As it did to many people, the news three days ago that the New York chef, author, journalist and TV personality Anthony Bourdain had taken his own life came as a shock to me. Bourdain seemed, in his TV shows No Reservations (2005-2012) and Parts Unknown (2013-2018), to exhibit an endless curiosity for the world and to relish exploring its varied cultures. Ostensibly he roamed the continents to sample their food, but you got the impression that the culinary focus was really a means for Bourdain to meet as many different, interesting people and experience as many different, interesting places as possible. So with this apparent zest for life he was the last person you’d expect to depart in this fashion. Which, I guess, shows that you can never judge what’s going on in someone’s soul just by observing their surface.
Bourdain was for my money the best TV chef since the great Keith Floyd, though he went about his business in a more diplomatic and less kamikaze manner than Floyd did. What made Bourdain special was that there was no snobbery in him. During his travels, he enjoyed lowbrow as well as highbrow cuisine and treated the stuff that ordinary, local people liked eating with genuine respect and enthusiasm.
This was demonstrated, for instance, when he turned up in Scotland. Whilst sneering at the Scottish diet is a way to get easy laughs in the wider world, Bourdain was happy to tuck into and savour Caledonian grub. That was whether he was scoffing chips, cheese and curry sauce and washing it down with Irn Bru in Glasgow’s University Café (“I’m pretty sure God is against this”) or checking out the produce of the Mermaid Fish Bar on Edinburgh’s Leith Walk in the company of local crime writer Ian Rankin. He had a soft spot for haggis too and once described it epically as “battered and floating adrift in a sea of mysterious life-giving oil, the accumulated flavours of many magical things as it bobs like Noah’s Ark, bringing life in all its infinitive variety…”
Bourdain had a way with words and since his passing I’ve seen quite a few of his memorable quotes posted on the Internet – such as his musings about travel: “Travel isn’t always pretty. It isn’t always comfortable. Sometimes it hurts, it even breaks your heart. But that’s okay. The journey changes you; it should change you. It leaves marks on your memory, on your consciousness, on your heart, and on your body. You take something with you. Hopefully, you leave something good behind.”
But for me his finest words came in reaction to a visit to Cambodia and concerned a certain American ex-Secretary of State and National Security Advisor named Henry Kissinger: “Once you’ve been to Cambodia, you’ll never stop wanting to beat Henry Kissinger to death with your bare hands. You will never again be able to open a newspaper and read about that treacherous, prevaricating, murderous scumbag sitting down for a nice chat with Charlie Rose or attending some black-tie affair for a new glossy magazine without choking. Witness what Henry did in Cambodia – the fruits of his genius for statesmanship – and you will never understand why he’s not sitting in the dock at the Hague next to Milosevic. While Henry continues to nibble nori rolls and remaki at A-list parties, Cambodia, the neutral nation he secretly and illegally bombed, invaded, undermined, and then threw to the dogs, is still trying to raise itself up on its one remaining leg.”
A heartfelt obituary for Bourdain penned by the food writer Tim Hayward can be read here in the Guardian.