By Prarthana Mitra
Several epithets describing Anthony Bourdain have come to light after his death. Renowned celebrity chef, culinary storyteller, globetrotting renegade, TV show host, food journalist and author, Bourdain’s untimely demise last week in France, reportedly from a suicide, has left his fans, colleagues and friends shocked and aghast.
As the whole world tries to reconcile his spirited public image with accounts of depressive episodes that have since emerged, Bourdain leaves behind a bittersweet legacy of his magnificent body of work, especially as anecdotes and eulogies come pouring in for the man who taught the world how to tell stories about “other” cultures. He has even been touted by Vulture as the best white man, a title I largely agree with despite the derivative rhetoric.
A rare mix of humility and confidence
Bourdain, over the course of filming his celebrated CNN series Parts Unknown, shed light on what responsible and sincere coverage of diasporic cuisine looks like.
According to The Atlantic, Bourdain used his tremendous platform to show his audience how their lives were entangled with those of other people. He realised that political and historical survey not only served as a backdrop to culinary storytelling but also illuminates unique aspects of othered cultures- thus doing away with the hegemony of western ones.
Unflinching about his political convictions, Bourdain never minced his words or hesitated to venture into the hearts of conflict-ridden zones, with the sole purpose to tell stories about people who are often dehumanised by the western media.
In his coverage of Beirut, a missile landed somewhere in the background as he was conversing with the locals and savouring the cuisine. The episode that aired was unedited, featuring the shaky camera, the lopsided frame and Bourdain’s stunned expression upon wheeling around. He later went on to describe the strained relations with Syria and Lebanon’s own internal conflicts, the generosity of the locals despite their daily struggles and simplicity of their culture and cuisine, over the rest of the episode.
In Laos, he lambasted the CIA for leaving the country strewn with unexploded landmines; in Gaza and Iran, he empathised and stressed on the humanity. He travelled to Puerto Rico after the island nation was hit by a terrible hurricane. In Congro, Trinidad and Mozambique, he was able to present authentic glimpses into life in the African subcontinent, with clever subversions of stereotypical images propagated by the west.
Throughout his prolific career, he advocated solidarity with undocumented workers in the restaurant industry. He naturally gravitated towards people dealt a bad hand by history, politics and economics, without ever victimising them or exploiting their suffering. Instead, he was gifted at unearthing the signs of internal revival, cultural dynamism and striving determination, with humility and objectivity.
With a rare mix of ideology and flamboyance, Bourdain told poignant and political stories about food, which he believed to be intricately linked with the cultures, histories and lives of the people. Revered and remembered for his tasteful storytelling of “exotic” cuisines across his extensive travels through Asia and Africa, those close to him have spoken up about Bourdain’s ethics, perspective and respect for indigenous cuisines. As Jenny Yang tells Vulture, “Bourdain never treated our food like he ‘discovered’ it.”
Prarthana Mitra is a staff writer at Qrius.