Today, June 8, is Anthony Bourdain’s death anniversary.
As someone who has walked many kilometres in various cities and taken detours to villages on business trips to eat a particular dish at a specific food joint, and as someone who has spent a large part of his life and money on exploring different cuisines, and cooking different dishes, there is one thing I know about food: Food is not just about food. And this notion was never manifested better by anyone but Anthony Bourdain.
To identify Anthony Bourdain as a chef is to identify India as a Hindi-speaking country: A truth that smothers other truths. Yes, he was a chef but he was as much a traveller, an empath, a writer, a loner, a lover, an orator, a single-minded and often singled-out man who saw the world in his own outstanding sight and never deterred to offer an opinion on it. Yet, these are all nouns, and nouns tend to dwindle into definitions. Anthony Bourdain, at the risk of using another noun, was a mystery. A mystery that grows more unsolved, the more you try to solve it. And that is singularly the most endearing thing about him.
In the Tokyo episode of his show, Parts Unknown, he says, “I often compare the experience of coming to Tokyo for the first time to what Eric Clapton and Pete Townshend, the reigning guitar gods of England must have gone through, the week that Jimi Hendrix came to town.” I have marvelled at this analogy for long, because not only does it remarkably explain what Bourdain felt in Tokyo but it also displays his insight into music and his taste for life in general.
Bourdain often had an eclectic mix of guests over in Parts Unknown. His choice for the Hong Kong episode was none other than the legendary cinematographer Christopher Doyle, a long-term collaborator of Wong Kar Wai who has brought Hong Kong alive through his lens like no one else in films such as In the Mood for Love and Chungking Express. Yes, they ate food and walked together across the city, but they also discussed cinema, and shared stories and experiences with each other. Does this sound anything like a food and travel show?
Bourdain always maintained that Vietnam was his favourite country in the world, and the most famous episode of Parts Unknown was where he takes the erstwhile American President, Barack Obama, to a, hole-in-the-wall, family-run joint in Hanoi. While discussing South Asian flavours with Obama over a pint, Bourdain asked him, “How often do you get to sneak out for a beer?” Given the context of Vietnam and US’ shared history, that conversation between Bourdain and Obama was nothing less than special.
One of Bourdain’s greatest takes on food was his insistence on going local. While most celebrity chefs operate in an unaffordable world of cocktails and high-end restaurants, Bourdain swore by local flavours wherever he went and very often preferred to spotlight dingy joints that served delectable and authentic food. He believed that anything could be eaten – he has eaten feral pigeon meat in Cairo and lion meat elsewhere in Africa, and through it all pork remained his favourite. Bourdain said what he felt despite the consequences.
He always dismissed vegetarianism as a terrible idea, and yet, when he made an episode in India, which was in Punjab, he ate kulchas, daal and saag at a roadside stall in Amritsar and said that if anywhere, it’s in India where he wouldn’t mind vegetarian food. And when a American CNN anchor asked him if it is hygienic to eat at roadside stalls in India, Bourdain said that the spaghetti bolognese at a fine-dine, that the anchor called his ‘safe food’, is actually far less hygienic than any street food because the Bolognese is at least three days old whereas the food at street stalls is made fresh every day as the owners know their customers are going to come back the next day and some of them are probably their neighbours.
In the Uruguay episode, he called the country a free and vibrant democracy because a whopping 96% of the eligible population voted in the previous election as opposed to a dismal 60% in the US. A New Jersey boy, Bourdain often cited the limitations of his own country in various ways and encouraged his audience to explore and welcome the world beyond the US and the West. He was a true liberal in the sense that he publicly supported women’s right to abortion, equal rights and hated racism and nativism to the core. He certainly did not like the US blowing its own trumpet all the time and remained perpetually vocal against it.
In his New Yorker article, ‘Don’t Eat Before Reading This‘ that suddenly made Bourdain a household name in the US, he exposed the murky truths of the New York fine-dining scene like no one before, and irked a whole lot of chefs and restaurateurs. That was in 1999. His life was never the same since. He got book deals, TV show offers, and his fame only surged from there right up to his death and beyond even though, just a few days before he died by suicide, he said, “I hate being famous.”
For all his masterful insight into food and travel and the world, and his delicious storytelling through it all, Bourdain was wrestling with unhappiness. To the distant eye, he had everything–fame, money, women–and he was exploring the world in a way all of us wanted to but couldn’t. He was living the dream and yet, he remained unhappy through it all.
“A bad hamburger at the airport could put me into weeks of depression,” he had once said. To me, this inherent conflict between his public stature and inner unhappiness is what forms the core of Anthony Bourdain. It is the same unhappiness that perhaps made him seek adventure and be on the road for weeks, exploring the world, never settling down physically or emotionally, at one place or with one group of people.
Exactly five years ago, Anthony Bourdain died by suicide. But to countless people like me, who have experienced his presence through his wild and brilliant journeys across cuisines and cultures trying to find the soul of the world, he still straddles the world, and continues to add a new dimension to the way it is seen, experienced and, most importantly, the way it is felt.
Mihir Chitre works as an independent creative director in advertising and has written two books on poetry. He has also written and directed the short film Hello Brick Road.