Anthony Bourdain represents something. To most people he probably represents many things. That is true for me as well. Somehow though this piece will attempt to highlight something bigger and more abstract; a representation or symbol of an idea or even of a way of being and what that means in the current cultural and political climate. It isn’t meant to be an attempt to psychoanalyse Anthony Bourdain, or to celebrate him. My intention isn’t to speculate on what he would have made of the world right now in the age of Covid19, nor is it purely to talk about my views on the man and his cultural output.

Inevitably it will do a little bit of all those things, so I’m just going to go with it. Anthony Bourdain has been on a my mind a lot lately, partly due to the final few seasons of his trademark TV show Parts Unknown being made available on Netflix. But he has also been on my mind because in some respects he embodies the image of the great modern wanderer. Two hundred days of the year travelling, around a hundred countries visited and a ‘rampaging curiosity about things’. For the last four months the great modern wanderer would have been trapped, his wanderlust forcibly put on hold as the world entered lockdown. It is difficult to think about Bourdain during these grim times and not see what a massive, life altering situation it would have been for him had he still been with us today.

I wasn’t really aware of Anthony Bourdain before his death. I’d heard of him and in my mind he was in some way linked to the food/chef boom that had made celebrity chefs household names. A cooler, American version of Gordon Ramsay. It goes without saying I was some way off the mark on that one. Yes, Bourdain could court controversy attacking people in essays and press interviews but he was far from just a loud mouth jerk manipulating the media to stay relevant. In fact, he wasn’t that at all.

At some point after his death I discovered his TV series, Parts Unknown. Bourdain had been making this kind of show for years with a couple of satellite TV stations before CNN approached him to go and work for them. Parts Unknown was born and Bourdain was given near total creative freedom and a budget that made producers around the globe envious. The ideas behind and the nature of Parts Unknown is simple yet brilliantly effective. Anthony Bourdain travels to a country, city or region of the world, meets interesting people more often than not whilst eating interesting food. Not just Michelin star gourmet stuff, in fact not very often Michelin star gourmet stuff. Street food was a passion for Bourdain and he rarely looked happier than when he was getting stuck into something cooked by the side of the road in a distant land, talking to a local about the culture, the history and the politics of the place.


It was late at night and I’d had a few beers when I stumbled upon the show. Looks interesting, I’ll give it a go. And give it a go I did. The first episode of Parts Unknown was filmed in Myanmar, the only recently (and partially) opened up Asian country formerly known as Burma. At the time I didn’t know how heavily involved in the creative process Bourdain was and I wasn’t aware that he wrote the narrative monologues himself. Regardless, it was evident straight away that the writing was excellent and the commentary was intelligent, informative but light. As the episodes rolled by you came to view Bourdain almost as a friend. His quirks and eccentricities raised smiles and chuckles. His ease of conversation and mastery of dialogue managed to bring places to life simply by talking to somebody over some cooked food and a beer. So simple, yet it did things a conventional travel documentary will always struggle to do – it got to the heart of issues of culture, politics, war, poverty, gentrifications, climate change and history in a way that wasn’t heavy, boring or judgemental.

Some people complained that the show became more political as the seasons rolled on. Whilst I can understand how that can appear to be the case I’m not sure it is particularly accurate, for two main reasons. The first reason relates to the first series. The very presence of an American journalist in Myanmar was political. The episode in Libya shortly after the fall of Gaddafi, whilst violence and turmoil was all around, was political. Some of the issues discussed in Congo were political. Secondly, as new series’ were being filmed the world was undoubtedly changing. Cultural divides were becoming starker, the election of Trump as American President made the world a more political place in lots of challenging and sometimes subtle ways. The show reflected that for sure, but that wasn’t an editorial change of direction, it was something they had always done.

The notion that suddenly Bourdain and Parts Unknown became political is wrong. It always was in some ways and Bourdain would have argued that food itself is political. The episode in Gaza shows just how political food can be. It can represent history, tradition, resistance and defiance. It doesn’t always feel like it in a divided world but there should be nothing as natural as sitting over a good meal and talking about the world, about the past, present and the future. In an episode in Vietnam, Bourdain famously dined with the then American President Barack Obama. The scene should be regarded as one of television’s finest moments. It took place in an intimate, traditional setting. They ate authentic Vietnamese food, Obama letting his guard down and asking for guidance on how to tackle his bún chả – a traditional noodle and pork broth. This was brilliant viewing yet it was so incredibly simple. Two middle aged guys eating a meal and drinking a beer talking about the state of the world. Later on, it was Obama’s tribute when Bourdain died that summed up the essence of the man and his show; ‘He taught us about food—but more importantly, about its ability to bring us together. To make us a little less afraid of the unknown.’ In the troubled atmosphere of today’s world it is hard to think of a more important skill than that. A skill it has to be said, which is becoming steadily scarcer as the past decade has rumbled on.

On camera at least, that is what really shone through. There was a desire, an insistent urge to understand. In season 11 the opening episode was from West Virgina, old coal mining country, deepest darkest Trump land. Bourdain’s politics were never overtly stated on camera but that isn’t to say it wasn’t clear where he stood. Trump was an anathema to him. Throughout his work he spoke out against communism and was generally critical of most forms of authoritarianism. He hated Henry Kissinger and seems to view American foreign policy with suspicion, particularly the more interventionist strands of American foreign policy. There seemed to be a belief in the idea of the free market whilst he projected some awareness that capitalism currently was flawed and not working for large swathes of the world’s population. Liberalism, democracy and human rights were pillars of his world view and you’d guess that he’d probably voted Democrat his entire life. So his episode in West Virginia could be interesting. The measure of the man in this respect is that he wasn’t there to tell them they were wrong, backwards and needed to change. He could have made that episode in an obviously altogether more subtle way than I’ve just spewed those words onto the page, but he didn’t. The approach was open-minded and people focused. There was a curiosity about the issues, the individual hardships and what made those people vote for something that was so alien to him. It showed that people in America have a lot in common and yet those towns in West Virginia are almost a different country completely to cities like New York, San Francisco and LA.

I think this is another reason Anthony Bourdain has been on my mind so much. The way he approached his work highlighted the very best reasons to travel – to experience and gain an understanding of other cultures. To meet people from different places and find both common ground and areas of diverse experience and views. To see the world while you can. And maybe that last point is key. This pandemic has put a stop to global travel and there are no guarantees that things will ever be the same again on that front.

Well, maybe that’s life? Maybe that too is part of the essence of travel; that things change. They never stay the same for long and Bourdain was acutely aware of that. It was one of the dilemmas that he wrestled with throughout his life making those travel shows; A Cook’s Tour, The Layover, Parts Unknown. Once he’d been there, they were no longer unknown. The quiet bar on the banks of the Mekong River in Laos. The beer halls across the Europe, the food markets of Vietnam and Thailand, the karaoke joints of Manilla. Every secret spot he visited potentially lost its charm and secrets as a result of the exposure he gave them.

Of course, he isn’t alone in this and he isn’t to blame. There are a million forces at work constantly changing the world around us. Covid19 is the most dramatic we’ve experienced probably since the great wars of the 20th century. Things will change again, and then again, and onwards and not always upwards. The future marches on relentlessly, the beat of its own unknowable drum driving everything forwards and either carrying us with it or leaving us abandoned and disregarded. Call it progress if you want. Whatever you call it, it is abstract and is probably unstoppable.

Bourdain knew this more than most. He spent his life on the front line, witnessing change and grappling with it to try and understand it. To try and understand us, the human race, and the world we inhabit. That is another reason Bourdain has been on my mind. The modern day wanderer, who spoke to people to understand the issues. The direction of travel, both literally and metaphorically was his world. War, human nature, gentrification, poverty, climate change – all of those massive issues, he tackled them all. He spoke to both sides, tried to get an overview of the situation as well as seeing it from an individual’s point of view.

And he killed himself. As stark and depressing as that may be, it is hard not to see the potentialities of what his death could represent and symbolise.

Of course, that is wholly simplistic. Mental health is incredibly complex. His personal struggles off camera are far more likely to have played a part in his death, and anyway, why would you want to attach that kind of meaning to his death? Let his lessons in life speak for themselves, his example as he travelled the world eating and talking and asking questions is more important than his death and the reasons behind it. Surely?

Well, yes, of course they are. But his death forms part of the picture, as tragic as it was. It has to. Anthony Bourdain represents loss. His untimely death was a devastating loss to his friends, his family and to the wider world. To his audience. His life and death taken together as the same story represents something bigger and more abstract; but still loss.

The loss of Anthony Bourdain represents a decade of loss. Tolerance, debate and even a thin semblance of the concept of fairness have taken a hammering over the last decade. Through global austerity, the defeat of social democratic parties, the failure of institutions, the rise of populism, the march of the far-right, Brexit, Trump, Johnson and Cummings, the weakening of democratic structures, Russian influence, rigged elections, increased bias in the global media, the culture wars, societal divides, the loss of reasoned debate, the loss of understanding, the loss of empathy. Loss.

Bourdain did two things. He told that story of loss in hundreds of ways, from various angles. He also showed us all of the qualities that are being lost, that to some degree have been lost, over the last decade.

Over the course of his career he held a mirror up to everything. If only at the end he could have seen his true reflection and just how special he was. Our loss really is our loss.