Tuesday, June 19, 2018

The Words of Anthony Bourdain

Sometime in 2002, I found a new show on cable that sounded good – travels to exotic locations. It was Cook’s Tour on the Food Network hosted by a New York City chef who had become a celebrity after writing a behind-the-scenes book about restaurants called, Kitchen Confidential.

Viewing one half-hour episode hooked me. The chef was a witty, adventurous, wise-cracking, cool guy named Anthony Bourdain. He went places few would ever see, or ventured into areas few would ever enter.

He ate great meals, often simple dishes made by ordinary people. He ate exotic foods. And sometimes he ate nightmarish items. The beating heart of a cobra was horrifying. Bourdian consumed those things as not only a challenge, but also because they were eaten in by the locals.

Bourdain met people, engaged them in conversation, drank vast amounts of alcohol and smoked scores of cigarets.

But as much as I enjoyed living vicariously through his televised travels, it was his narration of the shows that kept me coming back. Through 16 years of episodes on three different channels, Bourdain was always interesting, observant and humorous, all presented in his original and unique voice. The man had a marvelous facility with words. All those words, I have to believe, were Bourdain’s own. They were too close to the way he spoke on camera or when interviewed on news or talk shows. His conversations in his shows could go anywhere, from local food and customs to the history of the place he was visiting, or from current events to the characters on Gilligan’s Island.

It wasn’t all fun. Sometimes the adventures turned dangerous. In 2006, Bourdain and crew were in Beirut when a conflict between Lebanon and Israel erupted. They wound up stuck in a hotel with no way of getting out until U.S. Marines landed on a nearby beach and took them and other tourists out of the country. But the TV team first had to sneak out of the hotel, slip past soldiers, and get onto that beach. This episode can be viewed here.

Bourdain’s Cook’s Tour lasted two seasons. Then he moved to the Travel Channel with a new show called No Reservations, with hour-long episodes, but the same basic structure as the previous show. He and a small crew would go to a country, take in the sights, explore the food, and meet the people. Sometimes the country was the U.S. No Reservations lasted seven seasons. Bourdain next moved to CNN with a new show called Parts Unknown, which was also structured like the previous two shows. He was at CNN from 2013 until this month when he took his own life in a hotel in France.

Over the last 16 years of following his shows, I also read several of his books, the non-fiction Kitchen Confidential and Cook’s Tour (I’ve yet to get to some of his later books). I also read some of his crime fiction, his novel Bone in the Throat and the collection of stories about Bobby Gold. Of those works, I preferred his non-fiction. He also wrote an occasional article for magazines, and I kept up with those.

The magazine article that propelled Bourdain out of the kitchen and into a new career as a writer, traveler and eater of exotic foods, was a 1999 piece that ran in The New Yorker magazine, called “Don’t Eat Before Reading This.” The article can be found here. His book, Kitchen Confidential, grew out of this story.

Like everyone, I was stunned by the news on Friday, June 8, that Bourdain was dead.

I did not know the man, but through his work on the page and on the screen, I felt like I did.

1 comment:

  1. Sad to hear of his death. I've only seen a bit of him on TV and knew him more from his fiction. I loved the Bobby Gold collection.