Bourdain: The Pied Piper
Anthony Bourdain will be remembered as the revolutionary who challenged traditional culinary thinking and altered the epicurean worldview
How does one bid farewell to an iconoclast who brought integrity and honesty into the mad world of food? How does one lay to rest the man who gathered families together to see their backyards through his eyes? The Pied Piper of the world of food just told stories to weave his way into hearts and minds across the universe.
My first introduction to Anthony Bourdain happened through my son on YouTube. Strangely enough, it was the Kerala sojourn and his tête-à-tête with Mammooty – the Malayali star who teaches us to fall in love for the first time every time we watch his films – but watching Bourdain was a sacred and sumptuous experience akin to eating with the gods of the humble corners. To watch him eat Kerala fish curry and puttu with his hands was a dip in haute country nostalgia.
Science of pain
In his first piece in the New Yorker in 1999, Anthony Bourdain wrote: "Gastronomy is the science of pain. Professional cooks belong to a secret society whose ancient rituals derive from the principles of stoicism in the face of humiliation, injury, fatigue, and the threat of illness. The members of a tight, well-greased kitchen staff are a lot like a submarine crew."
The struggling novelist, the struggling Manhattan chef had struck gold and the world sat up! After that, he went to far-flung corners and explored cuisine secrets all over the world and brought exotic stories and ingredients into our bedrooms. Bourdain's death in a French Hotel at 61 is a heartbreaking end for all those who loved his acerbic thick accent and his wry sense of humour.
Trailer park burger slut
The LA Times mentioned in their obituary that when he would return to Los Angeles from his far-flung adventures, he'd hit up his favourite haunts: Olvera Street for taquitos drenched in avocado sauce, Myung In Dumplings in Koreatown for pillowy mandu, In-N-Out for greasy cheeseburgers. "There it is, my favourite restaurant in Los Angeles," Bourdain once said of the fast-food chain. "A city with many fine restaurants, by the way. Just — I'm a cheap, nasty, low-down, trailer-park burger slut." His language was filled with the slurp of delicious desire – he got your juices flowing and piqued your curiosities.
But, he could not have come up with his unending comparisons and metaphors and marvels of mesmeric delight in description if he didn't have the edifice of the literary world in him. Bourdain wasn't just one of New York's chefs before he became the Czar of world cuisine. He was also a voracious reader. When asked what he was reading, he told the New York Times last year: "I 'm currently reading Thomas Ricks's 'Churchill and Orwell'. Graham Greene's memoir, 'Ways of Escape', is a book I've read many times but keep coming back to. John Williams's 'Stoner' is on top of the stack of "To Be Read" books, next to Mark Lanegan's 'I Am the Wolf', Moravia's 'Roman Tales' and 'Agitator', an overview of the films of Takashi Miike.
Culinary sustainability and food wastage
His travels and his epicurean eye made him see the world and its madness. He drew attention to food wastage all over the world with a documentary that would make us squirm. "I don't even know that we deserve to live," he said as he proceeded to introduce a number of fellow chef advocates devoted to addressing the 90 per cent of food waste that ends up in landfills.
Taking a lively approach to an increasingly serious 21st-century issue, the skillfully assembled documentary, "Wasted! The Story of Food Waste", proved as eye-opening as it was mouth-watering.
Loyal New Yorker
He loved New York. He wanted to work on an ambitious project. "I promised a certain kind of market to New Yorkers and to potential vendors, and if that vision becomes clouded, diluted or compromised, it is no longer something that our city needs," he said. "I remain hopeful that New York will someday have such a market – I still passionately wish to create this resource that New Yorkers deserve." Alas, the mathematics was humungous!
Darkness in Cambodia
On his many journeys, he said he was happy with long flights – he could sleep. What is the best way to remember his erudite eloquence? Perhaps his own description of his desires.
"I wanted adventures. I wanted to go up the Nung River to the heart of darkness in Cambodia. "I wanted to ride out into a desert on camelback, sand and dunes in every direction, eat whole roasted lamb with my fingers. I wanted to kick snow off my boots in a Mafia nightclub in Russia. I wanted to play with automatic weapons in Phnom Penh, recapture the past in a small oyster village in France, step into a seedy neon-lit pulqueria in rural Mexico. I wanted to run roadblocks in the middle of the night, blowing past angry militia with a handful of hurled Marlboro packs, experience fear, excitement, wonder. I wanted kicks ― the kind of melodramatic thrills and chills I'd yearned for since childhood, the kind of adventure I'd found as a little boy in the pages of my Tintin comic books. I wanted to see the world ― and I wanted the world to be just like the movies."
RIP Pied Piper of the food world, you left your pipe behind. And, no one can play it like you did!
(The author is a senior art critic and curator. The views expressed are strictly personal)