The news of Anthony Bourdain’s death hit us while on the train to our hotel in Busan.
All I could say when I got the alert on my phone was: “Oh my God”, and show the headline to Cameron.
We became familiar with Mr. Bourdain’s style through different channels: a copy of Kitchen Confidential passed on by a friend (which we still have) and watching No Reservations on cable. Eventually, I read Kitchen Confidential, and we continued to watch No Reservations (Travel Channel) and Parts Unknown (CNN) sometimes. Eventually, more than a show, these became a reference. Through my years of watching and reading Bourdain’s work, I’ve learned a few things. I think we both have.
Food is an experience that can lead to other experiences – the most memorable passage in Kitchen Confidential (to me) is the part of the book when Bourdain is describing his culinary awakening as a young kid by having his first vichyssoise. As he explains in the book, vichyssoise is a difficult dish. Not only is it a fish soup, but it’s cold. Now, I’ve never had vichyssoise, but the way he describes in the book realizing through that cold soup that food was meant to be savored and discovered, and could be such a joyous part of our lives if only we allowed it to be was incredibly powerful. I’ve become more intentional in my cooking over the years, and I think part of it started when I read that description of what vichyssoise did for a young Bourdain and how it awoke his culinary curiosity. I should say, I’m not the most adventurous of eaters. However, over the years, I think I’ve made a better effort at paying attention to what my food tastes like, the spice palate it contains, and what goes into my food.
One of the most memorable travel experiences we’ve had (and if you’d been there, you could have definitely pictured Bourdain doing the same thing) was Cameron eating at a small fishing village in Leshan (China). There were barely any people around (it was December, not exactly peak travel season in China), but there was an old lady selling noodles from her home. It was definitely not the best noodle dish we’ve ever had (I had a few bites) but the experience of eating these noodles from this lady we will never see again in this tiny Chinese village was somehow so great. We were sitting on the floor, there were not many amenities, and again, the dish wasn’t anything special (or was it?). This anecdote leads me to my next takeaway:
Food helps us when we can’t understand other people (most of the time): food can be highly misunderstood and diluted to a point where it looks nothing like the original. On the other hand, it can make places seem less scary – I think this was a big part of what Bourdain tried to do with his shows. In a lot of ways, I think the way he approached eating in his shows made “less formal” eateries be more accessible to people that would normally not leave their comfort zone. There will be instances when the attempt will not be very successful (our first attempt at ordering at a Chinese restaurant upon arriving in Shanghai – I cried at the sight of so many unfamiliar mushrooms!). In other instances, they can be incredibly rewarding (all the Uighur food!).
To this day, we still follow what Cameron calls “the Bourdain rule of restaurants”. When in doubt, find the places with lots of locals. If there’s a line, even better. Can’t say it’s failed us. If it has, I can’t remember.
Bourdain made traveling and exploring seem attainable and normal and even expected. His shows became almost mandatory research when it came to going to a new place – you pick up a travel guide and take notes from the corresponding episode of No Reservations or Parts Unknown. There’s a reason why restaurant owners keep his picture on their walls – they know that a previous Bourdain visit is at this point maybe a better vouch that a place is good than a certificate of excellence from TripAdvisor (although the latter should not be taken lightly, given that TripAdvisor’s reputation lays on the reviews).
I could write all day here. I could write about going to hear Bourdain speak during his book tour for Medium Raw (dead-on funny and relatable, like listening to a friend you haven’t seen in a while – that friend you’re living vicariously through because they travel more than you) or expectantly waiting to watch an episode for a place I had visited (or the Dominican Republic episode for that matter) and seeing someone committed to demonstrating that we, as people, are more connected than we think, and that the world is full of beauty and we should go see all of it.
Incredibly sad as we both were to read about the news of his passing, to us at Nomadic Gregors, it was somewhat poetically beautiful that we got to read the news doing exactly what Bourdain, among others, inspire us to do as much as possible: travel and explore, not dismiss any places based on preconceptions, make the best of the bad situations, don’t try to plan everything – traveling or otherwise. As we are coming back to the United States for our next teaching stint, we can’t help think about how China and Korea were both places where we didn’t really plan on going. I had, in fact, told Cameron I was not moving to China under any circumstances when we first started considering moving abroad. Both were incredibly rewarding – we saw places we didn’t even know existed, made some of the best friends we have and learned a lot about ourselves. And while returning to the States was, as those places were back then, not our first option, we are ready for what’s coming. We’re ready for Hawaii and we’ll make the best of it, see as much as possible, smile, be respectful, and try as much of the food as we can manage. I think at the end of the day, what Bourdain tried to show through his books and his shows and his adventures was that we can feel at home anywhere, that the world doesn’t have to be scary and unknown. That going out there and exploring makes us better people.
I believe Mr. Bourdain leaves a legacy of teaching people to be open-minded and find ways to understand each other. Sometimes food is the only way we have and that’s okay. I’ll be sure to follow that wonderful message and look forward to trying vichyssoise someday.