I clearly remember the first time I met Anthony Bourdain. He had been invited to the Discovery Channel office in Silver Spring, Maryland along with his long time producers Chris Collins and Lydia Tenaglia of Zero Point Zero productions to discuss a new commission for the Travel Channel.
Just a couple weeks earlier, I had signed up to be the executive producer for that series. The first thing that struck me when we met was how tall he was. And reserved. Tony was polite, smiling, but quiet. Not at all intimidating. He walked behind us as Lydia and I started a conversation, and barely spoke for the first half of our meeting to kick off the production.
The next few interactions were different. I realised early that Tony had a very firm sense of what he would do and what he was less comfortable with. And so determined that my primary role on this series would be to enable his authentic voice to be heard.
I worked with Tony for four years, and although my day to day interactions were more with his producers Chris Collins and Lydia Tenaglia, I had the opportunity to get to know him well during this time.
Anthony Bourdain was a real traveller. Not a host travelling to earn an income. In the series we produced together, Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations, food underpinned social commentary. Tony genuinely cared, he was moved by the people he met. He saw food and particularly eating together as the start of a conversation. A conversation that also, in his inimitable way, led to social and political commentary on everything from slavery in Zimbabwe to the Vietnam war to rising consumerism in Asia.
He had the greatest empathy for people and humility despite his increasing fame. He stood by what he believed in as his social media footprint is testament to. Travelling for extended periods of time with his crew, he was generous towards them, always.
Our first Emmy nomination was for the episode filmed in Beirut. That episode had an interesting back story. It was late one evening when Chris called to tell me that there was a ‘small’ issue in Beirut. Tony and the crew had got stuck in a situation that involved gunfire and the city was in complete lock down.
The next two days were very tense. Tony and the crew were holed up in a hotel, unsure of how or when they could get out and Beirut was hostile. Discovery employed a special agent to find a way out for them and we spoke via phone every few hours. What I remember most from those days was Tony being much more concerned about his crew than anything else. He was strident and vocal – get them the f*^% out. When they got back, we had to convince Tony to use the footage filmed to tell their story. He didn’t want to exploit the situation. He didn’t. The Beirut episode was poignant and compellingly honest. It earned the series our first Emmy nomination. Years later, he returned to Beirut.
Tony didn’t suffer fools. He didn’t hold back barbs. As much as he was a chef, he was a writer first – who wrote easily with insight, humour and his inimitable turn of phrase. And he was the most curious, gracious, grateful traveller I have ever met.
Myleeta Aga is a former executive producer at the Travel Channel and currently heads BBC Studios in South and South east Asia.
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