Why Anthony Bourdain still matters to everyoneHe relished the unseen, explored the unknown, and gave his followers a taste of humanity.
It’s easy to imagine Anthony Bourdain sitting in a nondescript bhatti, swilling raksi and spooning kachila into his mouth.
A couple of locals might regale him with the food’s heritage, but it wouldn’t take long for the conversation to transcend taste. Bourdain’s deep and dulcet monologue would delve into Nepal’s history, politics and social problems, then he’d inevitably interrogate his hosts about the guthi protests and the media council bill.
Bourdain was first a chef but eventually and variously, he was a food writer—author of the best-selling Kitchen Confidential—and a television producer and presenter— famed for his travel and food shows, most recently, CNN’s Parts Unknown. He traversed borders around the world, and educated the masses on places they either believed to be unreachable or unworthy of visiting.
Libya, Liberia, Congo; Lebanon, Iran, Saudi Arabia—there are not many places Bourdain didn't go. However, tragically, he never experienced the wonders of Nepal. Bourdain took his own life last year, sending leagues of adoring fans into mourning. While a majority of us never met the man, he had become a friend, a confidante, a pseudo godfather and a cool uncle—all in one. His absence stings, but his legacy lives on in all that knew him. And, because June 25 marks his birthday, his friends and fans are celebrating him customarily: with libations and good stories.
It’s been 10 years since I first dived into a Bourdain wormhole, which seared him into my subconscious. I bought a pair of his favourite brand of sunglasses and started to listen to his favourite music too. But, above all, I started looking at everything differently.
People first thought of Bourdain as someone who ate weird food, but it didn’t take long to understand that his modus operandi was entirely different. He used food as a bobby pin to jimmy societal and cultural doors open, to meet the people behind them. Others would fetishise the so-called ‘odd’ foods, but he would use the still-beating cobra heart or fermented shark to peel back layers of culture to create understanding. Perhaps, in Nepal, it might have been a wee packet of sapu mhicha or boiled sargemba through which he would take apart the existing whiffs of a historic caste system and today’s politics.
This is why, arriving in Nepal for the first time, foreigners murmurs about local food being same-same, make my blood boil. What about the aila, chyang, jaand, and tongba? Or the yangben, fokso or street-side makai? Why don’t certain groups eat pork? Why do Nepalis only consume two quotidian meals? Looking further than plate-deep into these stories, they reveal themselves as foundational threads speaking to a much larger social tapestry.
Of the things Bourdain inadvertently taught his followers, though, was understanding. We live in a time when bilious hate-mongers stoke difference-fuelled fear, but Bourdain’s intrepid and courageous works were a beacon of tolerance. The things he showed us were palpable and recognisable—even if they were on the opposite side of the world, in countries struggling under the weight of war, political conflict and historical strife. He showed us all that we want to eat, and we want to be happy. He showed us that deep down, we’re really all the same.
While Bourdain won’t be able to celebrate his birthday with swills of local hooch, we should all leave him a place at the table and toast our absent friend.
To commemorate Anthony Bourdain’s life and legacy, chefs, friends and fans will be celebrating by toasting him from around the world today. Wherever you are, share your tributes and memories using the hashtag #BourdainDay.