When I watched Anthony Bourdain crouch at a small plastic stool with a hot bowl of noodles, I knew. I wanted that.
My love for Bourdain isn’t unique–you could almost call it cliche. But that’s what made him so epic: his rockstar ability to create a cult-like following that revolves around food, travel, and general human interest.
When you knew about him, you knew about him. You respected him. You learned from him. You were inspired by him.
I only “discovered” Bourdain about six months before he died. I didn’t have CNN and somehow had never come across his years on TV or his plethora of books until a Christmas party in 2017 when someone’s dad started talking about Parts Unknown and how he was a master at levelling with people over all kinds of dishes around the globe. I was intrigued.
Colby and I started bingeing The Layover and No Reservations, the only Bourdain shows on Canadian Netflix at the time. We bought Kitchen Confidential a month later and read it on the beach during our trip to Costa Rica. Having never worked in the restaurant industry, I was fascinated–both by the nuggets of knowledge he dropped and his painfully honest way of storytelling.
I had always loved good food, but I became borderline obsessed. The way I travelled changed and I wanted to learn from every place I visited like he seemed to. Anthony’s no bullshit attitude was addicting and it was intoxicating to watch the way he dug into city after city. It added fuel to my already blazing wanderlust and left me craving foods I had never tasted.
WWAE?–What Would Anthony Eat?–quickly became a motto when I travelled and at home alike.
I went to Thailand and Vietnam about a year after I watched that first episode; by then, Netflix Canada had posted a bunch of Parts Unknown seasons, which I guzzled down once and then again after his death. I took notes during the Chiang Mai and Hanoi episodes. Like any fan travelling abroad, I built a Bourdain bucket list of food stalls, restaurants, and general dishes to savour on my trip.
My first night in Chiang Mai I wandered a back street and settled on a plastic stool ready for whatever the woman working the small grill wanted to bring me. The second night, I jumped out of a tuck-tuck when I spotted the famous Cowboy Hat Lady who served stewed pork leg that Anthony had visited. This was just the first starstruck eating experience of the trip–soon came places like Banh Mi Phuong in Hoi An and The Lunch Lady in Saigon. I didn’t make it to the same place he and Obama feasted over Bun Cha in Hanoi, but I found some other damn-good spots and thought of him when I dug into that delicious grilled pork.
Thailand and Vietnam definitely attract people who are passionate about food (and converts others who aren’t already). So it’s no surprise that, when I went to a cooking class in Chiang Mai, I found a tribe of die-hard Bourdain fans. Instantly, a group of strangers from around the world were connected, a natural side effect of Bourdain-ism.
The way Anthony was able to highlight the importance of coming together to cook and eat bleeds into so many aspects of life. He was opinionated and witty but also an extraordinary listener and remarkably open-minded (even despite his hatred for vegetarians and hipsters).
The greatest traits he demonstrated for millions were simple–the kinds of things we want to see in all people in order to have a symbiotic society, but sadly don’t. Knowing how to provide food is one. He once said, “Basic cooking skills are a virtue… the ability to feed yourself and a few others with proficiency should be taught to every young man and woman as a fundamental skill. [It’s] as vital to growing up as learning to wipe one’s own ass, cross the street by oneself, or be trusted with money.”
Being honest is another, clearly–which he always did while keeping an open ear.
This isn’t to say he was flawless–of course he wasn’t. Nobody is and he clearly had some inner demons he battled with. But, despite all this, whether it was as true in life beyond what we saw on TV, he demonstrated how someone can be decent, successful in bringing others together, and an advocate, without sacrificing who they are.
I hate that he left one year ago today, but I also believe his death acted as one last priceless lesson to everyone who admired him. Wrapped up in this dark tragedy is the fact that there is always more than meets the eye–that we’re all deeply layered and capable of breaking.
Anthony inspired me as a cook, an eater, a traveller, and a writer. He made me want to do all these things unapologetically at 100%, but he also made me want to really listen–and to ask questions just as often, if not more, than I try to provide answers. And, for that, I’m grateful.