Friday, July 6, 2018

A Dog On a Short Chain: A Belated Tribute to Anthony Bourdain

CNN / Parts Unknown
Anthony Bourdain was the Hemingway of gastronomy.
           – Marco Pierre White, chef and restauranteur

For almost a month I have had a great deal of difficulty trying to capture the impact Tony Bourdain has had on me. Not just his revelations surrounding the culinary arts, but his overall and consuming look on life and the best ways to enjoy it to the fullest. How could I maintain proper reverence while at the same time paying tribute to Bourdain’s compelling irreverence?

Anthony Bourdain took his own life in his hotel room in the small village of Kaysersberg, in eastern France near Strasbourg, on Friday, June 8. He was approaching his 62nd birthday. I was dumbstruck when a good friend texted me with the news early that morning. The wind left my sails and I sat quietly unable to drink my morning coffee. Once I slowly gathered my wits about me I began to search the Internet and social media for details which still remained murky at best. How was it possible that a seemingly vibrant and vital alpha male known for his frequent acerbic, sardonic, and no holds bar opinions, could succumb to suicide? What was the fount of his pain from which there seemed no escape? The answers escaped me. They still do.

Later that evening Anderson Cooper eulogized his friend and colleague, as so many of us realized we had also lost "a friend, a travel companion, who was always up for an adventure." For Bourdain, food was an entré to new and exciting discoveries, some beyond the restaurant and home kitchen and table . . . and more often than not at a street food stall in some far away back alley in some little known locale. Patrick Radden Keefe, in a profile of Bourdain appearing in The New Yorker last year, called him an "evangelist for street food." The bottom line . . . "food isn’t everything." The place where it is prepared and consumed, are also important. That said, Bourdain was a firm believer you can eat anything, and wherever he traveled, when someone offered him food, they were telling him a story about themselves. He proved this time and time again, even when he ate the "nasty bits" along with culinary triumphs. Bourdain tweeted: "Travel isn’t always pretty. It isn’t always comfortable. Sometimes it hurts, it even breaks your heart. But that’s okay. The journey changes you; it should change you . . . You take something with you. Hopefully, you leave something good behind."

Known as a one of the earliest "celebrity" chefs, a culinary and cultural critic and bad ass, a philosopher, even a poet of sorts, he was on location near Strasbourg filming an episode on Alsatian food and culture for Parts Unknown, his most recent travel series on CNN. In announcing his passing, his network colleagues praised him and his exploration of "different cultures with intrigue and respect," adding that "Bourdain embraced the unknown without trepidation. He allowed the people he met to tell their stories, all while encouraging others to listen and learn." That seems to be a general consensus. "What struck me most about him was his curiosity and his passion not only for food but for the people behind the food,"writes Yotam Ottolenghi, chef, restaurateur, and cookbook writer. "He was someone who challenged us to see the world and its cultures through food." I am one of them. Daniel Vaughn, barbecue editor at Texas Monthly put it succinctly: "Tony made the world seem smaller, and reminded everyone that what we all have in common is greater than what divides us."

Upon learning of Bourdain’s sudden and tragic death in eastern France, I recalled my own culinary discoveries in Kaysersberg and the nearby Riquewihr 47 years ago while attending university on the other side of the Rhine in Freiburg im Breisgau, Germany. I joined some of my German friends and neighbors when we frequently crossed the nearby French border and traveled the short distance to these villages in the foothills of the Vosges mountains which I could see from my apartment window in Freiburg. There we sampled dishes which challenged my Midwestern meat and potatoes sensibilities. I was still eating meat and potatoes, but not in any fashion I would have recognized had I not done what Bourdain taught so many of us. How better to learn about a people and their culture than to eat their food and in the manner in which they prepare it? Dishes like choucroute, fleischnacka, quenelles de foie, and bibeleskas reflect the strong German influences in a region passed back and forth between Germany and France. These dishes were similar to ones I had first discovered in Germany, yet still they were different in some way that made them a new discovery. My favorite though were the Escargots à l'Alsacienne. I had never eaten snails before, and I would come to measure all I have eaten since by this version prepared in a butter sauce rich with garlic, shallots, and parsley . . . and washed down with a local Riesling, or better yet, a cold and frothy Kronenbourg, the local Alsatian beer. I was doing then what Bourdain would later preach every chance he got. "If you’re twenty-two, physically fit, hungry to learn and be better, I urge you to travel as far and as widely as possible. Sleep on floors if you have to. Find out how other people live and eat and cook. Learn from them wherever you go." I did just that. I’m still doing it.

I have been an allegiant Bourdain fan ever since I first read his 2000 memoir Kitchen Confidential described as adventures in the "Culinary Underbelly" of New York where he was the executive chef of Manhattan’s now defunct Brasserie Les Halles. I caught glimpses of this culture while attending high school. For a year I worked in the kitchen of a local "upscale restaurant" in Richmond, Indiana. The fact that it was a restaurant attached to the local Holiday Inn tells you that it is probably not in close proximity to New York’s underbelly. I also worked for two years in the kitchen of a nursing home in my native Chicago. Still not quite the same thing. My father-in-law was in the hospitality industry when my wife and I first met and were married, and I had another close look at this culture in Tulsa and suburban Kansas City. More recently my son worked at a restaurant in DC after graduating from college, and the stories he told resurrected old experiences and memories. Again, perhaps not in the same league with Manhattan eateries, yet many of the things Bourdain wrote about in Kitchen Confidential resonated with me and rang true.

I have read all of Bourdain’s books and I have been a regular and religious viewer of his Cook’s Tour on the Food Channel in 2002-2003; the subsequent No Reservations (2005-2012) on the Travel Channel (in 2011, the Travel Channel added a second Bourdain show, The Layover, to its roster); and for the past eight seasons CNN’s Parts Unknown. "Shows which could naively be reduced to being about food or travel, yet were really just brilliant meditations on culture, boundaries, sociology and the human condition," The Observer reported. "He was an eternal student, hungry to absorb the essence of that which was placed before him, not so that he may simply consume it, but so that he could translate its essence back unto us." Their collective episodes are a testament to Bourdain choosing the road less traveled. "We are, after all, citizens of the world—a world filled with bacteria, some friendly, some not so friendly," Bourdain writes in Kitchen Confidential. "Do we really want to travel in hermetically sealed popemobiles through the rural provinces of France, Mexico, and the Far East, eating only in Hard Rock Cafés and McDonald’s? Or do we want to eat without fear, tearing into the local stew, the humble taqueria’s mystery meat, the sincerely offered gift of a lightly grilled fish head? I know what I want. I want it all. I want to try everything once."  Bourdain was honest to a fault when asked to sum up the purpose of his television series. "I travel around the world, eat a lot of shit, and basically do whatever the fuck I want."    

"Bourdain was hesitant to call himself a journalist," writes Monica Burton and Erin DeJesus in Eater, citing a comment he made in a 2016 interview in that publication. "A journalist has to have an agenda — who-what-why-where — and I don’t want to ask those questions," Bourdain claimed. "That’s a prison to me. I’m not here to ask you specific questions, I’m here to ask general questions. What’s your life like? Tell me a story." Helen Rosner, writing in The New Yorker, disputed this, believing Bourdain "was a writer himself" and was always willing to share what he knew in guest commentary and interviews. "Every newspaper, every magazine, every Web site that asked got its Bourdain quotes—and good ones, too! Not pre-scripted pablum but potent missiles of cultural commentary—bombastic wisdom, grand pronouncements, eviscerations of celebrities, flagrantly named names."

Tom Philpot, writing for Mother Jones, touches upon another important facet of Bourdain’s writing and television series. "He used the enormous reach and cachet he amassed to stick up for the marginalized . . . He spoke up often, from the Kitchen Confidential days to the present, for immigrant restaurant workers. In his hit CNN show Parts Unknown, he prided himself on straying from the Michelin Guide path and discovering and documenting culinary pleasures among ordinary, often marginalized people."

Perhaps the most unique of the dozens of episodes spanning the globe is one featuring Bourdain’s visit to Hanoi, Vietnam which aired on CNN in September 2016. Unique for the fact that this visit coincided with former President Barack Obama’s official visit to Vietnam in May of that year. Despite his busy schedule he took time to share a meal with Bourdain in a back street noodle house in the Pan Chu Trindh district. Though Bourdain was more familiar with Vietnamese cuisine and the manner of its consumption, the two men quickly discovered they were kindred spirits. "I believe what’s important to him is this notion that otherness is not bad," the President commented. "Americans should aspire to walk in other people’s shoes." This idea resonated strongly with Bourdain. Sitting in plastic chairs pulled up to a small table, Bourdain introduced Obama to a local pork noodle specialty called bún chå served with spring rolls and washed down with a bottle of cold Hanoi beer. "Dip and stir," Bourdain counseled the President as they added the grilled pork to the bowl of noodles. "And get ready for the awesomeness." One final instruction: "Slurping is totally acceptable in this part of the world." The President slurped.

Watching this episode I was reminded of my own introduction to bún chå the previous year at Com Viet, a Vietnamese restaurant situated off the Alexanderplatz in what was once East Berlin. It was run by former North Vietnamese guest workers from Hanoi and it offers dishes, such as bún chå which you can’t find in Vietnamese restaurants at home in Washington, DC. As they ate Obama noted that the world is getting smaller. "The surprises, the serendipity of travel, where you see something and it’s off the beaten track, there aren’t that many places like that left." Learning of Bourdain’s passing the President recalled their meal together. "This is how I’ll remember Tony. He taught us about food — but more importantly, about its ability to bring us together. To make us a little less afraid of the unknown. We’ll miss him." That just about says it all.

Almost a month has passed since Anthony Bourdain left us. I still grow melancholy when I think there will be no more culinary adventures to parts unknown; no more of Bourdain’s brash claims mixed with considered opinions. Since his death I have gone back and watched some of my favorite episodes of Parts Unknown. I can’t help but smile as I watch Bourdain wander here and there, tasting and relishing this and that. But the melancholy always returns. Never so much as the May 2016 episode in which he explores Montana where, according to the CNN blurb, he "finds big sky, big hearts," including that of poet and author Jim Harrison who shows Bourdain the many marvels of his adopted state (Harrison was also featured in an August 2009 episode of No Reservations filmed in and around Livingston, Montana). Harrison, who is perhaps my favorite modern American writer, died of a heart attack in late March 2016 at his other home in Arizona, just two months after the filming of the Parts Unknown episode. Bourdain noted Harrison’s passing at the end of the episode. "We show you a lot of beautiful spaces and very nice people in this episode, but its beating heart, and the principal reason I've always come to Montana, is Jim Harrison -- poet, author and great American and a hero of mine and millions of others around the world." Bourdain shared one of Harrison’s poems. " It seems kind of perfect now that Jim's finally slipped his chain."

The moon comes up.
The moon goes down.
This is to inform you
That I didn't die young.
Age swept past me
but I caught up.
Spring has begun here and each day
brings new birds up from Mexico.
Yesterday I got a call from the outside
world but I said no in thunder.
I was a dog on a short chain
and now there's no chain.

Bourdain’s final comment about Harrison struck me deep. "There were none like him while he lived. There will be none like him now that he's gone." I think the same can be said for Anthony Bourdain. Alas, like Harrison, he has slipped his chain much too soon. I’ll miss him.

Suicide Prevention and Crisis Hotline: If you are in crisis and need to talk to someone right away, call 1-800-273-8255 / 1-800-273-TALK. Crisis Call Center’s 24-hour crisis line is here to provide a safe, non-judgmental source of support for individuals in any type of crisis.


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