Bourdain's love of food and travel helped reveal our shared humanity

The late chef and traveller Anthony Bourdain was an inspiration to MICHAEL AVILA, a Californian living in Northern Ireland

Friday, 6th July 2018, 9:30 am
Updated Monday, 16th July 2018, 5:12 pm
Anthony Bourdain, the celebrity American chef and traveller and programme maker who killed himself in France last month, aged 61

If I am an advocate for anything, it is to move. As far as you can, as much as you can. Across the ocean, or simply across the river. Walk in someone else’s shoes or at least eat their food. It’s a plus for everybody — Anthony Bourdain, the Benevolent Traveller

More than any person who I have never known, Anthony Bourdain has shaped my life.

I too am a writer and traveller, and have spent more than a decade in the food and hospitality industry.

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Travelling has taught me to notice, appreciate and savour nuance. Travel allows one to explore the world with no predispositions, to challenge one’s conceptions of right and wrong, to feel the subtle differences of the familiar and foreign.

If anyone captured the world’s vibrancy, it was Bourdain.

I had the privilege of travelling at a young age. Besides the frequent summer trips with my family around my native California, I first went abroad when I was 16 on a trip to Germany and Austria that was organised by my high school history teacher, and I haven’t stopped travelling since. I now permanently live abroad in sunny Belfast, a destination where Bourdain filmed a brilliant episode 11 years ago.

Bourdain, in his breakthrough memoir, Kitchen Confidential, revealed the struggles he had as a young and middle-aged man barely surviving the long hours on the line of many of New York’s restaurants.

He brought to life the debauchery and drugs that permeated the city in the 70s and 80s, and remains a familial trait in kitchens throughout the developed world today.

I too have been on the receiving end of the ‘double-edged sword’ that is the hospitality industry. There are not many lines of business that offer the invigorating highs of war-time comradery and lifelong friendships.

Often accompanied by these highs, however, are the intense lows of despair, self-loathing and a disposition towards the use of, shall we say, inebriating substances …

Bourdain epitomised these highs and lows before and after he rose to fame. He was aware that exposing the industry’s underbelly propelled him to such heights, even if it was unintentional.

He made a part of the world visible to a great majority of people who were previously unaware of the people who make their food.

While Kitchen Confidential exposed the negative aspects of the food industry, it also made you aware of people you didn’t know previously existed.

It was Bourdain’s travels, however, that explored the interconnectedness of food, and the people who make it, on a global level that transcended local biases and ethnocentrism.

As he always reminded us, ‘Your food has a story.’

One particular trip solidified travel as the epitome of my own identity. I was in Istanbul, Turkey, the most exotic destination I had been to at the age of 21. I had travelled there with a dear friend who, unfortunately, had a bout of culture shock.

To my surprise, when he decided to fly home early, I was not panicked. For the first time in my young life, I was alone, in parts unknown.

Bourdain described a similar episode when he was a child on holiday in France. He spoke of food he savoured for the first time that elicited in him a high he would spend a lifetime chasing.

His TV shows over two decades saw him attempt to satisfy these cravings by seeking the best that food and culture had to offer in places like Paris, Tokyo and Madrid but also like Kurdistan, Detroit and Antarctica.

In a world full of upheaval, corruption and suspicion, he demonstrated that the one thing that unites humanity is our ability and willingness to be hospitable – to share our tables with each other, for the sake of each other.

I imagine that many travellers, when reflecting on their adventures, remember a time spent around a table in an unfamiliar place surrounded by strangers who, through their hospitality, became friends. Always in the world,someone is eating.

Many talking heads dubbed Bourdain as the ‘culinary bad boy’, but this isn’t how I saw him. What did appeal to me was his gratefulness to the people he encountered and broke bread with on his travels.

He was modest about his success and intensely aware of how fortunate he was.

That still isn’t what impressed me most about him.

It was that he was cognisant of how much we rely on each other’s kindness and how everyone, regardless of age, wealth, sex, social status, creed or colour deserves a place at the table.

He was religiously committed to making you aware that you ought to be thankful for the hospitality you have been bestowed, and to not be grateful is a mortal sin…

When I received news of Bourdain’s death, I was in an artisanal (he would stick a fork in my eye for using that term) cheese and charcuterie shop in Belfast, the type of place he would have visited were he to return here for another show.

It struck me at a moment of great happiness at having found such a hidden gem in the city I now reside, mirroring the highs and lows that characterise everyone’s life.

I have come to understand a great deal about myself through the death of Anthony Bourdain. I had a religious upbringing but as an adult, I have prided myself in my ‘ultra-rationalism’. It took me by surprise, therefore, how far I would take my denial of the circumstances surrounding his death.

If he had died in some jungle, or caught between the plight of two paramilitary factions, or of poisoning from drinking raw blood (a feat he did accomplish), I would happily accept that. This is a man who decided to take medication so he could continue to eat pork, I didn’t expect him to live long and I don’t think he did either.

Taking his own life makes it difficult for me to preserve what I perceived to be a shared philosophy and world-view. Suicide seems contrary to all the things he represented to me.

I believe in Anthony Bourdain… I believe in his lifestyle, in his philosophy and outlook. I live (of much humbler means) the way he did, at home or abroad.

I am knowledgeable about the food and drink of just about every country I have visited — enjoying a new dish or a new cuisine or a generic lager from a non-beer producing country.

Savouring every vivid living moment through these experiences, knowing that it won’t last forever, is how I want to live. The grief I felt after his death was deep.

A part of me died that day with Bourdain that isn’t easily explained.

I have moved on from the world of hospitality and now work in peacebuilding, which is surely a result of a worldview that has developed in me because of travel ... an outlook I believe Bourdain would have shared.

This is what he did, eroding the preconceptions that divide us.

I always thought I would have met the man one day, and we would have shared a beer, if not many.

To line cooks, chefs, dishwashers, bar backs, bussers, servers, and bartenders around the world, I share your sense of loss.

RIP Anthony, you will be missed.

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