Two years on from his death, Anthony Bourdain’s television and writing still captivates

Famous chef Anthony Bourdain left an indelible mark not only on the food industry, but on the cultural landscape as we know it

The late Anthony Bourdain once wrote that there is nothing more political than food: who’s eating, and who’s not eating? In his long and lucrative career, Bourdain wrote several books, among them Kitchen Confidential and The Nasty Bits, which unearthed the warts and all details of the restaurant business he spent most of his adult life working in. He also hosted Emmy-winning television shows No Reservations and Parts Unknown. On 8 June 2020, two years ago, he was found dead in a Strasbourg hotel room after taking his own life.  

His straightforward way of speaking, macho swagger and “pull no punches” commentary on food, drink and the respective industries distinguished him from the saccharine chirpiness of the Naked Chef, or the profane sensationalism of Gordon Ramsay, who both also graced our television screens in the early 2000s, as did his open disdain for the term “celebrity chef”.

“Instead of a sanitised portrayal of countries ravaged by war and colonialism, or voyeuristic poverty tourism, Bourdain’s television and books show an attentiveness and graciousness, and always stood strongly with the oppressed.”

Bourdain journeyed widely throughout Southeast Asia and North Africa, and his well-documented travels were punctuated by his vocal support for Palestinian liberation, and after visiting Cambodia, a desire to “beat Henry Kissinger to death with your bare hands”. Parts Unknown can be easily characterised by an immense appreciation and respect for foreign cultures and cuisines. Instead of a sanitised portrayal of countries ravaged by war and colonialism, or voyeuristic poverty tourism, Bourdain’s television and books show an attentiveness and graciousness, and always stood strongly with the oppressed. His episode in the Gaza strip, (where he broke bread and prepared traditional maqluba with a local family) earned him an award from the Muslim Public Affairs Council. While accepting this award, he said plainly that the most evil thing the world has meted out to the Palestinian people is robbing them of their basic humanity. “People are not statistics. That is all we attempted to show.”

Bourdain travelled to Ireland in the late 2000s, visiting cultural hallmarks such as the Gravedigger pub, and Roma II takeaway on Wexford Street for late-night chips and curry. Although it was not his most political episode of Parts Unknown, it was an entertaining programme mercifully free from tourist staples like overpriced pints in Temple Bar. It is interesting to observe the politicisation of food in this country within the context of Ireland’s horrific treatment of those seeking asylum. Direct provision, which leaves asylum seekers languishing in centres for years on end with limited access to cooking facilities, is a damning indictment of this state’s refusal to grant asylum seekers respect and freedom. The emergence of grassroots activist groups in Ireland such as Cooking for Freedom highlight the basic human dignity that has been robbed from asylum seekers in this state. The ability to cook for oneself, or one’s family or friends is a basic right and integral part of family and community living.

“Parts Unknown shows Bourdain making illicit visits to hash cafés in Morocco, and knocking back sake in Japan, following his own simple travel advice: ‘Drink heavily with the locals whenever possible.”

Bourdain once claimed that “your body is an amusement park, not a temple, so enjoy the ride”. Parts Unknown shows Bourdain making illicit visits to hash cafés in Morocco, and knocking back sake in Japan, following his own simple travel advice: “Drink heavily with the locals whenever possible.” While he worked in prestigious restaurants (most notably as executive chef in Brasserie les Halles) and Kitchen Confidential catalogued the debaucherous excess of the majority of his drug and alcohol-fuelled adult life, Bourdain’s life and work also demonstrates his immense recognition of food and dining as a humanising, levelling experience with an enormous capacity for bringing people together, particularly in times and places of great adversity and instability. He drove home the idea of food as a universal thing that unifies, humanises and coalesces people, something often difficult to remember while surviving on a somewhat depressing student diet of pot noodles supplemented by energy drinks, in the face of impending essay deadlines.

Nearing the end of filming a Parts Unknown episode in Beirut, Bourdain commented: “I had begun to view the dinner table as the great leveller. Where people from opposite sides of the world could always sit down and talk and eat and drink, and if not solve all the world’s problems, at least find, for a time, common ground. Now, I’m not so sure. Maybe the world’s not like that at all. Maybe in the real world, the one without cameras and happy food and travel shows, everybody, the good and the bad together, are all crushed under the same terrible wheel. I hope, I really hope, I’m wrong about that.”

Both his television and writing left an indelible mark not just on his fans, but on the cultural and political landscape of food, cooking, community and travel as we know it.”

Bourdain’s lifelong battle with depression, (which he admitted could be triggered by something as benign as a bad airport burger, which would send him spiralling into days of misery) eventually won out when he killed himself on 8 June 2018, at the age of 61. He once confessed that he understood that deep within him, there was somebody who simply wanted to lie in bed and smoke weed all day, and his entire life had to be a series of stratagems to outwit that person. His widely loved work indicates he undoubtedly succeeded in this. 

Both his television and writing left an indelible mark not just on his fans, but on the cultural and political landscape of food, cooking, community and travel as we know it. Despite his fears of the terrible, ever-grinding wheel, he indisputably cast light on the capacity for humanity and solidarity in places of great mental, geographical and political affliction and adversity.

Grace Gageby

Grace Gageby is the Deputy Comment Editor for Trinity News and studies English and Philosophy.