Our Beautiful Culinary World has Gotten Darker
Few are left untouched by some facet of Chef Anthony Bourdain’s life. Tens of millions religiously watched his shows over the years—on Food Network, the Travel Channel, and now CNN. Millions read his funny and often irreverent books. The beautiful culinary world he visualized for us in our homes—rhapsodized in his CNN show’s theme song by Queens of the Stone Age—is, perhaps, more responsible than any other single influence for today’s “foodie” culture. He made it cool for an entire generation of America’s youth to become a chef. He democratized food and food journalism, and gave the masses the voice that had been suppressed for so long by the “official” food media. He made it OK to buck institutional convention and focus on flavors and experiences and ingredients—not just tradition and a listing as a “50-best” in a random magazine. And, on a more personal note, Cameron can thank Chef Bourdain for one of his first true culinary experiences. Way back in 2001, when Cameron visited Chef Bourdain’s Brasserie Les Halles outpost in Washington, D.C., he discovered the vast joys of an enormously thick, tender, medium-rare ribeye slathered with herb butter, served with a side of gourmet mac-and-cheese. It was one of Cameron’s first fleeting steps along his culinary journey. You see, there was no such thing as herb butter at the Western Sizzlin’ he frequented growing up. And the mac-and-cheese at Les Halles was certainly not Kraft.
However, transcending mere food and drink itself, Chef Bourdain utilized the culinary world to showcase diverse people, people groups, and cultures. From Montana and Borneo, to a warzone in Lebanon, London to Charleston to Vietnam, he specialized in telling the story of a place through its people—often by humanizing superstar chefs and other celebrities who came from, or happened to live, there. Marco Pierre White, Fergus Henderson, Daniel Boulud, Bill Murray, Masa Takayama, Eric Ripert, Michael Ruhlman, and even President Obama all fell under his spell. He could sit on a beach and make fish stew with Jose Andres, shoot a deer with Marco Pierre White, tell the story of Chef Olivier Roellinger—who gave up his 3-star Michelin restaurant to move into a small stone house and focus on local bread and oysters—cook an Italian feast at a picturesque villa we were aching to live in, or indulge in a 40-course dinner at infamous restaurant elBulli. One scene was as compelling as the next. He was equally comfortable exploring Southern culture at a South Carolina Waffle House with Chef Sean Brock, in Tehran speaking about political oppression with soon-to-be imprisoned Washington Post journalist Jason Rezaian, or at Ian Fleming’s Jamaican estate Goldeneye, discussing tensions between the rich and poor on the island. Memorably, he used an oil wrestling tournament in Turkey to discuss past and current repression—and to showcase the fear experienced by many in that country of its current leader.
Indicative of his genius, and like any good cinematographer, Bourdain used lush, spartan, or even shocking scenery, frank conversation, family, friends, love and loss to tell his story, and to open our eyes to worlds otherwise inaccessible to the majority of us. Sometimes the lessons were heartwarming. Sometimes sad. Or, they provided food for thought. But, one was always left with the sense that the lessons were honest. Chef Bourdain presented what he saw, without prejudicing filter, and largely left us to decide for ourselves what we thought of it all. And we were far the richer for it. It may have been his most significant achievement, and one that likely cannot be replaced. There is no off-the-shelf talent like Chef Bourdain. He was unique. He was very special. He will be greatly, greatly missed.