by Mary Kay Seales
My then-husband, Marc, turned me on to No Reservations, Bourdain’s Emmy Award-winning show, which ran on the Travel Channel from 2005 to 2012. The first episode aired on my birthday, July 25, 2005, and was titled “France: Why the French Don’t Suck.”
We watched it together with my daughter, who was a teenager at the time, and just on her way to becoming a true young foodie, having spent many summers in Paris and in Provence, something we had made a priority in our lives, rather than remodeling the bathroom or kitchen, or putting a deck out back.
Having been a hippie two-time Peace Corps Volunteer, and bleeding heart liberal all my life, I loved Bourdain’s approach to travel and other cultures. As my sister recently remarked, he talked to people and he listened to people.
With his heart.
Indeed, he taught us to pay attention to an aspect of eating we don’t always focus on: it’s about the people.
His warmth and openness to others, his seeming inability to be phony, and his talent for articulating his experience, not just the outer surface experience, but his inner dialogue with himself, made him endearing to so many, including me. I think I can say that our cup of collective grief over his death runneth over.
Rereading his 2010 book, Medium Raw, these past few days since his passing has been helpful. Though we think of him as a food writer and chef, the first few chapters of this book have very little to do with food, and more to do with his struggle not to sell out. His success with the first book, Kitchen Confidential, meant that he could, if he chose, do so.
Endorse this line of kitchenware. Produce a fun American food show that appealed to the masses.
He had the opportunity, but it seems his heart wouldn’t let him take it. Thank God! He was too humble to claim this was about integrity, but we know the truth. I have no reservations about saying he had more integrity than most.
His first show, A Cook’s Tour, which ran on the Food Network from 2002 to 2003, featured Bourdain visiting “exotic and interesting cities around the world where the hosts of different restaurants teach him about local cuisine and culture.” Though it was a success, the network decided they
“suddenly weren’t so interested in “foreign”-based shows anymore…why couldn’t I confine my wanderings to my own country – to parking-lot tailgate parties and chili cook-offs? All this foreign stuff, what with people talkin’ funny and eatin’ strange food…didn’t, it was explained in perfect lawyerese, fit their “current business model.”‘
Needless to say, and thankfully, he didn’t go that route.
Bourdain admits that he really wasn’t so different from all the other ‘chef whores’ out there, selling their souls to put money in their pocket. “I wasn’t saving my cherry for principle,” he says in Medium Raw. “I’d just been waiting to lose it to the right guy.” It seems the right guy in this case was the Travel Channel, and the show, No Reservations, where he would be allowed to go to “exotic and interesting cities around the world” and learn about local cuisine and culture. He may say he sold out after all, but I would respectfully disagree.
In one of my favorite episodes, Bourdain goes to Sicily, which opens with him eating at a local restaurant with the president of Sicily (Obama was not his first). The show is a montage of Sicilian history and images, faux Black & White movie scenes, visits with locals and mafia types, perfect background music, lots of eating, and his own unique brand of humor. Bourdain is young, sexy, funny and irreverent. But never at the expense of his hosts. He is, beyond question, a perfectly conscious traveler.
Anthony Bourdain’s advice to aspiring young chefs in his book, Medium Raw, might be fitting advice for us all, whether we’re twenty-two, forty-two or eighty-two:
If you’re twenty-two, physically fit, hungry to learn and be better, I urge you to travel – as far as possible. Sleep on floors if you have to. Find out how other people live and eat and cook. Learn from them wherever you go.