I found Anthony Bourdain at roughly the same time I found both food and travel. It was when he was hosting No Reservations on Travel Channel, and I was first expanding my horizons, voraciously consuming as much as I could about all things travel. His show was different, but not in the sense that he played the part of “bad boy chef” as is commonly cited.
What made Anthony Bourdain different from other travelogue hosts I had been watching was that he wasn’t really making travelogues at all. Bourdain’s television shows were ostensibly about experiencing travel, primarily through food. In reality, these were motifs; conduits for bringing viewers closer to other cultures and making the seemingly exotic feel a bit more familiar.
Anthony Bourdain was a singular voice. He did not purport to know everything about the places he was visiting or spin a false sense of authority. Instead, he occupied the role of curious tourist, and brought us all along for the ride as he sought to visit the places and meet the locals who would educate us all.
Unlike other travel hosts doing highlight reel run-throughs of a particular destination, Bourdain’s approach was more impressionistic. His style was at once eloquent and authentic. He had an unusual knack for weaving poetic voiceover narrations together with substantive depth and piercing insights into places, cuisine, and culture. His thoughts could turn on a dime from something profound to off-hand (sometimes vulgar) jokes.
The authenticity was noteworthy. With Bourdain, you never got the sense that he was being fed talking points by tourism boards or sponsors. While there’s a propensity for other travel programming to feel like an extended advertisement, there was never the sense that Bourdain was trying to create a puff piece.
It was all very real, which is why his passion for each place, its food, and its people ultimately carried so much more weight. Even if not a single segment of the program focused on a typical guidebook thing to do, Bourdain captured and conveyed the essence of the place. By the end of each episode, no matter the locale, his experiences had effectively sold it. It was unconventional, but remarkably effective.
Bourdain would say unexpected things and cover topics most travel hosts would not touch. Others would sidestep certain uncomfortable or controversial topics that may make viewers or the locations themselves uneasy. Instead, Bourdain embraced these head-on, turning what some might construe as liabilities into cultural assets.
Anthony Bourdain was inimitable. His style, his energy, his authenticity–all of it. While I never met Mr. Bourdain and generally don’t ‘get’ the idolization of celebrities, I idolized him. Beyond the already mentioned ‘authentic and eloquent’ dichotomy, he also had both empathetic and ‘no fucks given’ vibes, which made him cool. (And then, there’s this.)
It’s rare for me to get worked up over a celebrity’s death, much less find myself compelled to write something on the topic. I haven’t been able to focus since learning of this news, so I thought I’d put my feelings into words.
It would be crazy and insincere to claim I’ve tried to model my style on Anthony Bourdain. I also cannot overstate just how significant he’s been in forming my perspectives on travel, food–and even my worldview. When I first started watching his programs, I learned about the importance of going beyond my comfort zone and trying local foods when visiting new places. I learned that travel isn’t about checking points of interest off a list, but wandering and exploring to get a sense of place and its culture. Finally, I learned about the importance of authenticity in writing about these places; the significance of sharing the feeling of a location, instead of just straightforward guidebook information.
In seeing the outpouring of grief, appreciation, and fond memories today in the wake of Anthony Bourdain’s passing, I know I’m hardly alone in any of these sentiments. He made an indelible impact on the culinary and travel worlds. His most indelible impact of all, though, is on the world itself. Anthony Bourdain made the world feel a little smaller, as people of different backgrounds and cultures could feel a little closer to one another, if only for 30 minutes per week. In today’s climate, this is truly extraordinary, and it will be Anthony Bourdain’s lasting legacy.