For me, watching every episode of “Parts Unknown” and “No Reservations” made me wish I would one day run into Anthony Bourdain somewhere in the world — in a rundown local bar in a shithole country of course.
For those living under a big rock beyond the reach of YouTube, NetFlix or Hulu, Anthony Bourdain was always a chef, but also an author, and most know him as a travel documentarian. Despite being seen as one of the many Hollywood insiders, he wasn’t rich and didn’t make a big deal about money. He was just a regular guy with a busy travel schedule. He was loved by many around the world for his unpretentious, raw nature, and the way he wove words into wisdom that touched your soul. Some of them, well most of them, involved humility and a lot of colorful cuss words. All of it was drizzled with wisdom like a good curry-soaked Chettinad Chicken.
Sadly Tony left us in 2018 before I had a chance to meet him in person. I felt like I got to know enough about Anthony Bourdain in his books and videos to see that we had a lot of simple things in common, or at least it felt like he was the uncle I never had. We had a strange kinship of sorts that made his passing unexpectedly painful.
No, I’m not a chef. I can’t cook much that other people would find edible. I’m not a celebrity of any sort, although I have what’s known as a “face for radio”. I don’t have a travel show either — nobody would want to see me parading around the globe eating and drinking. I’m not even a very good writer (illustrated herein). But when I discovered Anthony Bourdain years ago, I liked what he had to say, how he said it, and most importantly, I discovered that we shared a lot of what I consider important things in common. Which makes his reasoning and wisdom a philosophy to me. And you might agree.
This article is 3 parts wisdom and 1 part perspective. I hope to convince you to look at the life and times of Anthony Bourdain as a lesson in becoming a better person.
For those of you who have listened to Bourdain narrate his shows, do this: If you really want to grasp the full potential of this article, imagine Anthony Bourdain reading it — no speaking it from the heart.
It’s going to be difficult at first to grasp the importance of these things in your life. But give me a chance to explain fully and perhaps you’ll eventually agree.
** Travel **
Most people automatically associate Bourdain with his travels around the world. In fact, nearly all his series episodes are set in some well-known country but his take — the experience — was entirely unique.
Bourdain made it to possibly several hundred of little drinking towns around the world. Often without reservations to parts unknown. He shared many of those experiences with us over adult beverages from back-alley local haunts. A Mojito in Saigon. Red wine in Paris. A Daiquiri in New Orleans. A Negroni in Manhattan.
“If I’m an advocate for anything, it’s to move. As far as you can, as much as you can. Across the ocean, or simply across the river. Walk in someone else’s shoes or at least eat their food. It’s a plus for everybody.” — Tony
Travel changes people. It was his No Reservations Nicaragua episode that really changed Tony. Instead of avoiding the bad parts of the country, he asked to visit “La Chureca” which is a huge landfill outside Managua where thousands of people live off what they find in the garbage. It was painfully obvious to viewers that it hit him hard. He said at the time that what he did for a living — “food television” — seems “obscene” after seeing it.
There are a lot of life lessons in this episode. Travel does that. Good and bad.
“Without experimentation, a willingness to ask questions and try new things, we shall surely become static, repetitive, and moribund.”
After all the travel Tony experienced, he had reservations with sharing some of his favorite places for fear that tourists might ruin it. He resigned himself to being raw and honest about every place he visited, hoping that, in the end, people would heed his warnings to stay away unless they could have respect for the places he visited as he did.
If you’ve watched his many adventures, you know his words told a tale of what he saw and tasted; what he loved, and how he got wasted. If you looked closely, you could see from the expression on his face and the somber mood he was in — that he hid a bunch of colorful expletives and descriptions that only a few might witness when the cameras weren’t rolling. When he smiled and laughed, the years poured out rich and frothy like an ice-cold beer in Sri Lanka. He was reticent to share the untouched goodness he discovered, but ultimately, there was always wisdom to be shared.
The lesson of Travel summed up by Anthony Bourdain:
“As you move through this life and this world, you change things slightly; you leave marks behind, however small. And in return, life — and travel — leaves marks on you. Most of the time, those marks — on your body or on your heart — are beautiful. Often, though, they hurt.” — Tony
** Food **
There’s simply no way around it. Tony was in a torrid love affair with food that included late-night rendezvous with In-N-Out Burger and other lesser-known haunts.
“I like food. It was the center of my life for thirty years and I’ll always look at the world through that prism.”
The unmistakable message of Tony’s life story was that there is no better way to get to know someone than to enjoy a meal together. Why complicate things. It’s just as simple as that. We all need to eat, and we all need to be loved. Tony didn’t take that relationship for granted, and you shouldn’t either.
** Coffee **
Most people, especially in countries that worship coffee as in the USA, coffee is the most popular beverage to wake up to.
“Coffee. And I want utility coffee, coffee with a picture of the Parthenon on a cardboard cup. Strong, but with cream and sugar. The guy selling donuts out of the cart, that’s what I emulate at home when I brew coffee on my Mr. Coffee.” — Tony
Coffee without pretentiousness is what Tony is talking about. I just know every time someone orders a fucking triple-shot, half-sweet, Venti-sized, non-fat, Caramel Macchiato with chocolate walls, Anthony Bourdain loses his shit. I’m sure he’d say “go ahead and order that if it makes you happy pissing off everyone standing in line behind you”.
Coffee, for some, is a critical component to bridging the dream world and being able to function normally in society. It’s also one of those excuses to share a warm beverage on a cold morning among friends (or complete strangers). Don’t take it for granted.
** In-N-Out Hamburger **
You might be surprised to learn that Anthony Bourdain, celebrity Chef, loved In-N-Out Burger. You can’t get a reservation there! He shared his perspective on In-N-Out during his time as a judge and mentor on the cooking show The Taste:
“What can I say about this place? It’s the only fast-food chain that I actually like, and think is reasonably good for the world. Whenever I come to L.A. — in fact, one of the reasons I look forward to doing The Taste — is because as soon as I arrive I’ll hit the airport In-N-Out, and on my way out of town, after finishing The Taste, I’ll pick up another. Every once in a while I’ll even buy a big reeking back of burgers with onions and fries and shakes, and I’ll bring ’em back through my very nice hotel lobby, and it’s really an amazing thing to see. Generally speaking, when you walk through a lobby of a nice hotel with a big reeking bag of fast-food, people look at you like you’re low class, like, ‘Why are you bringing that in here? We do have a restaurant.’ No, nothing but love and admiration, even from the staff. They’re like, ‘Good going sir, nicely done sir, excellent!” — Tony
The lesson is that regardless of your status or position in life, there are good things to experience. In-N-Out is one of them. And we shouldn’t talk badly about people who are shielding their greasy bag of burgers from public view as they scurry past in hopes to avoid the shame. Don’t be ashamed.
** Drinking is a Social Activity **
Tony’s favorite alcoholic beverage was the unpretentious cold beer. But his favorite cocktail was the Negroni.
“A Negroni is a perfect drink as far as I’m concerned. It’s three liquors that I’m not particularly interested in… But put them together with a slice of orange. It works… That first sip is confusing and not particularly pleasant. But man it grows on you.” — Tony
And that’s the way he felt about drinking. Drinking is a social activity best experienced by putting just the right mixture of different cultures, favors, laughter, and alcohol.
“I would prefer for my drink to arrive quickly and at the same time as the person I’m drinking with because drinking should be a social activity.” — Tony
On the topic of Beer:
“If it takes more than three seconds to describe the beer I’m drinking, you’ve really defeated the purpose. I feel the same about wine. I don’t need to know what side of the hill it’s grown on.” — Tony
On drinking regrets and restraint:
“If I’ve been drinking … any other beverage, and at 11 o’clock at night, someone approaches me with the idea that we should do some tequila shots, this is always an important moment … No good will come of this.” — Tony
Drinking socially was an art form for Tony. His bar experiences across the globe, shared with equal parts celebrities and local folks, gave us a better understanding of parts unknown — those places we’ve never been to.
There’s no easy way to sum up the entirety of Anthony Bourdain’s wisdom in one article so I have focused on just the primary elements that illustrate perspective. And perspective is what it’s all about after all.
We’ve covered the raw basics of Bourdainisms: Travel, food, coffee, In-N-Out Burger, and drinking as a social activity.
To begin your practice of these tenets yourself you can follow these simple instructions (write this down — there will be a test):
Go somewhere you’ve never been, eat whatever they have there, wake up and smell the coffee, don’t be afraid to indulge yourself occasionally, and drink socially whenever and wherever possible.
To continue learning about the wisdom and philosophy of Anthony Bourdain, I recommend you read some of his books and watch his travel series, “No Reservations” and “Parts Unknown” (every episode).
- Kitchen Confidential, 2000
- A Cook’s Tour, 2001
- The Nasty Bits, 2006
- No Reservations, 2007
- Medium Raw 2010
“Maybe that’s enlightenment enough: to know that there is no final resting place of the mind; no moment of smug clarity. Perhaps wisdom … is realizing how small I am, and unwise, and how far I have yet to go.” — Tony