ambassador the US had to the rest of the world. You were the example we all needed. You will remain the archetype.
For the past ten years running around Southeast Asia, every time I squatted at a roadside food stand, every time I got drunk in the morning at a bus stop, every time I went through customs, you were kind of there with me, leading the way, pointing things out, making fun of the absurdity of life.
I don’t usually get emotional when famous people die. But today I’m feeling it. I don’t know why you had to go, and it’s probably none of our business. But you made the world more fascinating, more fun, more alive. You taught a generation of us how to embrace the world, how to love food, and how to love one another.
Thank you so much for everything you gave us. Thanks for doing it so fucking well. Thanks for always making me laugh. Thanks for showing me how to be a good traveller and citizen of the world. You are the gonzo, punk rock, patron saint of travel, eating and writing.