In the days and weeks to come, there will be endless words poured out to remember Anthony Bourdain. He’ll be eulogized with phrases like “bad boy chef,” “travel god,” and “raconteur” — all meant to neatly sum up the work of a man who lived life on an incredibly large scale. Writers, TV hosts, and friends will do their best to distill his essence, a tough task that’s only made more difficult when attempted by those overwhelmed with grief. All of these reflections will wind their way to the same conclusion, the largest conclusion possible: The man lived.
That is, perhaps, the best compliment that can be given to Anthony Bourdain. He roared through life like a wildfire. He crackled with wit. He burnt with passion — hot and loud and untameable — for food, for travel, for culture, for… existence — in all its complicated messiness. Across the various incarnations of his TV shows, in his books, and in scores of interviews and public appearances, the message was always: “There’s so much living to do; so much world to see!” And that overarching theme (which can easily slip into the realm of pop-psych platitudes) had teeth, thanks to the man delivering it.
Bourdain was always achingly real with us, blatantly imperfect, and terribly clear-sighted about his successes and his failures. As a result, we trusted his message. Yes, we loved him as our adventurous avatar — eating pig anuses one day and sharing soup with the president of the United States the next — but we also loved him as our life coach. His voice sliced through to the news cycle to remind us not to let our biases keep us from genuine connection. We gladly followed him into the unknown, not in spite of his flaws but because of them. They were all fragments of a big-hearted man — one who’d overcome well-documented troubles and risen to fame in his 40s by letting his insatiable curiosity get the better of him.
We knew Tony, we were sure of it, and the greatest way we could thank him for his stories was by never trying to tame him.
As a travel writer, it’s impossible to ignore the impact and influence of Anthony Bourdain. Early in my career, when I created an interview series called “How I Travel” for BootsNAll, he granted us a conversation between shoots — instantly legitimizing a column which had struggled to score premier names. When I arrived at UPROXX, he gave us an interview before the season six premiere of Parts Unknown, jumpstarting our visibility in the world of food and travel. In airports, hostels, and restaurants, almost every time I spoke about being a travel and food journalist I’d invariably hear, “Like Anthony Bourdain?” to which the only reasonable response was, “Well, sort of… but less successful.”
“I just love him,” people always seemed so eager to tell me. “Isn’t he the best?”
They said this — and I have literally hundreds of memories to pull from here — with their eyes sparkling. As if speaking about a mutual friend; someone we alone shared the special joy of knowing, not an internationally renowned celebrity. In the travel community, Bourdain was ours. A man famous for living everyone’s dream, vagabonding around the world eating and drinking, and making it all feel so deeply enriching.
Still, I never fully fathomed the “Bourdain Effect” until I met my partner, who had come to the United States as an Iranian refugee. We connected over a love of travel and, on our first date, she brought up Parts Unknown. She was eager to talk about the show, sure that a rabid fandom was something we shared. My response burst her bubble.
“The truth is,” I said, “I get so jealous of him, I want so badly what he has, that his shows are hard for me to watch.”
She paused to consider this, then replied, “Okay, I get that, but you have to watch the episode about Iran with me, promise?” I agreed, eager for a second date. When I met her parents, they also asked about Bourdain and highlighted that episode. So did her brother, her in-laws, and her best friend.
As I grew more involved with her family, and our discussions turned to world affairs, I finally savvied what Bourdain had given them. They were from a country that was quickly written off by many Americans as war-torn and intolerant, part of the infamous “Axis of Evil.” There was violence in Iran, of course — they’d literally come to this country to escape it — but it was also their home, and people are ferociously proud of their homes. My partner had grown up in the United States always having to convince people that the place she came from was more than just war, more than terrorism, more than dictators. It was also long afternoon teas. It was ghormeh sabzi and tahdig. It was song and dance and laughter.
For Iranians, living in America, Bourdain had been a bridge, helping people gain a more nuanced understanding of the country they loved deeply. Now, when they met people, it was common to hear, “Oh, Iran! I’ve wanted to go there since seeing that episode of Parts Unknown.”
That was Bourdain’s gift to so many cultures that had been marginalized around the world, and finally recognizing that aspect of his shows turned me into a fan, despite the petty jealousy I held for his outsized success. He widened the lens of the all-too-often myopic American people. He challenged us to see nations as more than the actions of their governments (something we in the United States always ask for but rarely offer in return). With easy charm and cutting wit, he highlighted beauty in the world. He was the scourge of casual stereotyping; always at war with lazily drawn conclusions.
In telling stories — and choosing which stories to tell at which moment with the precision of a surgeon — Bourdain made us think differently about food and culture. More importantly, he made us think differently about one another and what it means to share a world. That’s an enormous feat.
It has long been said that travel is the enemy of prejudice, and prejudice is born out of fear. Anthony Bourdain knew this and his mission always underscored this fact. Whether he was eating foods that seemed strange to the Western palate or stepping into war zones, he urged us not to be afraid of the unknown. Instead, he wanted us to rejoice in it.
“We liked movies with subtitles in my house,” he told Vogue of his childhood in 2016. “That meant something. The ‘other’ wasn’t bad or frightening. It was interesting.”
That doesn’t mean that the man was willing to stick his head in the sand for the sake of optimism. Before he was a TV host, he was a writer of both fiction and non-fiction and always approached his subjects with a journalist’s rigor. In a world where stars have to be able to pitch their brand in a sentence, he refused to be anything but complex.
“Life is complicated,” he said in the same Vogue profile. “It’s filled with nuance. It’s unsatisfying… If I believe in anything, it is doubt. The root cause of all life’s problems is looking for a simple fucking answer.”
This quote seems to speak to both the public and private lives of a man who clearly had so much and yet chose to take his own life. It’s very human yet perfectly impossible to speculate on the demons Bourdain struggled with when he was alone, but anyone who’s seen any of his shows knows that the refusal to look for simple answers is what made him so very good. He understood the world because he never tried to be reductive about it. His conclusions, journaled in hotel rooms and shared in voiceover narration, were open-ended. They rarely overreached but they were always, always brimming with hope.
That’s Anthony Bourdain, as best I know: He was a vanquisher of fear and a lighthouse keeper for hope. Perhaps, not for humanity at large (he famously said that he was “not optimistic about the human race”), but certainly hope for individuals who come together to build communities and who, in doing so, go on to build a world. Hope that by eating with each other, trading stories, and sharing culture we could begin to understand one another better.
Bourdain’s message — to fight fear and find joy in “the other” — might very well be the most important pursuit of our divisive era. Today, we’ve lost one of our greatest flag-bearers for that mission. It’s why his death feels so deeply painful for so many, and why this world will miss him so very much.