Remembering Anthony Bourdain, Who Became a Reality TV Star By Rejecting Its Rules
Like a lot of people today, I’m sitting at my desk trying to make sense of the death of Anthony Bourdain, who apparently took his life in Paris this morning. He was there shooting material for an episode of his CNN travel series, Parts Unknown. Bourdain was an Emmy and Peabody winner for the show, and he was nominated numerous other times (and for numerous other awards) for its predecessor, No Reservations. He was also a best-selling, critically-acclaimed author of fiction and non-fiction. Before all that, he was a respected chef. Now he’s gone. He was only 61 years old.
Eight seasons of Parts Unknown are currently available on Netflix, so I’m looking at them, sampling some of the episodes I’ve missed over the years, and marveling at Bourdain’s unique talents all over again. What I see in show after show is the unlikeliest of pop culture stars; a guy who became a reality TV legend by breaking all of its rules.
Most reality television is about competition and the all-consuming importance of victory. It exists to celebrate a Machiavellian approach to life — the “I’m not here to make friends” ethos that has become so ubiquitous that people print it on T-shirts. The Bourdain of Parts Unknown rejected that. He always seemed to be looking to make new friends, and not just of the high-powered culinary giant variety. I’m watching Parts Unknown’s Quebec episode from Season 1, and before he enjoys foie gras in a wooden shack on a frozen lake with restaurateurs Dave McMillan and Fred Morin, he strikes up a conversation with a mailman he finds delivering letters. Bourdain asks him about his winter boots while standing in the middle of a snowstorm.
Bourdain’s travel shows weren’t about finding the “best” food, or pitting one person or type of cuisine against another; it was about discovering amazing things everywhere, and celebrating all of them. Who else would travel to Shanghai, Iran, and the Bronx, and savor the best of each, in the span of a single season of television?
That’s not to say Bourdain couldn’t be testy or grumpy or occasionally surly; he could. But you read the testimonials about Bourdain popping up on social media (like this one from a random fan who met him on a line and struck up a conversation about the food and culture of Trinidad, or this one from a magician who tried to stump him with some sleight of hand) and you see that the Bourdain of television was exactly the same guy as the Bourdain of real life: Witty, passionate, and endlessly curious about the world and its people.
Bourdain was very intelligent, and his show’s narration was often poetic, but it was never pretentious. He was a guy who could say something like “To know Jersey, is to love her” and mean it with absolute sincerity. (And he was usually pretty sincere; he was not a fan of snark.) He was an expert, but he never closed himself off to learning, and one of the best things about his series was the fact that he never seemed to lose that eagerness to digest (in more ways than one) a new technique or kind of cuisine.
Even in the lowest-common denominator world of cable television, he refused to pander. (The Quebec episode has to be the only time the word “maxillofacial” has ever appeared on television this century.) If Bourdain’s name was attached to a show, you knew it was going to go off the beaten path, take nothing for granted, and show you things you hadn’t seen before.
Looking at these Parts Unknown episodes is making me sad, but I’m enjoying them as well. It is very hard to make what Bourdain did on television look this easy and effortless and fun. It feels like we lost more than a writer we admired, or a TV host whose work we enjoyed. It feels like we lost a friend.