It was more than the food. It was always more than the food.
I've heard several people now refer to Anthony Bourdain, the American TV presenter and author who died so tragically last week, as a "celebrity chef", but to me that's selling him spectacularly short. He was more than that. He was far more. He was better.
Anthony Bourdain changed travel for me. He changed the pursuit, and he changed the way it could be presented. He brought an authenticity to travel writing and presenting that I'd never seen before, and I've never seen since. He reflected an experience that seemed real and heartfelt. He took what so many of us saw and experienced and wished we could achieve and he packaged it up and put it in front of millions of people and he made it OK.
And it came out of nowhere. I grew up in Australia, like so many people my age, on a diet of pure travel cheese, on Getaway and The Great Outdoors, on beautiful people in beautiful locations. That was travel. It was hotels and cruises and five-star resorts. It was Catriona Rowntree going somewhere sunny.
And then along came Bourdain. A confessed addict. A notorious boozer. A punk rocker. A guy with a face marked with experience and graft. And he changed the game. He showed travel for what it was. He told stories not just of places but of people. He focused on food, yes, but he used it as a conduit, as a way to tap into foreign cultures and foreign psyches, as a way to expose and to endear.
Suddenly, here was a style of travel I could aspire to. This was what I wanted to do. I wanted to hang out with Iggy Pop and Queens of the Stone Age. I wanted to go to strange places and drink lots of booze and chat to odd people and have experiences that no one at home would even believe.
Bourdain's first travel series, A Cook's Tour, was like a slap; like a shot of the roughest vodka. Here was a guy who was already a star, who'd scored his own travel show and who could have gone anywhere for that first series, who could have travelled to any country and eaten any food. And where did he go? To Pailin, Cambodia. Honestly, the middle of nowhere. He stayed in a rat-hole hotel that turned out to be a brothel. He ate really strange things. He looked genuinely disturbed, genuinely surprised to even be there. This, I was thinking, is travel.
That first series, and the accompanying book, did for me as a traveller what I'm sure Bourdain did for so many chefs and line cooks and dishwashers with his books about food. It inspired me, but it also vindicated something I already felt. His passion fired my own. His thirst for adventure fuelled one in me. So many of the places I've now been, and the meals I've now eaten, are because of him.
Anthony Bourdain introduced me to pho in that first series. He introduced me to pintxos. To sake. To oysters. To St John. To El Bulli. To nose-to-tail. To bone marrow on toast. To radishes with butter. He inspired me to go to Spain. To Portugal. To Russia. To Vietnam. To Cambodia. To Japan.
This brash New Yorker revealed himself as a brutal teller of truth – but he seemed to understand that in travel there is no objective truth, there's only your own truth. And so he told his. He was one of the first people to show that it was OK not to love everything when you travel; that when you take chances they sometimes don't come off; that you're occasionally forced to do things that are actually really boring, or embarrassing, or that just suck.
That, to me, is authentic. It's real. It's inspiring.
And he included people. Local people. Interesting people. Finally, someone was making these characters part of the TV experience. If Bourdain had a local fixer who was quirky or interesting, then he or she went on screen. If he had a producer or a director who was a real character, he or she went on screen. He got drunk with these people. He got angry. He got frustrated. It was brilliant.
He also showed what a vital part food plays in travel, how essential it is for tapping into the heart of a foreign place, for understanding history and culture, passion and pain. He ate street food, yes, and he hung out in markets, but he'd also go to the fanciest restaurant in town if it was actually good. He just wanted whatever was local, whatever was delicious, whatever would provide an experience.
"The perfect meal, or the best meals, occur in a context that frequently has very little to do with the food itself," Bourdain once said. And so it was with his TV series. They featured food. A lot of food. But the shows' perfection had very little to do with it.
And I drank it all up. There came a point many years ago when I stopped checking guidebooks when I was visiting a new place and would instead think, "Hey, I wonder if Anthony Bourdain has been here? What did he eat? Where did he go?" It was inevitably inspiring.
I'm not usually one to mourn a celebrity death. I don't know these famous people; not personally. It feels crass to jump on the grief bandwagon.
But Anthony Bourdain? Anthony Bourdain is different. He felt like a kindred spirit. I always figured I'd run into him somewhere on the road, in some far-flung place, in some weird situation. I always trusted that I'd see him out there sooner or later, that we could chat and I could tell him that I too like the Ramones and cacio e pepe and tattoos that remind me to travel, and I might even get the chance to thank him for all the inspiration.
And now I never will. That's the saddest damned thing.
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