It all started with a bowl of vichyssoise, a cold soup of potatoes, leeks and cream, that Anthony Bourdain ate sitting in the cabin-class dining room of Queen Mary, the famed British ocean liner, headed to France. “It was the first food I enjoyed and, more importantly, remember enjoying,” he wrote in his 2000 memoir, Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly that bared the sordid secrets of the hospitality industry. It marked the very beginnings of his nearly two-decade-long career as a peripatetic chef, writer, and television host.
Bourdain, who was found dead in his hotel room in France on Friday, at age 61, was headed to Strasbourg, on France’s border with Germany to record an episode of his show, Parts Unknown, now in its 12th season on CNN.
In his best-selling memoir he had written, “Do we really want to travel in hermetically sealed popemobiles through the rural provinces of France, Mexico, and the Far East, eating only in Hard Rock Cafes and McDonald’s? Or do we want to eat without fear, tearing into the local stew, the humble taqueria’s mystery meat, the sincerely offered gift of a lightly grilled fish head? I know what I want. I want it all. I want to try everything once.” And so he did. Before joining forces with CNN, Bourdain hosted eight seasons of No Reservations on the Travel Channel that focussed on cuisines pushed into obscurity. It was on this series, that Bourdain travelled to restaurants in the overshadowed corners of the planet to find indigenous culinary secrets, sometimes inviting himself into people’s homes, and where his persona of a brutally straightforward loudmouth or as is often said, “bad-boy chef”, crystallised. With Parts Unknown, however, the idea of Bourdain evolved into that of a crusader for ethnic cuisines.
Bourdain’s shows, that he moulded himself, birthed a travel show lingo that has since been forged by many. The episodes, never an exoticisation no matter the subject, did not as much serve as guides for meandering through unknown territory as they encapsulated the essence of Bourdain’s visits. “We’re not making shows about ‘The Best of India’ or ‘The Real India’ — and certainly not ‘The Comprehensive India’, or anywhere else. India would be a life’s work — and an unfinished one — no matter how long we spent there. But if we do our jobs right, after we have edited down all the snippets tape and added a narration, those who watch the show get a suggestive glimpse of the places we go — and can imagine what it feels like, sounds like, smells like to walk down a crowded street lined with food stalls in Jaipur,” he wrote of his visit to India in No Reservations (Bloomsbury USA, 2007).
Bourdain, who through the course of No Reservations and Parts Unknown, travelled to Rajasthan, Kerala, West Bengal, Punjab, Maharashtra and Himachal Pradesh, admits to being “charmed”, even decoding our confounding head waggle, and being over-awed by the country. “I love India. I just don’t know if I can wrap my tiny brain around its past, its present, or its future. Stand still with three video cameras in Kolkata or Mumbai and first two, then three, then 20, then 50 people gather around to stare good-naturedly,” he wrote.
As Bourdain shared meals with the rice-growing community in the Sunderbans, quaffed jhaal-muri in Kolkata, got stoned at a bhaang shop, and devoured a thali at the Nataraj Hotel in Jaipur, he also pulled focus on the way life is lived here, thereby situating food and the way we eat into a larger picture. “The two young men serving as your waiters at a thali meal in a dusty backstreet in Jaipur also study full-time at a university. They are completing their master’s degrees in engineering. Their friends in America find MIT ridiculously easy. The rice farmer in Sunderbans has a son in college too. To accept less than top marks would be the shame of the village,” he further wrote.
His visit to Punjab for Parts Unknown was revelatory for the globetrotting chowhound as well. It is where, by sampling food at the local dhabas and the stalls set up during Gurpurab, he finally enjoyed a vegetarian meal. “Punjab is one place where I would happily eat vegetarian for quite some time, without noticing it and just enjoying the food. The textures are varied. It’s colourful, it’s spicy, it’s delicious. The Indian vegetarian culture is very old and very rich,” he had said to CNN’s Anderson Cooper during an interview, before the interviewer cut him short — “You’re eating a lot of stuff on the streets. For me, a large part of going to India is trying not to get sick.” Bourdain was quick to quip, “Yes, there is the likelihood that you would need to spend a little extra time on the thunder bucket but it won’t kill you. You are far more likely to get ill eating at the hotel buffet. It’s the killer.”
And this is what made Bourdain who he was. The devil-may-care attitude that is so readily attributed to the man, took food classism to pieces and stripped globetrotting of the cultivated romance of wanderlust. Yet, there was empathy. Bourdain had borrowed from Kurt Vonnegut to describe a successful show in which the viewer was taken to a place where “everything was beautiful and nothing hurt.” Good sir, you did.