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Travel Writers Reflect On The Life Of Anthony Bourdain, One Year Later


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I didn’t know Anthony Bourdain. I mean that in the literal sense (though he did a few low-key things to boost my career), but also in the metaphorical sense. No matter how many interviews I read (and he gave many), books I tore through, or shows I watched, there was never a sense of knowing him.

I think that’s a credit to the man himself. So often in travel media, the host or author is an empty vessel that we can fill with our postcard fantasies. Bourdain was different. He was an electric personality and a wildly complicated one. There is perhaps no public figure for whom Walt Whitman’s famous line — “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.” — rings truer. “Tony” could be curious, capricious, patient, petty, giddy, and reflective. Often in the span of a single episode of TV. And yet it worked because above all things it felt genuine.

As someone who has spent a fair bit of time in front of a camera, trying to reach across the void, let me tell you: that’s a tall order. It takes work, but also real vulnerability.

Last year, I poured out 1600 words about Bourdain and what he’s meant to me, as a writer, a traveler, and a would-be “citizen of the world.” I did this from a jungle hut in the Australian Outback, a fitting place to write a tribute if ever there was one. In the year since, I’ve read pages upon pages of his work and the reflections of others; I’ve spent too much time venturing down rabbit holes trying to understand the “why” of his death; and I’ve reflected for hours on the dark places my own psyche seems all too eager to visit.

Still, there is this sense of wanting more. Today, a full year after his death, I asked some of my favorite travel writers to reflect on his legacy. If not because you, the reader, wanted that, then because I did. Still, through it all, I don’t know Anthony Bourdain. And in that, I’m reminded of the end of the movie A River Runs Through It (Bourdain would appreciate the Montana-reference):

As time passed, my father struggled
for more to hold onto…
asking me again and again
had I told him everything.

Finally, I said to him:
“Maybe all I really know about Paul…
is that he was a fine fisherman.”

“You know more than that,” my father said. “He was beautiful.”

Anthony Bourdain was a fine traveler. He asked questions before drawing conclusions. He wondered aloud rather than speaking with certainty. He smiled through awkwardness and fought “the fear of the other” with every fiber of his being. But he was more than that, too. He was beautiful.

–Steve Bramucci, Editorial Director, UPROXX Life (Twitter, Instagram)

DON WILDMAN — TV HOST – MYSTERIES AT THE MUSEUM, OFF LIMITS, MONUMENTAL MYSTERIES

In 2012, I arrived at the Travel Channel offices in Chevy Chase, MD, months after Anthony Bourdain had departed for a new outlet. Nonetheless, his super-sized face still billboarded the office lobby and elevator doors. In the years to come, no matter his network, Bourdain would loom large over me and every other personality working in documentary television. Today, a year after his death, he still looms. I expect that will never change.

Though I never met the man, I felt a connection. But not because of television. It was Bourdain’s first book, Kitchen Confidential, I admired most. I worked as a NYC waiter through those same years in the 1980’s when he described himself slogging away at Les Halles. And while our venue was a very different scene much further uptown, there were similarities. It amazed me that a writer could capture so astutely and comically what cooking in those chaotic kitchens felt like in those years.

I wish I knew what could possibly push such a brilliant and perceptive man to the depths of sadness he apparently reached. I won’t, ever. But I’m thankful that at least I witnessed — along with the rest of the world — the fascinating heights he was able to achieve. I hope he would take some comfort in that

–Don Wildman (Twitter, Instagram)

DAVID DURAN — TRAVEL WRITER AND EDITOR

Watching Anthony Bourdain travel to destinations near and far through the years absolutely inspired me to travel differently. I remember the first time I traveled to Cuba and spent hours tracking down a hole in the wall restaurant that he’d recommended on one of his television shows. The effort made to find this one particular restaurant was tremendously important to me, that’s how monumentally influential the man was.

Later in his career when Parts Unknown debuted, a light bulb flickered on inside my head, as it most likely did for countless other globe trotters. His encouragement, through his series — to constantly dive deeper into the communities he visited and discover more about each destination — has become the gold standard that everyone in our industry strives for. His legacy lives on through the work he did, the lives he changed and the millions of viewers and readers that he inspired to travel.

–David Duran (Twitter, Instagram)

KINGA PHILIPPS — TV HOST, TRAVEL WRITER, EXPLORER’S CLUB MEMBER

Thank you, Anthony Bourdain, for being a game changer. A non-apologetic trailblazer with a unique voice and quick wit. Thank you for taking a stagnant and canned travel TV industry to a new level. Finally, gritty, authentic and complicated stories had a home on cable. There will forever be a BB (before Bourdain) and AB (after Bourdain) feeling to the world of travel TV — because you didn’t give a shit about thread counts. Your lens was more comprehensive, allowing yourself to venture to places that might legitimately shift your perspective.

Thank you for paving the road for the rest of us, who want to tell stories about travel that don’t always fit onto postcards, for those of us who want to step off the beaten path and explore regions, cultures, and foods that you can’t experience by taking the manicured five-star route. You inspired us to seek the real soul of the places we visit, its magnificent quintessence — even when that’s neither pretty or easy to witness. You are forever a voice of authentic travel and your legacy will live on with every plane ticket we book to some remote corner of the planet, every bowl of tripe we consume while seated on a plastic stool in Timbuktu, and every time we engage with a perfect stranger on the road to learn more about their existence on this planet.

Thank you for not conforming. Thank you for your honest approach to life, to travel, and to food. Thank you for setting the bar so achingly high. You made a difference. I’m sorry for your demons. I’m sorry for your pain. And fuck you for leaving us when what we need is so much more of your spirit. You left a void. And though your shoes are far too big to fill, you made us aware that we have the power to shake up the system and flip the bird to conformity.

I’m sad and I’m angry but, most of all, I’m forever grateful that I’ve had the honor of sharing a career path, a network, and a passion with the likes of you. Still missing you down here, Mr. Bourdain. Hope heaven can handle you.

–Kinga Philipps (Twitter, Instagram)

VINCE MANCINI — TRAVEL & CULTURE WRITER

I had distinct phases of Bourdain fandom — sort of knowing who he was and thinking he was this pretentious New Yorker who complained too much about vegans, and intense fandom where I not only consumed everything he did but treated him like some kind of aspirational avatar. Born-and-bred New Yorkers who rhapsodize the pizza and the bagels and the water and the blah blah fucking blah always seem insufferable to those of us who live anywhere else, so there was a bit of a hump to get over with Bourdain. And then I finally read Kitchen Confidential.

Like just about everyone else, I loved it. He evoked this rude world of kitchen miscreants and cooking pirates, caring deeply about life’s basic drives and not really understanding everything else, which just seemed like so much silly bullshit. That was a feeling I could relate to (though I still don’t know how the hell he would work 60 hours a week in a kitchen and then write novels in his spare time, that still blows my mind).

The more he grew up the more it seemed like we would be simpatico — a dude from a different place and generation that nonetheless seemed to eerily mirror my own interests: food, drinks, punk rock, writing, jiu-jitsu. In the end, I think addiction played a much bigger part in his story than he (or we) ever wanted to admit. So many of my friends in recovery would watch him and wonder, “should a former heroin addict be drinking like that?” And I’d think, “Bourdain? Anthony Bourdain can do anything!”

Bourdain is still an avatar to me in some ways, representing the idea that a person can stay voraciously curious at any age. But he’s also a reminder that no one is invincible.

–Vince Mancini (Twitter, Instagram)

LOLA MÉNDEZ — TRAVEL WRITER – CNN, LONELY PLANET

Tony took us around the world as he brought us into the kitchens of local homes. In doing so, he showed us how to make genuine connections with strangers across language barriers and tell stories that don’t center around ourselves. As travel writers, we can continue to learn from this legendary man’s life’s work.

Bourdain honored the places he visited through the way he portrayed them. He elevated local voices and cultural customs over his own perspectives about a country, cuisine, or culture. He was never pompous. There’s a fine line between exploiting and exploring. Bourdain was a master at traversing the globe in a way that put the people and places he visited in the spotlight.

He approached every scenario with a sense of curiosity. His method allowed him to encapsulate a place in its true form — sans any assumptions, prejudices, or westernized expectations about what it “should” be. Whether he was in a world-renowned establishment or sitting on the curb by a street stall, his humble behavior and reporting never faltered. No one could highlight the intersection of food, culture, art, and the human soul the way he did.

In the year since his death, many travel writers and travelers have posed the question “What would Tony do?” when presented the opportunity to eat something obscure. For me, I ask myself this question when writing about the locales I’m fortunate enough to visit. I carry his lessons with me everywhere I go — from Papua New Guinea to Uruguay. Bourdain’s storytelling legacy and fearless spirit will always motivate me to be a more intrepid traveler and seek out untold stories for far-off destinations.

–Lola Méndez (Twitter, Instagram)

ZACH JOHNSTON — SENIOR WRITER, UPROXX LIFE

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Happy Memorial Day weekend from Bamberg!

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It’s hard to know what to say about Bourdain that a million other folks aren’t already going to say. Yes, he inspired me to cook more. Yes, he inspired me to listen while I travel. Yes, he inspired me to appreciate authors like Jim Harrison more. There are so many of those Yes’s that I could throw down.

But, really, what Bourdain did for me was more about shaping who I was in my 20s. He was starting out in TV when I was doing a lot of my hardcore adventure traveling. I would watch No Reservations in India, Indonesia, Djibouti, Afghanistan… anywhere really. And I had this stupid dude-in-his-20s competition going in my head that I could go to more places than Tony. I could be more hardcore. Somehow, if I did that, I would be as cool as the coolest guy in travel. Maybe even cooler.

Then I settled the fuck down and stopped running a race against a person I didn’t even know. Life got better after that, though I regret little.

The point here is, Bourdain stoked my passions for travel (and food). I absolutely went farther, risked more, and traveled with more compassion thanks to his demeanor and affability (with a nice tinge of acerbic wit). Yes, it was an inspiration, I suppose. At the time, it felt more like a simple nod from a cool uncle figure, telling me it was okay to venture beyond the edges of the map, no matter what anyone thought.

Thanks for the fuel.

–Zach Johnston (Twitter, Instagram)

ROLF POTTS — TRAVEL WRITER AND EDITOR & CULTURAL CRITIC

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The last leg of my motorcycle journey across the highlands of western Sumatra took me to the volcanic shores of Lake Maninjau, which one reaches by driving down a spectacular highway featuring 44 hairpin curves – each of them numbered with a small white billboard – that spiral you down into the caldera. … Though I rarely (if ever) ride motorcycles in the U.S., it has become my favorite way to see the countryside here in Sumatra. I've been savoring the simple sensation of movement, the ongoing mélange of sights and sounds and smells. The occasional tropical torrent can, of course, complicate things – but waiting out the rain under an awning with similarly stranded Indonesian motorbikers can be an experience in and of itself. … As for more congested urban settings, there's a subtle logic to how traffic works in this part of the world: You learn to internalize traffic patterns, ride defensively, plan your next several moves, and constantly use your horn to let people know where you are. If in doubt, accelerating assertively – just like the locals do – is safer than passively waiting for the road to make space for you. … Ultimately, I've found motorcycling here to be a crash-course in intuition: Road-situations that seemed baffling or even terrifying from the back-seat of a share-taxi on my first day in Sumatra scarcely fazed me by my third week of troubleshooting traffic via motorcycle.

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I’ve noticed that there’s a “sameness” to the narrative language on all the Travel Channel shows. The words “heaven,” “breathtaking,” “dreams,” “treasure,” and “unforgettable” are intoned like mantras. Just today, I heard the phrases “hidden gem,” “secret gem,” and “unique gem” on three successive programs.

This type of language belongs to a distinctive media-dialect called “travelese” — a word journalist William Zinsser coined in his 1976 book On Writing Well. “Nowhere else in nonfiction do writers use such syrupy words and groaning platitudes,” Zinsser noted. “It is a style of soft words which under hard examination mean nothing.” At the time, Zinsser was alluding to print-based travel journalism. 40-odd years later, the overwrought cadences of travelese continue to plague magazine, newspaper, and guidebook writing.

The thing is, for all the consumer travel articles sopping with words like “quaint” and “wondrous,” the print world offers plenty of verbally disciplined, literary-minded travel reportage by writers like Peter Hessler, Tim Cahill, Susan Orlean, Pico Iyer, Kira Salak, Gary Shteyngart, and Paul Theroux. Unfortunately, travel television does not appear to offer a comparable respite from its more mindless tropes. Almost without exception, its program language is indecipherable from that of its commercials.

The sole exception to this phenomenon is Anthony Bourdain, whose No Reservations remains at once counterintuitive, given to opinionated perspective, and self- aware of its limitations as a TV show. Yesterday, Bourdain guided us off the sun-dappled tourist-trail to visit the eateries of “the three most fucked-up cities in America” — Baltimore, Detroit, and Buffalo. By the end of show, he had done a fair amount of rust-belt dining, but he’d also given the audience subtle lessons in socioeconomics, immigration history, and urban planning. In Buffalo, he refused to discuss hot-wings (“you can have Al fucking Roker describe them to you on some other show,” he said). His Miami-based episode simultaneously skewers South Florida tourist clichés, documentary TV fakery, and the basic assumptions of every other food-travel show on television. A running joke of the episode is Bourdain’s stubborn avoidance of Miami’s most stereotypical cuisine-culture — he eventually relents during the final moments of the show. “I’ve finally done the Cuban thing,” he quips in the concluding scene, “satisfying my network masters’ request.”

In a Texas-Mexico border episode, for example, Bourdain refused to buy into stereotypes — pointing out how American perceptions of Mexican border towns are “more a reflection of our own darker, wilder sides than a true reflection of Mexico.” His take on Mexican drug culture was equally pointed: “With all the attention Mexico’s drug cartels have gotten satisfying America’s bottomless hunger for illegal drugs,” he said, “you might be surprised to find there’s nearly as much business catering to grandma’s bladder-control problem or grandpa’s erectile dysfunction.” As he traveled the border region, eating street-food tacos in Mexico and chicken-fried steak in Texas, Bourdain variously poked fun at his cameraman, debunked the notion that nachos are authentically Mexican, alluded to George Orwell, bought a stash of Demerol, and met a Veracruz-born chef making the finest Japanese cuisine in Laredo.

In hosting a show so stubbornly wedded to his unique sensibilities, Bourdain hinted at a universally relevant notion: that travel — if one can view it as more than a consumer act — has a way of revealing a world more complicated and exasperating and unexpectedly delightful than one could ever imagine sitting at home.

–Rolf Potts (Twitter, Instagram)

PHIL CALVERT — TV HOST – PHIL GOOD TRAVEL

When I found out about the death of Anthony Bourdain, I was in Austria, sending a postcard to my grandmother. Before reading about Bourdain’s passing, I would often get the comparison of me being the “black Bourdain” or the “urban Bourdain” (which was always an honor).

Ironically, when I heard about Anthony Bourdain‘s death I was shooting my own travel series, Phil Good Travel. While on the road, and in-between cities, I would watch Parts Unknown to try to learn from him. The thing that I retained is that he cannot be replicated. His style and charisma are his, and his alone. It’s what made him so great. What he did end up teaching me was that while I’m on the road, I should always be original and true to who I am. Now that he’s gone I genuinely see the impact he left, not only on the travel world but on the whole world.

It’s beyond motivating, He’s beyond motivating and always inspirational.

-Phil Calvert (Twitter, Instagram)

CHARLES THORP — TRAVEL WRITER, EDITOR, HOST OF GREAT ADVENTURES

I was never as nervous as I was stepping into a room that Anthony Bourdain was in. I was a ferocious consumer of his books and programs, which partly inspired my own journey into travel writing. But nobody made me feel more at ease quicker than he did, either. There were reasons that he was so good at his job, which he claimed to have “lucked into.” It was not luck — it was endless curiosity, constant introspection, and effortless charisma.

I remember a story where he recalled feeling lost during the filming of the very first season of No Reservations. Stuck in his room he sat with one of the producers wondering how they were going to do something different, until Bourdain looked up to the ceiling fan and said, “Saigon…shit.” That one random Apocalypse Now quote set about the style in which he showed us the world, in his own words.

That small story also taught me to understand the power of creating your own narrative. One that explores the world in not just chasing universal truths, but also self truths.

Each of the few times we crossed paths or traveled together (for a story), I would approach him as if we had never met. I could never tell if he remembered me or not, but it did not matter anyway, because there never seemed to be a punch pulled or a subject off limits. Every person in the room was welcome to listen in on, or even receive, his rants. When said out loud they seemed revelatory, yet spoke to a truth that we all knew inside. Every sentence was pure, poetic, unadulterated honesty. His phrases weren’t the most elegant or the most flowery; they were something even rarer — raw.

As for what he meant for the industry, it could be described as BB and AB, as in “Before Bourdain” and “After Bourdain.” What he offered was a new kind of guide for audiences, not one that would coddle but one that would challenge. Not every destination was bliss, not every dish was divine, and not every cook was a genius — he constantly cut down his own skills in the kitchen. Through those actions he allowed us to think for ourselves again, foster the unique, and he inspired us to dig deeper. Those were tremendous gifts.

I never have been in the habit of asking people for autographs, but a signed copy of Kitchen Confidential is one of my most cherished possessions. He didn’t just scribble his name for people either; he drew a knife, which seemed like a logo for him of sorts. I could think of nothing more fitting, the way his wit and his art cut us all. He was dangerous, both to mediocrity and the banal. And himself. He will be forever missed, but through his work, his blade is still out there. And it is just as sharp as ever.

-Charles Thorp (Twitter, Instagram)

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