Honoring Anthony Bourdain
Using food to cross cultures and tell stories
Like most people, I was shocked to learn of the death of Anthony Bourdain Friday morning. Bourdain, at the age of 61, had a life full of twists and turns - from drug addiction to mastering crazy New York brunch services to his celebrity as an author to his final mastery hosting travel and food shows. Wherever in that journey you may have encountered his work, you likely walked away with a new insight. Bourdain shed light on parts of the world that are often left in the dark.
Personally, I felt deeply connected to his mission as a chef. Despite the blatant obsession over all things meat and grease-related, Bourdain had a softness. You could see it as he sat in the home of a humble rice-grower in Vietnam. You could see his warmth as he enjoyed the hospitality of a Argentinian casa. You can feel the camaraderie between himself and other chefs (even with his humble line cooks) when he ventured back into a kitchen.
Despite all of the chivalry and trash talking, Bourdain had a simple mission:
Tell a story through food.
Let's take a moment to honor him and the power of this message.
The Story of Restaurant Life
It can be hard for those who've never been in the food industry to relate to the lifestyle that it requires. While a typical job involves Monday-Friday schedules, finished by 6, weekends off, holidays free, and benefits like sick days or vacation time, the food industry is the exact opposite. The people who cook your eggs at brunch on the weekend and pour your wine on a Friday night rarely see a Sunday football game or plan a weekend getaway. Their off time, if they have any at all, is often Mondays and mornings.
So why do we do it? Why would anyone give up every weekend to serve people they don't know? Why would we forgo the lure of stability and health insurance to cook over a hot stove for meager pay?
Yes, some of us crave the adrenaline rush of a busy service. Another reason might be for the pure passion of food.
More often, though, a restaurant kitchen provides sense of structure and camraderie that we seek: The pasta is rolled on setting 7. The bacon is ready in 20 minutes. The diced onion should always be 1/4-inch diced. If the dishwashers are backed up, we jump in to help them clear the pile. If a case of artichokes comes in, the entire brigade tackles the daunting task of cleaning and trimming them.
Bourdain describes "...It was very hard work. You had to be there on time. There were certain absolute rules. And for whatever reason, I responded to that. It was a mix of chaos but also considerable order that I guess I needed at the time".
This sense of order and structure often calls to a wide spectrum of people. Go into any restaurant kitchen. Sure, you'll see a few culinary grads and a few self-taught cooks. But mostly you'll see ex-cons, immigrants, people on the margins. Regardless of the fanciness of their knives, all of these personalities are seeking that sense of order. You start at the bottom, you show consistency, you stay loyal, and you work your way up. In order for the team to succeed, you have to get along with all of these people. The kitchen forces you to interact with people of all backgrounds and speak that common language of food.
Specifically with the previously incarcerated, restaurants provide an opportunity to find community, steady work, and stability. Karim Webb, a restaurant owner in Southern Los Angeles describes how he views hiring an ex-offender. "Instead of seeing someone as being straight out of juvenile detention or jail, we see people who are underloved and who have not been shown how to be excellent. They have skill sets, but not enough people give them a chance. We give them a chance not only to use their skills but to develop them."
Bourdain shed light on these marginalized people. In his book Kitchen Confidential, he finally took us behind the scenes to see some truths of the food world. In the 30 years since that book was published, some things have changes (specifically when it comes to the freshness of the seafood and the role of women in the kitchen), but its truth of the kitchen family remains consistent.
The Story of Travel: Argentina, Peru, and Beyond
Before I fell in love with food, I fell in love with travel. There was a calling to explore, to wander. Early memories of National Geographic stories piqued an insatiable curiosity to find the real-world versions of my fantasy lands.
Bourdain also had this hunger for travel. His curiosity led him to his first television show, A Cook's Tour, which ran over 15 years ago. He toured across exotic countries, sharing the cultures and cuisines he discovered.
I remember his more recent explorations. After watching an episode of No Reservations where he visited Argentina, I was struck by the unkown beauty of this country. Bourdain struck a curiosity I didn't even know I had. Argentina? Why not? Despite the constant meat parade that filled the episode, the backdrop was gauchos, glaciers, and a diverse population with a melting of stories. It immediately made me want to go.
Bourdain had this travel-bug effect on many of his viewers. Male, female, foodie, or backpacker, we knew it was highly unlikely we would end up in the same Peruvian cocoa plantations that he visited. Yet he had a manner that spoke to all of us: Get out there. Explore. Be Curious. Taste.
I will miss hearing about his new destinations. I will miss his sardonic one-liners comparing bad tippers to whale feces. But the images and stories he told will always stay with me.
The Story of War: Congo
For anyone who's traveled to Africa, it leaves a shadow on your heart that nags at you from time to time. Whether you've seen the burning Saharan sun, a wild Botswana safari, or the lush South African vineyards, the beauty is striking. Lions, giraffes, elephants, and monkeys take your breath away. The glowing smiles and rich, ebony skin of the locals shout "joy" in your memories.
And yet, there is extreme hunger and flimsy housing. Children die of diseases whose mere existence befuddles us in the Western world: Polio? Cholera? Dysentery?
Women walk miles balancing buckets of clean water on their heads. Half of the population of sub-Sahara Africa lives on a mere $1.90 per day. How could a land that is so beautiful also be full of so much extreme struggle?
You only need to look at the popular tourist sites to be reminded of the cause of the current reality. Slave fortresses line the Gold Coast of Ghana. Apartheid prisons remind you where Mandela sat for decades. A spreading war over oil and territory threatens the pyramids. Visiting Africa, one sees the beauty of a country juxtaposed with the enduring devastation of the white man's evil history.
Bourdain's episode on the Congo shed a light on the dark story that festered there...
"It would be obscene to go to the Congo looking to do a food show...This wealthy in natural resources - this massive country, such a - I was sort of obsessed with this - the tragically-little-known history of this very complicated country. And I wanted to talk about it."
He shed a light on the dark corners of the Congo. He also visited a rice farmer in Vietnam. He was in lockdown while filming in Beirut, Lebanon. He filmed in Myanmar and Libya. Bourdain, simply by exploring with open curiosity, was able to expose us to these neglected parts of the world.
War can often fatigue us with headlines of missile strikes and death tolls. Bourdain was able to reawaken our awareness by finding the essence of the local people affected by such destruction.
"After a week or two here, even confirmed carnivores like myself will fall to their knees praying for a vegetable."
Chef Anthony Bourdain and myself cook with different sets of ingredients. While I glorify the beauty of plants, he was rarely longing for something green. However, we shared a kindred passion for cooking, for telling stories, and travel. We both have thrived on that deep need to connect people through food.
May we honor his legacy.
May we seek the things that bring us together.
May we share more meals and ask more questions.
This life is incredibly fragile. Savor each moment.
If you or a loved one might be contemplating suicide, please reach out NOW to the suicide prevention line: 1-800-273-8255
PROFESSIONALS EXPLAIN WHY THEY HIRE EX-OFFENDERS: The case for hiring former offenders, direct from the people who hire them, by Lisa Arnett: https://www.usfoods.com/your-business/business-trends/professionals-explain-why-they-hire-ex-offenders.html
Hunger Notes: African Hunger Facts: https://www.worldhunger.org/africa-hunger-poverty-facts/
About the Author:
Chef Katie Simmons
Katie is a Personal Chef based in Chicago. She specializes in creating delicious, healthy recipes for those with special dietary concerns like gluten-free, oil-free, plant-based, and low-residue. Outside of the kitchen, she is a Fitness Instructor for Equinox, with over 13 years experience in the fitness industry, and a blogger for Kuli Kuli Foods. For fun, she loves to travel, with her favorite trips including 4-days on the Incan Trail, 10 days of hiking in the Patagonia of Argentina and Chile, 5 months backpacking in New Zealand, and exploring the fascinating flavors of Northern India. She loves Curry spice almost as much as warm hoodies and running along the Lakefront.