No one told me about Anthony Bourdain—who he was or what he did. I discovered him all on my own and quite by accident. One Monday evening, while making lunches, flipping stations on the little kitchen-counter TV and swishing away the tail of the cat perched on top, I landed on this screen:
“The following program contains content that may be inappropriate for some viewers. Parental discretion is advised.”
Wait. What? What network was this? The Travel Channel? And what time is it? 8? Still early—family hour. And isn’t this, like—a food show? What the hell? Where am I?
There I stood, peanut-butter in hand, frozen by a disclaimer.
Instead of leaping for the remote to protect the delicate psyches of my children in the next room, I was really curious to see what came next. The disclaimer had done its job. So I turned the volume down some, leaned in and listened to that first voiceover—smooth, deep, confident, cheeky. And then the words themselves—smart, carefully chosen, descriptive, designed to connect. So appealing to the English teacher in me. Even so, they were words deliberately imbued with a kind of casual irreverence that caught me off guard. What have we here? Oooh, a bad boy. So attractive to the school girl in me.
I turned up volume and never looked back.
From that moment on, The Travel Channel was my place to be on Monday nights at eight o’clock. Exercising my right to parental discretion, I invited my kids to join me. No Reservations was my new favorite show. And Anthony Bourdain was my latest and, as it turns out, most enduring, celebrity crush.
It was the writing that caught me and held on through the many years that have passed since then, from No Reservations to The Layover to Parts Unknown which was, until today, in production for CNN. Bourdain could have brought me on a literary tour of soup kitchens and I would have dutifully tagged along. Instead, he ushered me all over the world to the most exotic and beautiful and off-beat and sometimes dangerous places on the planet. He found stories that were waiting for the right person to come along to tell them—a person who could jump into the fray and then find the words that would make us all a part of it. He fed me haute cuisine and street food, introduced me to world-class chefs and cart vendors and brought me to places where my own two feet will never stand, but now I can say that I have been there just the same.
Food was the ticket for admission to a Bourdain expedition. But once we got to wherever we were going, so many other important things happened. The world opened up. People who seemed so different on the surface really, we discovered, looked and acted a lot like us. Their kitchen tables and the families around them seemed familiar even though they were half a world away. Exotic traditions and cultures seemed more beautiful and less intimidating because there was Tony, in the middle of it all, proving that people all want and need the same things. After all, everybody eats. It was Bourdain’s way in—and, by extension, ours. Maybe Bourdain was a chef—at first. But he proved himself at last to be an astute observer, a schmoozer, an adventurer, an everyman, an entertainer and, most importantly, a writer.
I imagine that a lot will be written about Anthony Bourdain in the next few days. His show will enjoy a spike in ratings and there will be new demand for his books. I hope so. He was a gifted writer with an inherent sense of audience. He knew how to make good TV, funny, edifying and honest. He knew how to appeal to viewers without insulting their intelligence—more often, in fact, enhancing it. He was entertaining. He was smart. And, we know now, he was troubled.
What will come out about Bourdain now? What will we learn about his demons that he hasn’t already revealed? About his behind-the-camera behavior? I don’t know. Obviously, his “this is me, screw you if you don’t like it” on-camera persona is only part of his story. But right now, this is the only Tony Bourdain that I know. It is the part that I first discovered on that Monday night many years ago, the part that has, in its own lanky, unassuming way, done so much to make the our planet a smaller, more habitable place. I am sad that there is so much of the world that we will never see through Tony’s eyes, especially now, when we need his outlook the most. But I will celebrate the world that he has already revealed to us. It’s a gift.
In memory of Tony, I have suspended my current reading and have dug out my ragged copies of Kitchen Confidential and Medium Raw. I also have a DVD boxed set of No Reservations, complete with its irresistible disclaimer, all of which I will work through once again. I will savor the writing and the storytelling as I revisit the parts of the world that Anthony Bourdain has carved out and served to me in his inimitable way. And I will ache in the knowledge that the Bourdain canon—perceptive, sarcastic, edgy, funny, smart, vulnerable, enlightening, humane—is now complete. Sadly, there is no disclaimer for that.
Anthony Bourdain, 1956-2018