I say this as somebody who hates the word “cool” and all the contrived nonsense that it stirs up, but the man really was. He could hold court with gourmand French chefs in one episode, and then gut and cook a chicken on the Congo River in the next. I was proud to have my country associated with him—he was in that brash yet debonair American mold that foreigners eat up.
He is also one of the few people I admired, and so immediately after getting the news that he had committed suicide in a hotel in France, I began to miss him.
Part of why I felt such a connection to Bourdain, a man I have never met, was personal. I’d written my college essay about my struggles fitting in at a New England boarding school as a scholarship day student. In the essay, I talked about how my saving grace socially had been food—whether over long hours eating soft-serve in the dining hall or over Sunday dinners my family hosted—it was over food that I got to know people, and more importantly learned to let them know me. Bourdain’s episodes all tapped into that emotional past for me as I watched people open up to this lanky, often-drunk, tattooed American TV host over a meal they or somebody they knew had cooked.
And the chef-turned-host understood this idea that eating is a somewhat safe space—or at least a place where human interaction becomes less fraught (especially if the food, and wine, are good). So for the past decade and a half that’s what he did. He got people to open up over food. He didn’t bring about world peace by any stretch of the imagination, but given some of the difficult places where he was having conversations, just talking and hearing people voice what was important to them seemed subversive. It was no small irony that at a time when the world was fragmenting thanks to a revived strain of ugly nationalism, Bourdain was trying to create some small connections. Travel is not a panacea to the world’s problems, but it’s a good start.
Before my career in travel writing, Bourdain was the person my boyfriend and I escaped with. His shows portrayed travel like we thought a show should. It wasn’t all pretty places and glamorous hotels. It was political, messy, hit and miss, awkward, gluttonous, funny, and profound. (And so was he.)
I loved that he could be an intrepid traveler going to less popular and rougher destinations, but wasn’t so jaded that he turned his nose up at the traditional destinations like France and Italy. He was edgy and cool, but could still gush (and boy, did he gush) about France’s culinary history and beauty like an American study-abroad student.
The nationalism he tapped into was a healthy one—a pride of home. He and his show gave people in places as different as Tokyo and Gaza the same feeling of dignity about their culture.
That, perhaps, will be his greatest legacy. He preached that every corner of the world has a story or two worth telling. And probably best told over dinner.