The Pain & Privilege Of Travelling With Anthony Bourdain

Anthony Bourdain was a chef, a writer, a TV host, and a celebrity. He taught people that brunch was a scam, that putting pen to paper is as much a noble act as it is a narcissistic one, that you really only need one outfit when you travel, and that selling out when you don’t have to is one of the fouler things a privileged person chooses to do. But more than that, Bourdain taught people that one of the most reliably good parts of humanity is getting the chance to learn — and succumbing to it.
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Bourdain, who’d cut his teeth in the frat house ambience of the kitchen, didn’t really begin travelling the world until he was in his 40s. After decades working as a chef and a struggling novelist, Bourdain found unlikely fame when a piece he wrote for The New Yorker turned into a book deal. The resulting biography Kitchen Confidential was hugely successful, and his publishers wanted more. Bourdain did, too. He teamed up with The Food Network in an attempt to kill two financial birds with one stone — that someone would pay for him to travel the world to do research for a new book, and film the process at the same time.
“I went out there a total novice and neophyte — borderline delusional, thinking ‘this wasn’t going to hurt at all,’” he confessed in an episode of No Reservations shot in 2010. The episode showed footage filmed right after he returned from A Cook’s Tour. Bourdain’s fatigue at the time was clear: “I’m travelling around the world and on film every waking minute, and I’m not liking it. I want to hide under a blanket for the rest of my life,” he says woodenly, without any of the pomposity that had juiced everything he said prior. The Bourdain depicted in A Cook’s Tour is almost comically uncomfortable, a caricature of the Bourdain that we’re familiar with; it was the first time he was responsible for telling stories about real people other than himself, and the effort to get it right when he was so unprepared was obviously taxing.
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His most immediate first impression of the thing that has become his legacy can seem discordant. After all, the Bourdain who would eventually go on to host No Reservations and Parts Unknown as the ideal globe trekker is energised by new experiences. He was fearless and generous, and seemed to be powered by the same thing that so drained him in A Cook’s Tour. But his initial reaction to travel illuminates something about Bourdain’s philosophy to life that will later become so instinctive to him that it’ll become invisible: Interacting with the world is not a pleasure, but it is a privilege. The most honest way to do it is humbly.
When it comes to how most people travel and dine — Bourdain’s two main methods of interaction — passivity is not a popular attitude. Why spend so much money on an unpleasant experience? When you eat at a restaurant, it’s likely that you’ve picked the spot from many options and will pick from its menu to best flatter your tastes. The way we travel is similar: We pick experiences by what looks most appetising, expecting to be delighted, catered to, and satiated by what comes across our table. We are the guests. Foreign lands are our hosts.
That is not how Bourdain travelled. He was an interloper, not a guest, which meant that the onus to delight, to cater, and to satiate was entirely on him. That meant trusting people who chose to express their gratitude and love through foods many other food travellers would call “bizarre” and “weird.” Not once did he use these words as pejoratives, or — more patronisingly, as some annoying shock-jock travellers do — as badges of bravery. Bourdain travelled as someone with deep respect and deference to the people he was seeing. He took his shoes off when he went into a Japanese home without complaint. He sat down in a plastic stool with as much gratitude as if it were a Mies van der Rohe. He learned how to say “thank you” and “excuse me” in every language his hosts spoke, attempting to get the pronunciations right in ways that were so eager and earnest that it was almost embarrassing if you believed his punk veneer was all there was to him.
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Bourdain made it easier for us to indulge our own curiosities. It is no coincidence that in toxic conversations about cultural appropriation, eating foreign food is one of the only things where people feel no shame in seeking out and trying. For Bourdain, new foods were always an opportunity to connect with new people and new ideas. Bourdain understood that in seeing what someone eats and how they cook it, he could better understand why they live. Pop anthropologists have long done this before him, with music, with fashion, with sports, with sex — but Bourdain was the first to break out of the niche subject he inhabited professionally, because he did it plainly and without pomp, without ever dumbing things down or dramatising differences.
One of the clearest pieces of evidence that his style was spot-on is from the surfeit of praise from people about episodes that featured their hometowns. This is an incredibly curious thing for a show ostensibly promoting places to travel to, not places to grow up in. “When Bourdain visited Ecuador, my entire family tuned in,” Washington Post reporter Marissa J. Lang tweeted. “We did not watch with dread, waiting for the moment he would get it wrong. We watched feeling we would be seen.” All morning, people have been describing what it was like to gather with their families to see their backyards through Bourdain’s eyes, and know that it’d feel both like falling in love for the first time and going home for Thanksgiving.
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Bourdain was as frank with himself as he was with the subjects he reported on. He has called himself much worse things than his critics have levied on him. He was his own harshest critic. Which is why he must have instinctively felt that the pain that’s necessary to travel and tell other people’s stories was a sign of his own weakness. But it’s clear that he later realised that pain was only part of the journey to empathy and edification. He writes in his book, No Reservations: Around the World on an Empty Stomach: “Travel isn't always pretty. It isn't always comfortable. Sometimes it hurts, it even breaks your heart. But that's okay. The journey changes you; it should change you. It leaves marks on your memory, on your consciousness, on your heart, and on your body. You take something with you. Hopefully, you leave something good behind.”
For someone who has travelled as much as he did, and who left behind so much good, one can imagine how much hurt and heartbreak it took to get there.
On his blog, Bourdain’s last post was written in 2016, and in remembrance of poet Jim Harrison. Bourdain knew that his own superpower was that he was a conduit to tell other people’s stories — it was what made his programmes so admirable, and his last post so particularly heart-wrenching. It must have meant something wickedly important to him, to see himself in these lines. Bourdain spent the past two decades reflecting our world back to us. As tribute, here’s something he saw himself in:
BARKING
The moon comes up.
The moon goes down.
This is to inform you that I didn’t die young.
Age swept past me but I caught up.
Spring has begun here and each day
brings new birds up from Mexico.
Yesterday I got a call from the outside
world but I said no in thunder.
I was a dog on a short chain
and now there’s no chain.
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