Food is everything we are. It’s an extension of nationalist feeling, ethnic feeling, your personal history, your province, your region, your tribe, your grandma. It’s inseparable from those from the get-go.
Anthony Bourdain, June 25, 1956-June 8, 2018
He was brash, he cursed on air, he told it like it was. He strayed from the beaten path, preferring instead to highlight and essentially promote those lesser known destinations (i.e. locales most travelers wouldn’t touch with a five foot pole). He could look like a (well-aging) rocker, wearing his style and not society’s. And that’s what made Anthony Bourdain, ‘Uncle Tony,’ one of a kind.
I can’t remember when I first became aware of Bourdain. As I’ve mentioned before, my foodie awakening only happened in my later 20s. Prior to that I was just obsessed with visiting as many countries as possible, with my meals in these foreign destinations serving as almost an afterthought. But then I started occasionally watching some episodes of his Travel Channel show No Reservations, a program about food and travel, and I was hooked.
If you’re not familiar with it, the premise of No Reservations was simple- the host (Bourdain) would visit destinations both domestically and internationally, where hosts would then treat him to local culture and cuisine. The thing I always liked about Bourdain is that for him it was never about visiting iconic landmarks but rather bringing to light those elements, those neat features of the local culture that wouldn’t necessarily be written about in a Rick Steves or Fodors guidebook.
I’ve said this countless times but I will be forever grateful for my three study abroad (and then one post-college job abroad) experiences because they allowed me to truly become entrenched in the local culture. I don’t at all subscribe to the whole “tourist versus traveler” debate but I do feel there’s a huge difference between a traveler and a (temporary) local which is what I was during my study abroad periods. I’m sure there are many meals I’ve had while traveling that Bourdain would have sneered at (or even worse) such as my abysmal Chinese meal in Paris’ 7th arrondissement. But then there are two that will forever stand out and hopefully would have garnered a nod of approval from Uncle Tony- my authentic paella meal made by a woman who served as hostess/waitress/and cook that I shared with my dad in a hole in the wall spot in Seville’s Arenal neighborhood, and my Prague food tour, because the guide Eva made the nearly 5 hour tour feel more like an authentic home cooked meal, just held at half a dozen spots around the city.
Don’t get me wrong, I also loved the well known destinations that Bourdain visited because obviously when he traveled somewhere, viewers weren’t getting the equivalent of TripAdvisor’s most popular attractions and eateries. But to be honest, my two favorite episodes of all time featured locales that many seasoned travelers would turn up their noses at visiting. But as Bourdain once said in an interview about his upcoming seventh season of No Reservations, “I’m making a deliberate effort to avoid complacency and take the show to places tourists don’t seek out—physically, and in some cases mentally.” And what could be more appropriate than places like Haiti and Mozambique?
He visited Haiti just over a year after the devastating earthquake that struck in 2010. There was food, sure, but Haiti and its people and its terrible blighted history that continues to this day were the main attractions. Bourdain brought focus and attention to places the rest of the world had either forgotten about or was indifferent to. And Mozambique is a country that could rival Haiti on the heartbreak scale- colonial rule, civil war, poverty, hunger. As one entertainment reviewer said about the episode, “it went beyond serious– straight to depressing.” And yet that was Bourdain. He didn’t make his show for the narrow minded people of the world, for those individuals who would never dare try something new, or travel outside of their comfort zone. He made it for those who did have their eyes open, who always crave and want more, especially when it comes to their food.
The best thing you can do to honor Uncle Tony’s memory is to keep traveling, both near and far, never stop exploring especially where your stomach is concerned, and remember that food is the best bridge for people, cultures, and views. It’s the one thing that can always bring people together.
Here’s to you Uncle Tony. May your culinary and travel adventures be continuing on the other side.