Critic's Notebook: Anthony Bourdain, a Master of Human Connection Through Food

More than anything, the late Anthony Bourdain wanted us to not feel isolated — to not feel alone in the world.
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Anthony Bourdain

As with many of us who never had the opportunity to enjoy the steak frites at Brasserie Les Halles, my first exposure to Anthony Bourdain came through 2000's Kitchen Confidential.

The book was a raucous chronicle of the highs and lows of restaurant life, a rock 'n' roll peek behind the curtain of a world unknown, if you never had the opportunity to work in the food service industry. The vignettes were full of drug use, colorful language and horrifying truths about the food we eat and the people who prepare it. The tendency to crown Bourdain, who died this week at the age of 61, as the Hunter S. Thompson of the kitchen was irresistible.

It wasn't an incorrect tendency, but it was surely reductive. Bourdain became a television sensation, and every step of his career can be traced through a visible attempt to distance himself from being just That Food Guy. The titles go from A Cook's Tour to No Reservations to The Layover to Parts Unknown. The networks go from Food Network to Travel Channel to CNN. Bourdain started with a tapestry of sharpened chopping implements, multilingual line cooks and aromatic ingredients and ended with a tapestry that was the entire world.

In recent years, I've joked that I liked Bourdain's shows best when he stuck with food, making me one of the idiotic viewers in Stardust Memories telling Woody Allen's character that they preferred his early funny movies. The "Hunter S. Thompson of the kitchen" appellation wasn't one that Bourdain requested, nor did he request the more accurate classification that he was the Claude Lévi-Strauss of the television age. I'll give it to him, though.

Bourdain's shows may have stepped further and further away from being exclusively food-based, but they never lost the keen awareness that to understand a place you had to understand the people, and that in order to understand the people you had to spend time with them — and there's no better way to see people at their most relaxed and exposed than to watch them eat.

The food/travel television genre has many variations, and there will always be an audience for shows in which a wide-eyed host globe-trots in search of diverse preparations of testicles or pizzas the size of a Mazda. Meaning truly no offense to the hosts of those shows, but many of them have a thesis that's only slightly more sophisticated than "Man, people in other parts of the world eat gross shit."

With Bourdain, there was rarely the sense that he was seeking out the weird or exoticized. Make no mistake, he ate some strange things, but he maintained a pretty clear idea that he was eating those things because he was with people who ate those things — and his doing so wasn't a symbol of machismo or adventurousness, but rather an expression of bonhomie and a desire to be part of a conversation in which whatever he ate belonged to a tradition and a history connecting food to economic status, to religion, to art.

Bourdain always seemed to be acutely aware that his chosen genre was one built on something paternalistic, an "I am an American come to pass judgment on the globe before participating in and facilitating Western encroachment." Still, Bourdain preferred to travel with people, to visit with old friends and to make new ones, again breaking bread as a way of forging ties and building relationships. He wanted to learn and not just to express confusion or enthusiasm or horror at a devoured scorpion or carefully prepared plate of offal. Don't get me wrong. Bourdain did plenty of that. It just wasn't his primary objective. One of his most regular modes was a blasé attitude that could have been misread as indifference, but more frequently was intended to show how he was trying to make what he was doing appear commonplace. As his TV persona evolved, it went from Bourdain merely going from one position of comfort to another — viewing the world through a food prism — to one position of discomfort to another. If you have 24 to 48 hours in a place, how much can you experience? How do you make a place you've never visited feel like a place you know and how do you make a place you think you know and have experienced feel fresh and rejuvenated?

Back in April, ABC's recently cancelled Roseanne got in some hot water with critics for a dismissive joke in which Roseanne attempted to catch her husband up on a night of inclusive sitcom programming by snidely declaring, "They're just like us. There, now you're all caught up."

The reason the joke pissed so many of us off is that Black-ish and Fresh Off the Boat aren't shows about how black families or Asian families are "just like us." They're special because they're about how those families are distinctive and unique.

No matter where Bourdain went, he never wanted the take-away to be, "Cambodians are just like us" or "Lebanese are just like us." He treasured cultural difference and viewed it all as worthy of recognition and understanding. He wasn't about homogenization; he was about not being isolated in the world, not being lonely.

That was his message, and in an age in which politicians celebrate "America First!" and the word "globalism" has become an anti-Semitic dog whistle, the loss of Anthony Bourdain is one that cuts deep.