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Anthony Bourdain - Cooking Culture

Words:

Edd Norval
June 11, 2018

Anthony Bourdain passed away last week at the age of 61. What he left behind was well beyond the legacy of a chef, it was cultural insights into the way other people in other places live. He gave us the kind of knowledge that opens our minds and our hearts. He gave us the chance to bring people together.

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Food has always been at the core of what he has done, yet it was never the most important thing. It was always about telling the truth - something people don't always like. It was about using food as a device to help people understand themselves or more importantly - to understand other people.


Ignorance usually stems from a lack of knowledge or understanding about a certain thing. A lot of the pervasive attitudes of racism are borne out of, not neccessarily nastiness, but wrong ideas about people. The propaganda of old still manages to pass through generations and negatively influence people's outlook. Bourdain had always made it his duty to embed himself in new cultures, with new people and without glitz or glam as a way to tell their story and reflect their lives. It turns out, people aren't all that different.


The cultures, of course, are. That's what people get caught up about. Because they dress differently, they can't be anything like me. In his most recent and interesting series, Parts Unknown, Bourdain travels all around the world like an anthropologist or sociologist hellbent on getting to the bottom of everything he can. He goes to the high-end and the low-end and often ends up in people's houses, just talking about life, sharing their stories. It's at roadside taverns and out in the jungle that he seems his most comfortable. He's nothing like the 'celebrity chef' title he's garnered.

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The idea of his shows giving people an appetite always seemed more like a metaphor. Almost all cooking shows make you want to run through to your kitchen and try something new, but this isn't what Bourdain's shows seemed to make you want to do. He gave people an appetite to travel the world and see new things. Instead of your kitchen, he had you online looking for the cheapest flights to explore the world.


In the series, former US President Barack Obama posted a picture of the two in Hanoi during filming of an episode of their program. Bourdain was sat comfortably opposite him. The former in jeans, desert boots and a relaxed fitting shirt, the latter wearing his trademark shirt and trousers. They were sat in cheap plastic seats eating noodles and drinking a cold beer, not a care in the world. This image encapsulated his capacity for making people forget about illusions of grandeur and instead seek something deeper in their food and thus, their lives. It was never really about the flavours as much as the experience.


In a more recent episode of the show he visited Armenia with Serj Tankian - System of A Down's iconic lead vocalist of Armenian descent. The Genocide that occurred in Armenia is a sensitive subject and divisive, depending on where it's raised. As a result of this, it's usually avoided. On Bourdain's trip, he tackled the subject head-first. By treating it with the necessary decorum, his exploration and willingnes to undersand the event came across as joyously sincere. He took us all the way to Armenia with him.

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His career began when he wrote a warts-n-all exposé of the high stress life in a prominent restaurant kitchen. Kitchen Confidential explored the realities of the environment through fire and flame. To Bourdain, a chef already with literary ambitions, the people in kitchens were like a gang of misfits, taking as much and as varied a buffet of drugs as they could to make it through the night and keep their creative flames burning. It was the last refuge of American weirdness.


It was his honesty and clear storytelling ability that gave him a reputation as a rock 'n' roll enfant terrible of the culinary scene. It didn't take long before TV executive saw his star appeal and gave him a show. It was with this platform that he began travelling the world and shaping a unique worldview formed after visiting over 120 countries. The bottom line to draw from his trips is that difference is something we should try to embrace. Bourdain's touch-guy imagine and sharp wit makes it always entertaining. If he can make a wrong-turn just to see something he shouldn't - he will. It results in a brand of television that has a rarely witnessed honesty in a time when television is as plastic as the television it shows on.


His death has caused an outpouring of grief from people all around the world, touched as they were in some way by his travels. The food always gets mentioned after the qualities of the man - it was only a tool he used to teach and to learn. Food was the enabler for him to tell his stories. It's no wonder that he has a few to tell. Besides all the countries he has visited, he's been there for the breakout of wars (Beirut 2006) and experienced as wide a variety of human life and the human condition as possible. He made sure we were there for it all.


What we lost with Anthony Bourdain was a rare figure that hasn't just read about other ways of life, but has lived them, fully immersed, and left with enough lessons about life, culture and politics to fill more restaurants than he could have dreamed of cooking in. Now it's a case of watching all of his shows again, and taking what we can from them. His spirit of adventure isn't going anywhere though - no doubt his freewheeling attitude will be in people's minds the next time they zoom into a crowd on a scooter in some South-East Asian city in search of a quick bite.

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