In 2007, Bourdain visited Xi'an Famous Foods when it was just a single food stall in a basement in Flushing, Queens. Since its appearance on No Reservations, Bourdain’s Travel Channel show at that time, the business has sprouted 11 additional locations across New York.
“A lot of [food journalists] come in, and they want that sensationalist, that exotic look,” says Wang, of Xi'an Famous Foods. “They’re like, ‘Oh, can you, y’know, do something, jump through a hoop for me.' I had one instance with a food media group that came in to film our noodles where they were like, ‘OK, what do Chinese people eat on Chinese New Year?’ And I said we eat noodles, but also this other stuff. And they were like, ‘Can you just say you only eat noodles?’ This preconceived notion of how everything’s supposed to be -- that’s not the approach Tony took to stories.”
Upon hearing of Bourdain’s death, Wang, grieving, announced that the store would donate 100% of the day’s profits to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. He raised more than $73,000.
He showed us how to see ourselves in others
It’s usually people with the greater socioeconomic privilege doing the traveling, and the ones with less being traveled to. Telling those stories -- even just framing photographs -- is a hard thing to get right. You want to show how people live without exoticizing them; acknowledge your power imbalance without being gross about it. Almost everyone is bad at this. Bourdain was good at it, and he was good because his stories showed us not just the ways people across the world are different, but the ways in which we are the same.
Bourdain once said in Parts Unknown that as he got older, the cravings he got were for foods that held an emotional resonance. Anyone who’s seen his shows -- A Cook’s Tour, The Layover, No Reservations, and Parts Unknown -- knows they were only ever nominally about food. And not usually the “best” food, as is the standard formula for other franchises in the genre. They were about the food that might on an average day fuel average people, the food from which you could trace their history and politics. Food that marginalized and oppressed communities had created from what was available or alloted. Family recipes. Home-cooked meals.
“There’s a glamour element to [food and travel shows]. ‘Oh, you should be over here, check out these popular spots,'” Radas says. “Tony, he was really able to stay as true to the cultures as he possibly could. That’s a lot different from anything anyone else was doing.”
An episode where Bourdain visited your absolute No. 1, first-round draft pick travel destination would still only be the second-best episode you could watch. The first would be one where he visited your hometown, or at least a place you know deeply and love. You know how your home looks in real life, and you know how other people’s homes look on his shows. So if you were lucky enough to see how your own home looks through the same lens -- with a narrative, with a soundtrack, with someone pointing to the small good things and verbalizing how they are special -- you can arrive, sort of algebraically, at a much closer idea of what other people’s homes are like in real life, too; what the equivalent of this or that would be in your own city. Bourdain, who devoted episodes to the Bronx, New Mexico, Los Angeles’ Koreatown, the Mississippi Delta, Nashville, Miami, Cape Cod, Chicago, coal-country West Virginia -- it goes on -- knew this. It is the very best thing he gave us: not just what it is to see the world, but what it is to be at home.