Remembering Anthony Bourdain, one of my favorite writers and biggest inspirations
Friends of mine often joke that I'm a young Anthony Bourdain, and I can't really think of a better compliment to receive. In my writing, storytelling, and in the way I travel the world, I try to emulate him more than anybody else I can think of. Waking up to learn that he had taken his own life was a shock. Thinking back now on the time I started reading him and watching his shows, I realize just how much he was there as I traveled and saw the world open up before me.
I first moved to Asia nearly nine years ago. I had three months to prepare for the trip, and I had just discovered his show No Reservations. It was the early days of Netflix, and one by one, I received the DVDs in the mail. I savored each one. I had read Kitchen Confidential, and had been bartending in a Chicago restaurant and drinking with the cooks after work, so I was pretty familiar with one side of him. Discovering his show was revelatory. I couldn't remember seeing another TV host actually seem normal, likable, and like the kind of person who would fit right in with my friends and I. The show got me hyped up to travel, but I didn't think about it too much once I was on the road.
I taught English in a small city in Thailand for five months. During a weekend trip to Bangkok, I picked up bootleg copies of his books The Nasty Bits, and A Cook's Tour in a shop along Khao San Road. I devoured those books, immediately enamored of his writing style. It was unlike any travel writing I'd read before, like a mix of Paul Theroux and Hunter S. Thompson. It was the perfect balance of innocent discovery and teaching, of kindness and snark, of the beautiful and ugly. I wanted to write like that, and I tried. I think I even succeeded, although too well, as I was basically ripping off his style.
After I finished teaching I went traveling through Cambodia and Vietnam. I think that a lot of people imagine that their travels will mirror Bourdain's, but in the end most people just follow the backpacker trail, eating the backpacker food, wearing the backpacker clothes, and drinking the nights away with other backpackers. I was determined not to do that. I don't know if it was the time I spent teaching English and immersed in a local culture, something unique to me, or that I just really wanted to be like Bourdain, but whatever it was, it worked.
After an all nighter drinking with a new Cambodian friend, we took a bus from Siem Reap to Battambang, only to realize four hours later it was the bus to Phnom Penh - the complete opposite direction. It worked out great the next day when we were sharing a meal with his family in a village where a lot of the people hadn't even seen a white guy before. A week later in a tiny village in the Mekong Delta, I was drinking shots of homemade rice hooch, being asked to slaughter the duck for dinner, and falling in love with beautiful Vietnamese girl.
I tried moving back home twice after that, and both times I made it less than a year. I now live mostly nomadically, spending seven or eight months per year in Southeast Asia, with visits home and to other destinations in between. I still try to travel the same way, with a sense of adventure, curiosity, outgoingness, and most importantly, humility. I think Anthony Bourdain's humility is what made him successful. It's what allowed him to get away with all of his snark, sarcasm, negativity, and dickishness. In spite of all of his success, he stayed humble.
By pretty much all accounts, he was just a good guy. A chef I know posted a tribute to him on Facebook, and a cook commented about the time Bourdain ate at their restaurant and slipped a few hundred bucks to the kitchen to get drinks that night. A New Yorker article I read noted that it was always easy to get a quote or an interview with him, even for a small publication. Where most celebrities put up a wall of PR people between them and the public, he was right there. He was loyal to his friends and collaborators. He had the same camera crew team since he started in television, and they formed their own production company together. When he could, he would buy music for his show from small, local bands and musicians.
I've never seen an outpouring for a celebrity death like this before. People I know from all over the world seem genuinely heartbroken. I can't think of any other celebrity who was so out there publicly, whose every opinion on just about everything was well-known, and who still managed to stay so well-liked. And even in these hyper-political times, for a guy who expressed so many liberal views, I haven't really seen any criticism of him from the right either before or after his death.
Anthony Bourdain was a huge inspiration to me, and I now realize to millions of others as well. I hope that his legacy will live on in making people a little more open minded about other people, other cultures, and other cuisines. He tried to walk in other people's shoes, and he carried us along for the journey. It was a great ride. Thank you, chef.