Why Tony Meant So Much

Like countless others have over the last few days, I put together a few words honoring the memory of Anthony Bourdain. I mentioned he mattered in the middle of the piece. This is accurate – his ability to use food and drink to shrink the the globe into a approachable community of good people will probably never be matched. However, it dodged an important point that I didn’t really work through as I typed the piece, still shell-shocked from the news delivered by my wife the moment I woke up. I never touched on why he mattered to me.

There was a line that was always a part of No Reservations’ opening credits. “I’m Anthony Bourdain. I write. I travel. I eat. And I’m hungry for more.” If you faithfully watched the show, you probably read that in his baritone. I know I did just typing it, and it gave me a shiver of sadness. When that line blasted through the TV, there were times when I replied, “and I want to BE you!” or some silly equivalent. There may have been a couple of times when I pointed to the TV for emphasis. This was the wrong reaction to have, because it ignored the principles of my own journey – principles that ultimately define why this man I never met impacted my life so much. I do the very things Bourdain rattled off in the opening. I don’t do them on the scale that he did, of course, but that hardly matters. I do them, and that’s good enough for me. More importantly, the manner in which I do them very much reflects the lessons learned from watching and listening to the master for over a decade.

I admit this may sound a touch arrogant at first. I can explain, and I suppose the best way to do this is to parse the opening phrase like a first-year seminary student buried in original Greek texts. The trio of action verbs embedded in that magical line carries cohesive impact, but each of them deliver something a little more intimate when isolated.

I write – “No Reservations” debuted July 25, 2005. I had written my first professional food story about seven months prior, a piece on the evolution of steak for the magazine Dining Out. People tell me it’s a good piece, but I’ve spent the last fourteen years avoiding the thing. The story, and the handful of stories I wrote afterward, represent the bad old days. I hadn’t quite figured out my voice, or what I could really get away with from a writing and storytelling standpoint. I vaguely recall writing a story about Italy’s regions and sneaking in a pun involving Tuskan Raiders (the wrapped and masked sand-dwelling weirdos that kick the ass out of Luke Skywalker in Star Wars), but that was probably the height of my craft. All that informes me now was that I was resorting to puns to mask my cluelessness.

No Reservations fundamentally changed this. Bourdain’s domestic and foreign travels featured food, but not as the prime mover of the stories. The star of the episodes, time and again, were the environment, the people, the experiences. Watching Bourdain gave me ideas. I wasn’t travelling halfway across the globe in 2005 – going north of Disneyland from my Orange County apartment was exotic for me at the time – but I started applying his principles to my burgeoning craft. The full story didn’t come from solely focusing on the main subject. More often than not, the best parts of the story – the parts that brought the whole thing to life – came from asking about periphery stuff that deviated from the topic at hand. My questions got deeper, and I started getting responses that were more personal, more human, more passionate. My writing became more inclusive of personal observations. Suddenly, it was possible for me to start a story about a white wine pairing dinner with a rant about a 90 degree October afternoon, or devoting two paragraphs to a distiller’s funky socks. My concept of writing expanded in a big bang. I found my voice, and I try to let it sing with every piece I compose. This wouldn’t have happened without Bourdain’s influence.

I travel – Bourdain’s most important mantra to me was “be a traveler, not a tourist.” In other words, dial into a place’s community and don’t just skim its surface. I spent my pre-No Reservations in direct violation of this rule. I was a tourist, and a cliched one at that. I wasn’t the type that buckled a fanny pack to my waist and hightailed it to whatever neighborhood the local Red Lobster was located – I thankfully had some sense – but I was someone that played by formulaic rules. I’d visit a city, see a couple touristy things, find a couple decent places to eat, and take a few photos to share with family and friends when I got back home. (The world before Facebook and Instagram was a scary place, kids). It wasn’t about exploring or discovery or connection or anything like that. I was getting away from the routine for a few days. That was good enough.

No Reservations came along and provided me with sufficient embarrassment. The cities I’d visited prior to the show’s debut – San Francisco, Vancouver, even Vegas – were slates wiped clean, ready to be discovered properly. My wife and I weren’t interested in just skipping town for a few days anymore. We craved experiences. We wanted connections with the locals. We wanted to eat and drink like decades-long residents. We wanted to disappear into the city’s fabric and only emerge when it was time to hit the airport. It was a revelation. However, the reveal occured when we were a broke-ass couple less than five years removed from our wedding day, so we couldn’t exactly board a plane to Europe or Asia to revel in this discovery. This is why our first foray into this kind of travel was Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina.

Our friends were perplexed. Our rationale was barbecue. Carolina barbecue. North Carolina barbecue. Eastern North Carolina barbecue. Whole hog, pulled pork, and vinegar-based sauce, a place where using red sauce may be construed as a criminal act. We researched the hell out of the area, poring over pre-Facebook internet and plunging into message boards and discussion forums to figure out where the locals dine. We put more energy into planning our food and drink strategy than anything else, which may be the reason we ended up at a budget motel on a mattress that had a vendetta against lower backs. The final agenda wasn’t perfect, but it was a damn sight better than previous plans.

We ate barbecue. We sought out fancy cocktails. We chatted up local artisans at a farmer’s market. We talked to restaurateurs, chefs, cooks, managers, anyone we could whenever we ate. People showed us appreciation for our curiosity. One owner offered us her tickets to a minor-league baseball game. Another owner took us on an impromptu tour of his kitchen, where pork was pulled and rows of ribs sat atop a smoker’s flat surface like bananas in a grocery store display. This kindness wasn’t driven by greased wheels of any kind – any talk about my food writing gig was kept mum. This was organic. This was the stuff of community. For four days, we weren’t tourists. We weren’t even travelers. We were temporary Carolinians.

We were also students absorbing lessons. “The Triangle,” as Raleigh-Durham is known, wasn’t the South that existed in our stereotypes. We counted deep Southern accents on one hand. There were no vehicle carcases on cinder blocks to be found. We went in 2008 – the year Obama got elected the first time – and instead of the streets flowing red, business facades and neighborhood lawns spilled over with Obama signage. The lone, tiny McCain sign we did see stood in a lawn like a meek apology. It wasn’t that our preconceived notions were shattered. They shouldn’t have existed at all. This reinforced a lesson that formed the crux of Bourdain’s brilliance – assumed ideologies can get in the way of a good time. People are people, and good people are good people, no matter what the rest of the country or the world may think. You only understand this by being a traveler, as Bourdain implored. Remain a tourist, and these things will stay hidden from view.

I eat – On one level, Bourdain taught me how to eat – really, genuinely eat. His travels convinced me great flavors exist all over the world, occasionally in adventurous formats. This directly lead to my current state of epicurean fearlessness. This is a big deal to me, as I was a guy that stupidly deemed sushi to be too esoteric until I was around 25. Now, I get giddy when I get the opportunity to order cold beef offal at a Chinese noodle house (which actually happened about month ago). Plus, it’s always fun to shock the hell out of the dim-sum lady attempting to sneak the tripe cart past me.

On a more important level, Bourdain taught me to be fearless with my eating convictions. Think about some of the foods and venues Bourdain praised on his shows: El Bulli. Vietnamese street food. In ‘n’ Out Burger. Waffle House. That runs the gamut from the highest of high-end dining to 2:00 AM hangover prevention fare. He liked what he liked without apology, something that made it much easier for me to continue my Wienerschnitzel habit as my writing career grew. His concerns and conclusions about fine dining mirrored my own. Watching him be unafraid to give props to what he genuinely liked, food snobs be damned, made me feel okay with my own thoughts about food and drink, that I didn’t have to suddenly blacklist certain items of culinary comfort or embrace hot trends just because I had a byline. This will always put me at ease, because it keeps me grounded in who I am as a person, let alone a journalist.

Bourdain’s attitude also helped me to realize the importance of defending your opinion when it comes to food and drink. I like things that you don’t. I dislike things that you love. This is okay. Give me your reasons, I’ll give you mine, and we’ll both walk away perfectly fine. Neither of us are right or wrong – we just are. This is how we learn. This is how we communicate. At least, this is how we should communicate, because this is how we grow as a community. That’s what Bourdain did every time he went to a city, broke bread, and shared his thoughts. We’d all do well to learn from this.

I revisited a few episodes of No Reservations over the weekend. You couldn’t get away from them in the days after Bourdain’s passing, and rightly so. They are now a wistful yet important reminder of the gift he left us when he left this world. My lip slightly trembled when I heard that line underscoring the opening credits once again, but I was grateful to hear it all the same. Its words still instruct, still guide, and still matter so much to me. He may be gone, but he will never disappear.