Sunday, March 3, 2024

Eat Like You Mean It: An Anthony Bourdain Love Story

It’s been three years since the writer and presenter Anthony Bourdain died, but for fans around the world, his loss is still felt as keenly as ever. Emma Clifton is one of those fans.

They say you should never meet your heroes, but for 20 minutes on one Saturday afternoon in 2016, I had a phone interview with Anthony Bourdain, and all it did was solidify my crush into a red-hot ball of lust and admiration. Everything that I had ever loved about Anthony was on display in that 20 minutes – his enthusiasm, his wisdom, his joy in life and his extremely sexy voice. I sat, perched on my bed, with my cell phone in one hand and a recorder in the other, as Anthony waxed lyrical about food, parenthood, travel and his deep love for Nigella Lawson.

I had long been a fan of his show and his full-noise enthusiasm for life and food and travel… and sex, let’s be honest. It was all wrapped up in one messy, hot package. I watched all the shows, I read all his books. I read the chapter titled ‘Food Porn’ in his book Medium Raw, where he described biting into a freshly baked croissant on the streets of Paris in such overwhelmingly evocative detail, it still remains one of the sexiest things I’d ever read.

As an ex-heroin junkie, Anthony once described the second chance he got in life – through recovery, followed by stardom – as stealing a really good car and then driving it as fast as he could. His recovery was admirable, but his demons were numerous. Anthony died by suicide in 2018 and the world feels like a darker, meaner place without him in it. He remains my eternal celebrity crush. There are many disappointing men – and so many disappointing famous men. How often, in re-watching or re-reading or re-listening to something, is there now a cultural caveat that comes with so many of these well-known people? How many of these superstars assaulted or bullied or undermined their way through their careers?

In a job that could have been deeply problematic – white man travels the world and tries new food – Anthony managed to be an ally to everyone, yet somehow still had the rock’n’roll essence that made his show and persona so appealing. You would never have called him ‘woke’ but, somehow, he was everything woke men are trying to be – respectful, appreciating but never appropriating, and always, always learning.

In the interview I did with him, a precious 20-minutes slot that remains one of my life highlights, I asked him what was it about his personality that had set him up so well both as a chef and as a presenter. He thought about it and then said simply that he had got lucky, but never wasted any opportunities that were presented to him. “I showed up on time, I worked hard. I stuck to my commitments. Most importantly, I tried really hard to not be stupid,” he told me. “You want to show the people you work for, and work with, that you have enough respect for them. You’ve got to be the sort of person worth teaching.”

For years afterwards, right up until
I lost my job, I had a Post-it reading:
‘Be the sort of person worth teaching,’
stuck on the frame of my computer screen.

It was a saying that so perfectly encapsulated what I thought made someone good at their job and good at their life. When I found out I was going to Iran in 2019 for work, the first thing I did was re-watch the Iranian episode of Parts Unknown. In the show, Anthony admits that Iran was always his white whale of a destination – the one place he’d been desperate to go to. For a country that was so shrouded in mystery, particularly in how it was treated by American TV shows, Anthony showed a completely different side of Iran. Overwhelmingly friendly and welcoming, with just the occasional hint of scary police, the episode was indicative of everything Anthony and his team aimed to do with their shows – give a full, context-rich picture of a country and a cuisine and the people that eat it.

A celebration of the matriarchs that were, in kitchens around the world, doing the lion’s share of keeping the cuisine alive, was also a big part of Anthony’s work. It was this attitude of inclusive enthusiasm that was part of the worldwide mourning that followed after Anthony died. One of the thousands of tweets that went viral after his death was this one by Jenny Yang, a Taiwanese comic living in California. “Bourdain never treated our food like he ‘discovered’ it. He kicked it with grandma because he knew that HE was the one that needed to catch up to our brilliance. I wish so much for his legacy to take hold in western (mostly white) food media culture.”

Over countless tables, sitting opposite everyone from grandmother to former president Barack Obama, Anthony got to soul level, fast. He always said that what people ate and cooked is political, that by breaking bread with someone, you got a chance to understand who they are at an intimate level. In this world, in these fractured, batshit times, we need that idea more than ever: that everyone is welcome at the table.

Original illustration by Micheal Hanly

June 25th is Bourdain day, the anniversary of his birthday. It’s a day that his friends in the community have turned into a day to cook and eat with the ones you love. But in the same way my mother used to jokingly tell me ‘every day is children’s day,’ I like to believe that every day can be Bourdain day as well. We may not be able to explore the world through travel right now, but we can explore the world through food. There’s never a bad day to eat something delicious, to try something new, to open your eyes up to all the cultures around you, to give heartfelt credit to those cuisines that have paved the way for meals we are now lucky enough to consider part of our normal life. Good food doesn’t have to be fancy or expensive, it just has to be real and made with love. And we, as consumers, have to do what Anthony would want us to do: pay attention to the people who are making our food and eat like we mean it. And, above all, every day, we should continue to strive to be the kind of person worth teaching.

“Your body is not a temple, it’s an amusement park. Enjoy the ride.”
Anthony Bourdain 1956 – 2018

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