From "A Cook's Tour" to "Parts Unknown," Anthony Bourdain made us want to know him

In urging us to taste the world, Bourdain became a star people wanted to befriend, making his loss feel oddly acute

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published June 15, 2018 3:00PM (EDT)

Anthony Bourdain attends "On The Chopping Block: A Roast of Anthony Bourdain" in New York. Bourdain's "Parts Unknown" series, a culinary travelogue, swiftly became CNN's top-rated series since debuting last April, a bright spot at a place that was in a severe dry spell before the missing Malaysian plane kicked up ratings. A new eight-episode season begins Sunday, April 13, 2014, at 9 p.m. EDT. (Photo by Charles Sykes/Invision/AP Images, File) (AP/Charles Sykes)
Anthony Bourdain attends "On The Chopping Block: A Roast of Anthony Bourdain" in New York. Bourdain's "Parts Unknown" series, a culinary travelogue, swiftly became CNN's top-rated series since debuting last April, a bright spot at a place that was in a severe dry spell before the missing Malaysian plane kicked up ratings. A new eight-episode season begins Sunday, April 13, 2014, at 9 p.m. EDT. (Photo by Charles Sykes/Invision/AP Images, File) (AP/Charles Sykes)

As a rule I don't make a practice of cultivating close friendships with famous people, for obvious reasons. Getting too close to a subject compromises a journalist's objectivity. More than that, it just seems like a lot of work. This is why I'm terrible at that fantasy dinner party game, where people make lists of celebrity guests.

Having said all of that, had I been given the opportunity, I would have loved to have invited Anthony Bourdain over for a roasted chicken dinner, a musing I've occasionally entertained since I read his seminal memoir "Kitchen Confidential" around the time of its first publication in 2000.

Thoughts of extending this offer were not born out of worship, or even a desire to impress him with my cooking skills — although I'm a fairly talented cook, I have to say. I guarantee whatever I place before my guests tastes better than an unwashed warthog rectum.

But forget all that (as if you need to be asked twice). Anointment was never the goal. No, this imagined dining experience was inspired by the far simpler truth that after a while, hotel food fails to nourish the frequent traveler.

Nutritionally speaking, it does the job. But as Bourdain often indicated on his series, whether on CNN's "Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown," or his Travel Channel series "No Reservations" and everything before and between, it's an everyday meal, personally prepared in a household kitchen, that feeds the soul.

"On my day off, I rarely want to eat restaurant food unless I'm looking for new ideas or recipes to steal," he wrote in "Kitchen Confidential." "What I want to eat is home cooking, somebody's — anybody's — mother's or grandmother's food."

He goes on to recall the apologies made by his former mother-in-law as she served him dinner whenever he was a guest: "She had no idea how magical, how reassuring, how pleasurable her simple meat loaf was for me, what a delight even lumpy mashed potatoes were — being, as they were, blessedly devoid of truffles or truffle oil."

Bourdain understood that sharing a meal is an intimate experience for the creator as well as the receiver. The cook may as well be offering her heart on a plate, an act of care and vulnerability. To join her at the dinner table, in her home, is a sacred exchange for guest and chef alike, an expression that each desires to know the other — not in every way, an impossibility in the space of a meal, but surely in a few crucial aspects.

And the "Parts Unknown" host radiated this in waves, this magnetic hunger drawing him to farfetched places, to connect human beings across cultures, oceans and political barriers. David Simon, creator of "The Wire," published a piece on June 11 explaining how he succumbed to that pull simply by watching Bourdain on "No Reservations."

"I was still on the sofa at four in the afternoon, still half-dressed, when I decided that my life could not be complete if I did not somehow become friends with Anthony Bourdain," Simon writes, going on to describe how he and his wife, novelist Laura Lippman, used their considerable pull to arrange a meeting under the pretense of hiring him as a consultant on "Treme."

But, actually, Simon writes, "My primary mission for all of that autumn was to hang out and eat and drink and become friends with this Anthony Bourdain fellow." Turns out both men nailed their tryouts; Bourdain went on to serve as a consulting producer on the show, and he enjoyed Simon enough for the two to forge a personal connection as well.

Of course, it's insanely easy for a famous person to secure an invitation to enter another famous person's life. Bourdain, however, made a point of maintaining his status as a friend to men and women who proudly, expertly and anonymously chop, season and saute ingredients in kitchens around the world. That includes one a single degree of separation from mine, that of culinary writer Hsiao-Ching Chou, who was the food editor at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer during the same time that I served as that paper's TV critic.

Having heard I'd landed an interview with Bourdain, she positively beamed. "You're talking to Tony?  Tell him I said hi!" I was impressed, happy for her and viridescent with envy all at once. She actually realized a dream I wrote off as silly. Then again, only because she's one of the best potsticker makers around.

Not long before that moment, sometime in 2006, he'd filmed a segment at Hsiao-Ching's house in which she showed him how to make her heavenly pillows of meat filling nestled in dough, an art she's perfected over a lifetime. Bourdain gives her the spotlight in that segment, emphasizing in the editing how even a celebrated chef can botch the art of sealing a dumpling wrapper. For that matter, he's also an excellent guest at her dinner table. Rather than driving the genial conversation, he gently swims in the stream with the rest of party.

That ethos guided Bourdain's public career, first in the literary world and then on television, but with the utmost clarity in his earliest days as a media personality on "A Cook's Tour," 35 episodes of gleeful, giddy culinary exploration served raw and wriggling on Food Network in 2002 and 2003.

Dig up those episodes to marvel at the unpolished essence of Bourdain attraction, the quality that fueled his flight to fame over the decade that followed.

May I suggest the season 1 episode "Puebla, Where the Good Cooks Are From"? In it, he joins his top cook at his restaurant Les Halles on a trip back to his small hometown in Mexico, granting viewers the obligatory gaze at all the detailed prep, elbow grease and outpouring of affection that goes into making a traditional meal for their honored guest. Here, we see the wonderful alchemy that goes into making a mouthwatering mole and the expertise, not often heralded, of the women preparing the food.

The part that blows the minds of initiates to "Cook's Tour," though, are the scenes where he joins his friend for a sampling of a local delicacy, ant eggs and worms.  Next comes a trip to the spot where the locals get their pulque, a gooey alcoholic beverage made from the fermented sap of an agave plant. "It's like drinking a bucket of snot," Bourdain explains.

"Pulque's good," he says a few gulps later, complimenting the place's bonafides as "suitably low rent, it's down an alley, I'm enjoying myself." And later: "The taste hangs with you, so all the way back to town I'm keeping in mind that, you know, underneath the pulque I have a nice solid base of ant eggs and worms."

The voiceover pauses. "I puke like a hero, all night long."

All of this this pre-dates Andrew Zimmern's "Bizarre Foods" by several years and, in contrast to that show, is devoid of any exploitative undertones. Instead, it's another leg in Bourdain's journey to find new flavors. A weird one, but adventurous. He and his friends spoon a scoop or two of worms and insect eggs onto a tortilla, slather on some salsa and dig in. There's no fear, only surprise at their enjoyment.

Some 15 years later, fear runs through our culture like a bitter sauce. That's long been the case, as Bourdain calls out in the very first episode of "Parts Unknown," back in 2013. "Chances are you haven't been to this place," he says. "Chances are this is a place you've never seen, other than maybe blurry cell phone videos, old black and white news reels from World War II. Chances are bad things were happening in the footage you saw."

But there he is, in Myanmar — taking in its sights, breathing in its history and imparting basic and important details to the audience, speaking to famous figures as well as the people running street food carts and shops, all of it across and around tables. There he is in Libya, in Iran, leading Americans by the hand and the taste buds through those lands and others they wouldn't dare to set foot in otherwise. Closer to home, there is in so-called rough areas of big cities, neighborhoods they've been conditioned to avoid.

There he is, showing the unifying nature of flavor and taking pleasure in the new and unfamiliar, in how we can be so different but still swoon over the right combinations of sweet, sour, salty and bitter. In how we can fall headlong into a silky sauce or mend a broken mood with a heaping serving of noodles or a portion of meat prepared just so. There he is, making his bones over and over again as an advocate for the world's underclass, a champion of the worthiness of the lives and food of marginalized people, a declared feminist.

There too, if you look for it, exist a flicker of fatigue in recent seasons of "Parts Unknown," a dimness about the host that wasn't present in those early days of "A Cook's Tour" or the heat of "No Reservations." His swagger is subdued in those staged B-roll shots showing him walking down foreign street; the excited hunger in his gaze back in his "Kitchen Confidential" days has a studied hunter's quality in his CNN series.  His casual conversational tone, one he'd relax into with the help of a sated belly warmed by a few beverages, is largely gone from his narration. On CNN he comes across less like the pirate chef of the previous decade than an elder statesman, albeit one who played in a few rock bands.

None of this is meant as diagnosis, understand, only to point out that a person's cravings and palate evolve with time, maturity and transformation in fortune and circumstance. (Also,  I have some firsthand familiarity with how depression impacts one's primal sense of taste, allowing you to retain the ability to recognize subtle notes and chemistry of a great dish while numbing you to its salubrious, comforting spell.)

Concretely, there's his oft-cited stat that his work schedule kept him away from home 250 days a year, a factor that he said contributed to his split from his second wife in 2016. Being the ambassador of cultural immersion takes its toll.  Viewers revered him for opening up the world for us, and he inspired people to want to be near him for that same reason. The end of his life ultimately proves that despite his enthusiasm and openness there were corners of his soul that nobody knew but him.

There have been marathons of his series since his death on June 8, and his books are once again topping Amazon's bestseller list. As a fan that's gratifying. Still I'd rather honor what Bourdain contributed to culture, and the planet, by perpetuating the adventurous and empathetic spirit he showcased over scores of hours of television. That could mean finding a way to some places on the other side of this world, that are full of wonders, that don't grace postcards.

That could mean committing to prepare a meal from scratch, consciously selecting quality ingredients, at least once a week. Okay, fine . . . once a month. (Another suggestion, the "No Reservations" episode called "Techniques," breaks down how simple of an ask this is.)

Even better, let it mean that you bring somebody to your table that you wouldn't ordinarily think to host. Feed them. Seek to know them and to let them know you, through words, through sustenance. Nourish and be nourished. Take one step toward a better destination than the place where we're living in right now.

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By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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