Anthony Bourdain’s Inimitable Legacy

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.

14 replies
  1. Peter
    Peter says:

    Anthony Bourdain’s passing is a big loss to travel and food enthusiasts. Prior to Bourdain’s breakout, Insomniac with Dave Attell channelled a lot of the experience/not judge and behind the scenes vibe seen in Bourdain’s shows and writing. A lot of the episodes are on Youtube.

  2. Kim Novak Proctor
    Kim Novak Proctor says:

    Very touching tribute. I was so sad when I heard the news. Couldn’t believe it. He touched many lives. May he rest in peace.

  3. Deanna Wood
    Deanna Wood says:

    Well said-I was so sad when I heard the news, and ended up binge-watching his shows (No Reservations & Parts Unknown) for most of that weekend after the news broke.

  4. Lisa
    Lisa says:

    Well written Tom! My husband and I met him a few years back at a book signing. As you said, we really don’t “idolize” celebrities, but Anthony Bourdain was different. Upon hearing of his death, we were truly saddened. I hope Bourdain knows the impact he made on all of us over the years. He will certainly be missed.

  5. Andrew
    Andrew says:

    I am not usually affected by celebrity deaths, but have been really struck by losing Bourdain – and particularly to wrap my head around the manner of his death. I spent most of childhood living overseas, and my family has always loved watching episodes in countries that we had lived in or visited to compare our experience with Tony’s. While I didn’t always agree with his particular take or viewpoint, I always appreciated that he was not simply doing the “highlight reel” as you put it, but instead trying to genuinely experience different cultures. In many ways I think his show, and his worldview, helped me affirm and value my experiences as a third-culture kid – and it certainly has continued to inspire my love of travel.

    After visiting Hong Kong this past winter, my fiance and I were eagerly looking forward to this past Sunday’s episode of Parts Unknown (we’d rewatched Tony’s last two episodes on Hong Kong extensively before the trip!). While coincidental, it’s sad to us that this particular episode was the last to be aired while he was alive. It is also a stark reminder that while I felt a kinship with Bourdain like many others, there was so much more to his life and his struggles beyond what we saw on camera.

    This was a long post but I wanted to end it by sharing my favorite Anthony Bourdain episode – Season 7, Episode 1 of Parts Unknown. The episode was set in Manila around Christmas and did a great job in capturing the hospitality, generosity and work ethic of the Filipino people – from the tagalog-cover of the intro song to the reveal of the producer’s former nanny. It’s an episode that may have ventured into cliche with any other show/host but instead really struck a chord with me. While I am saddened to have lost Tony’s voice, I know his show has indeed made our world a little smaller.

    • Tom Bricker
      Tom Bricker says:

      One of the things that has struck me in the outpouring of grief for Bourdain is how many people have shared stories that essentially amount to meeting Bourdain by chance, telling him about their home country because they trusted Bourdain to tell their story accurately and see the authenticity and beauty in that place.

      This Twitter thread is a good example of what I mean (in case that doesn’t make sense), but there are many others like it:

  6. Jan
    Jan says:

    That was perfect—thanks so much for writing down your thoughts. I too haven’t been able to stop thinking about him all day. Just a night ago we re-watched his Cuba episode to bring back our own memories of our trip there. And now that voice is gone. So very sad. 😢

    • Tom Bricker
      Tom Bricker says:

      “we re-watched his Cuba episode to bring back our own memories of our trip there.”

      We do the same with other episodes. He really captures the essence and mood of places, even if not the “main” points of interest.

  7. Tammi
    Tammi says:

    Thank you for writing this. I have felt this all day since I saw the news this morning. It’s so hard to imagine life without any more of his travels. I always loved how straightforward and honest he was on his show. He didn’t sugarcoat things and told it like it was. I feel like you also write that way, which is what has drawn me to your blogs. The world will definitely be a less interesting place without him in it.

    • Tom Bricker
      Tom Bricker says:

      “The world will definitely be a less interesting place without him in it.”

      So true.

      I can only hope that networks like Travel Channel will see how popular Bourdain’s style was (although I’d imagine they already know?) and try to do more like it. So much of the current programming is so, so bad.

  8. Susan
    Susan says:

    This is a fitting obituary. I usually think when a celebrity or someone passes away that’s too bad and you feel bad for their loved ones. But, for all the reasons you state this is unbelievably sad. He will be missed.
    He finally couldn’t out run his demons. The In-N-Out Burger video was really nice.

    • Tom Bricker
      Tom Bricker says:

      I think how people feel also speaks to Bourdain’s relatability. He may have been rich and had the best job in the world, but he never lost touch. He still liked cheap street food, talked to common people, and was pretty transparent about his demons and true feelings. Nothing about him seemed fake.

  9. Brian Keyes
    Brian Keyes says:

    Couldn’t agree more Tom. He always made the viewer feel like they were seeing something new and different. If not the locations itself than definitely his point of view on that location. A unique point of view always. Very sad.

    • Tom Bricker
      Tom Bricker says:

      “If not the locations itself than definitely his point of view on that location. A unique point of view always.”

      Definitely, and that was his talent. I think he could’ve visited a small town in Kansas and turn it into a fascinating show about local culture and cuisine.

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