WYTHE COUNTY, Va., Nov. 5, 2012 — For eight years and counting, American chef, author and TV personality Anthony Bourdain has had the best job on the planet. He earned his living by traveling all over the world pursuing and devouring distinctive local and national cuisines, and usually drank until he dropped—sometimes literally. He did this while meeting not only with famous chefs, but with every day people who invited him into their lives for a moment, a meal and a chat.
I have found there is very little middle ground when it comes to Anthony Bourdain: you either love him or hate him. For those of you who love him, at 9 p.m. EST this Monday, Nov. 5, on Travel Channel you can catch his final “No Reservations” episode. Along with his millions of fanatic foodie fans, I will miss him.
I will miss the delightful decadence he reveled in, almost daring someone to tell him, “Maybe you shouldn’t drink so much,” or “maybe you shouldn’t reference your drug-addled youth quite so much.” If you have watched any of his shows, you know how he would have responded, so I will leave out the signature Bourdain expletives.
He would have been brutally honest and arrogantly dismissive, both qualities of his that only serve to make watching him that much more compelling, at least for me. He always lets you know exactly who he is, and if you do not like it, too bad. He does not apologize or make excuses. He has even been known to tell the viewer to change the channel if he annoys you.
I will always appreciate what each show taught me about each country Bourdain has visited, and the people who call it home. In some shows he would travel to exotic locales around the world, then eat meals prepared by the best chefs in the world. But the meals he enjoyed that I appreciated most were the simple ones, made by simple people. His trip to Laos was an indulgence of his love for all things southeast Asian. But what he found there mesmerized him, me, and no doubt, the rest of his audience as well.
In many of his shows Tony goes native, dining with a local family serving the typical cuisine of that country. One of my favorite episodes involved just such a meal served by a poor but proud family in Laos. As the man and his family shared their history and their dinner, it became apparent that what Tony was hearing touched something deep inside him.
The man had stumbled across one of the thousands of unexploded bombs dropped on Laos by America during the Vietnam War. The resulting explosion had blown off both an arm and a leg. The crippled father held no ill will toward America, but his inability to take care of his family made him feel he was less than a man. There was an interpreter relaying the man’s words, but this was not really needed. The cadence of the man’s voice as he expressed his frustration and the anguish on the face of his wife as she listened made translation unnecessary.
All the smarmy, smart mouthed comments that usually roll off his tongue gave way to what Tony always tries to hide: he has a huge and generous heart. Tony became quiet and respectful, a humility uncharacteristic of him but obvious in his expression. At that point, I think Tony and his audience came to the same conclusion: no matter where people live, they all want the same things.
That is what I thank Anthony Bourdain most for: for making the planet a little less mysterious, and making the people who share it with us seem somehow a little more familiar. Whether he was risking life and limb rolling a four wheeler down a dune in New Zealand, or shooting a 50 caliber machine gun with Ted Nugent and a group of disabled vets in Texas, he always made me feel like I had something in common with all of them. We could all use a big dose of that, and for 8 years Anthony Bourdain regularly did that for me on his Travel Channel show.
So bon voyage, Anthony Bourdain. I will be anxiously awaiting news of your exploits to come.
Below: a video excerpt from Tony’s visit to Ben’s Chili Bowl, a Washington, D.C. institution.
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