Photo: Getty Images / Mike Pont
2019 American Food Hero [in memoriam]: Anthony Bourdain
Who he was: Celebrity Chef, Author and TV Host
What he did: United cultures through food
Ask 10 people to name their favorite Anthony Bourdain moment and you'll get 10 different answers. Maybe it was the time he ate fermented shark in Iceland. Or beef hearts in Lima. Or proclaimed Iranian pizza sauced with ketchup "not bad." What we can all agree on is that when the chef, journalist and consummate straight-shooter took his own life last year at age 61, we lost one of our great cultural ambassadors.
Food was always in the picture: Bourdain started his career working in restaurant kitchens and never lost his passion for cooking and eating. But at the height of his fame, food was no longer entirely the point. Instead, it became a vehicle to address complex issues and to make the foreign less foreign. (How scary could Iran really be if the young adults there raced American muscle cars and drank beer, or finished their night with a slice of pizza?)
And Bourdain was up for anything—or anyone. He sat down with Hezbollah supporters, Israeli settlers and Russian opposition leaders (at least one of whom was subsequently assassinated). "You like food and are reasonably nice at the table?" he wrote in 2017. "You show me hospitality? I will sit down with you and break bread."
Photo courtesy CNN. On a trip to the Arab nation of Oman for Parts Unknown, Bourdain joined local chef and philanthropist Zahara al-Awfi (far left) and her family for a meal of slow-cooked goat and Omani bread with honey. They discussed education and the future al-Awfi wants for her daughters, and the girls, with a giggle, asked about his guest role on The Simpsons.
This was Bourdain's gift to America, a country where food has become ever more visible and fetishized. His adventures showed people that a meal could feed inclusivity and acceptance, whether halfway around the world or here at home. In a 2016 episode of his CNN show Parts Unknown, on Houston, he deliberately steered clear of the familiar Texas tropes and instead visited a popular venue for Mexican-American quinceañeras and the Houston Indian Cricket Club, where snacks included tandoori chicken and curried goat.
"Close-minded, prejudicial, quick to make assumptions about places different than where we grew up. I'm not talking about Texas. I'm talking about, well, me and people like me who are way too comfortable thinking of Texas as a big space filled with intolerant and invariably right-wing white people waddling between the fast-food outlet and the gun store," Bourdain said in the intro to the episode.
"When he got political, that's when he was at his best," says Tom Colicchio, chef and owner of the Crafted Hospitality group of restaurants and longtime judge on Bravo's Top Chef. "He told stories of the human condition through food, and helped people to understand the world by going out, enjoying and not being afraid."
In 2018, Anthony Bourdain died by suicide. If you or someone you know is considering suicide, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273- TALK (8255), text "HOME" to the Crisis Text Line at 741-741 or go to suicidepreventionlifeline.org.