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Food & Drink

Anthony Bourdain and the Wisdom of Talking to Strangers

When I tell polite strangers, as we scrounge for small talk over free drinks at parties that neither of us wanted to attend, but had to, that I’m a food writer and a video producer, they tend to respond in a particular way. Here is how it goes:

Them: What do you do?
Me: I’m a writer. I cover food & drink across the country. Sometimes I get to make videos about it, too.
Them: That’s cool! Like Anthony Bourdain?

It’s easy to respond to the first bit. Food journalism is not unmitigated fun at all times, but it is indeed a cool job. Most people enjoy food; the same is rarely said of spreadsheets. The second part is trickier. But I usually respond with a sheepish smile and comic flourish.

“Yep, exactly like Anthony Bourdain,” I say. Then both of us laugh, because some things are both technically true and obviously false, and that is one of them. We usually find something else to talk about after that, strangers no more.  

Anthony Bourdain is dead at 61. He was found in his hotel room this past Friday; the apparent cause of death was suicide. You probably already knew this; it seems like the whole damn world has been mourning the sad news. A lot of ink and pixels have already (rightfully) been spent in service of Bourdain’s outsize legacy as an international raconteur, omnivorous wit, and brilliant empath. I never met the guy, so maybe my contribution to that grim oeuvre won’t rate against those who shared kitchens and camera time with him.

But through his work — two decades of trailblazing journalism and entertainment stacked upon a career of highs and lows in the restaurant industry he loved — Bourdain showed us, again and again, that we didn’t need to meet people to know them. To see the humanity in someone else, you need but believe it’s there.

I learned that lesson on humanity from Bourdain’s work, and I've gotten more deliberate about trying to reflect it in my own, most recently in my last project as a Thrillist employee, a YouTube series called Food/Groups. The premise of the show was simple, verging on cliche: examine the relationship between cuisine and community. It was a humble entry in a genre that Bourdain, already a bestselling author thanks to Kitchen Confidential, had owned almost outright since nearly twenty years ago, when A Cook’s Tour debuted on the Food Network.  

Food/Groups is almost wholly incomparable to anything Bourdain has done, be it A Cook’s Tour, No Reservations, or Parts Unknown. There is a litany of reasons for that; notable among them was that I hosted the show, and I am not Anthony Bourdain. But still, our show was comparable to Bourdain’s work in the sense that it was modeled on it. So what if we never came close to the mastery of Parts Unknown? It was an honor to try and fail.

Bourdain showed us, again and again, that we didn’t need to meet people to know them. To see the humanity in someone else, you need but believe it’s there.

Bourdain’s greatest asset, as I am neither the first nor hundredth to point out, was not his vast culinary experience, barfly’s wisdom, or even his world-weary good looks. He had all of that in spades, of course. But his triumph was his ability to drop himself literally anywhere in the world, recognize the humanity of the people he found there, and reveal it to the rest of us. His talent was knowing strangers; his credo, it might be said, is that strangers deserve to be known.

Take it from me: it is really fucking difficult to tell people’s stories on screen without flattening them into caricatures. If you take anything from this tribute to Bourdain, I hope it’s this. What he did was so, so hard, and he did it so naturally that you’d never know it unless you’ve tried to do it, too. I’ve tried to do it and I’m here to tell you, it’s monumentally unnatural. Food/Groups was orders of magnitude less rich, wide-ranging, or complex as anything Bourdain ever did (and I am orders of magnitude less talented than he was), but even so, it was, without question, the hardest I’ve worked in my career to date.  

The path of least resistance is to build stories with familiar blocks, those chefs, restaurants, and narratives that have already been established by coverage that precedes your own. It’s easier to do it this way. You can be more confident that you’ll get raw material that you’ll be able to mold into a story an audience will “get”.

This why a lot of food shows feel weirdly similar. They are similar. They are simulacra. They’re not designed to interrogate an audience’s assumptions about the world so much as they are to reinforce them. It doesn’t make them inherently flawed or stale (though plenty of them are), but it does make them predictable. They feel smaller and tidier than the world in which they supposedly transpire. They flatten.

Like a lot of Bourdain acolytes, we tried not to do that. We aspired, explicitly at times, to be Parts Unknown. We knew we couldn’t match Bourdain’s inimitable powers of observation, globetrotting zeal, or open-armed embrace of life’s vulgarities (to say nothing of the show’s production expertise and budget, both of which seemed to be limitless.) We weren’t delusional. But if we could just channel some of that empathy, man. If we could be on-location, roll the cameras, and try to get a stranger’s story right while we shared a meal with them — that would be a small step in the right direction (read: towards Bourdain.) I hope we took some steps in that direction. We certainly tried to.

An occasional crew ritual, after a long day of shooting, was to crack some beers together and watch Tony Bourdain in an episode of Parts Unknown. We were like Little Leaguers catching a Yankees game. Still: strictly speaking, we played the same game. So what if the field was bigger, the lights were brighter, and the skill was higher? Even just indulging that technicality (aided by exhaustion, and the beer) was electric.

I left Thrillist this past spring, after seven-plus years with the company. The brand means a lot to me, and I think Bourdain meant a lot to the brand. Over the years, Thrillist delighted in amplifying the Gospel of Bourdain. It’s not hard to see why. Practically everything the guy did was extremely our shit, to borrow from Twitter parlance. What did Bourdain say? Where did Bourdain go? Who did Bourdain interview? He represents everything this publication hopes to stand for: limitless curiosity for our world, skepticism of pretense, and an insatiable appetite. He wasn’t in our wheelhouse. We were in his, and glad to be there.

We had a silly motto on the Food/Groups crew that we’d use for perspective when weighing the innumerable decisions that face any storyteller at the outset of a project: “Food is people”. Inelegantly stated, maybe, but it helped remind us that our choices carried responsibilities to our subjects and audience. It's hardly a radical thesis. I can't see a lot of people strenuously objecting to the idea that a community can be understood intimately once its culinary practices are understood. What they eat, how they eat, when they don’t… on and on. But I realized while writing this that our mantra was inadvertently flawed. There's an important, fundamental distinction between food and people that we occasionally forget. Food is to be consumed; people are not.  

Bourdain was able to know people without consuming them. He was, if not perfect, insanely good at it. You don’t have to look very far on Twitter to find heartwarming examples of his better tendencies. I think, unfortunately, I was content to consume Bourdain, without trying to know him.

Bourdain wasn't in our wheelhouse. We were in his, and glad to be there.

The New York Post ran with his death on the cover this past Saturday. “PAIN UNKNOWN” was the headline, a coarse Post send-off for one of New York City’s favorite sons. I don’t think it’s totally accurate. It’s not that Bourdain's pain was unknowable. I just never really looked. I didn’t interrogate my assumptions about this titan of my chosen industry, born in my chosen city, catapulted to celebrity by his remarkable skill in my chosen field of practice. That is one hell of a life, I figured. I consumed it.

On Friday, as Food Twitter, Media Twitter, and even Mainstream Twitter were awash with news of Bourdain’s passing, my friend and former colleague Mari Uyehara wrote: “This is not a good time for people who feel things deeply. In some cruel twist, it is exactly the time in which we need more people who feel things deeply, not less.”

I think that’s exactly right. We live in strange, dark times that often seem bereft of fellow-feeling. For many (me included), Bourdain was an ideal of how empathy and curiosity could be wielded against the world’s ignorance and fearfulness. He felt deeply. Now he’s gone, and we’re still here. We need to be people who feel things deeply. We need to interrogate our assumptions about the world and the strangers in it. We need to try to know each other.

Sometimes, when I meet people who only know me though my byline, they tell me that I talk how I write. I’ve always accepted the compliment happily, never really understanding what they meant. When I read Kitchen Confidential, Anthony Bourdain’s voice hit me like a ton of bricks. I could hear him speaking his own words as my eyes encountered them on the page. What a feeling, man. It was like talking to him. It felt, I have to imagine, a little bit like knowing him. And I got it.

I reread some of Kitchen Confidential this past weekend. The phenomenon, such as it is, happened as usual: Bourdain’s words on the page, Bourdain’s voice in my head. It’s totally uncanny. How can you hear something that makes no sound? Maybe the same way you can you know someone you’ve never met. It’s not impossible. It’s just hard.

If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (TALK) or go to SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources for a list of resources.

Dave Infante is a journalist in New York City. Follow him on Twitter @dinfontay.
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