TV: Anthony Bourdain on Asia

ALEXIS CRUZ WRITES – Anthony Bourdain, the American celebrity chef and documentarian perhaps best known as tour guide/TV host of the CNN series “Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown,” died June 8, but his taste for international cuisine, culture and adventure lives on.

Some of the best “Parts Unknown” episodes took place in Asia—in particular, on the Southeast Asian island of Borneo, the world’s largest island, which is politically divided among three countries (Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia). As such, Borneo serves up a kind of fusion cuisine that thrilled both Bourdain and his viewers. In one episode, he visited the remote village of the Iban, where he was welcomed as a family member returning for the holidays. Bourdain and the villagers drank, feasted and belted karaoke tunes throughout the night.

Bourdain brought a delectable new taste to travel TV. Before his time, shows focused on fashionable destinations frequented by high rollers. Not Bourdain. He wanted to be with the locals, and to take viewers there with him. Otherwise, he knew, people would never have the chance to visit Iban, to which you could only get via a canoe drifting down the Skang River. Bourdain himself became a celebrity, but it was his passion for the Everyman that made him so.

Thus Bourdain, a New York chef who rose to prominence writing about the restaurant business, sparked a spate of copycat travel shows hosted by lesser commentators who thought going places and stuffing their faces with food was key. They were wrong. Instead he was renown for asking down-to-earth questions of his hosts: “What makes you happy? What do you eat? What do you like to cook?” As he put it: “And everywhere in the world we go and ask these very simple questions, we tend to get some really astonishing answers.”

So Bourdain wasn’t just about the food. Those seemingly simple questions ignited conversations about culture, history, politics and world affairs. The food was bait, but it was the totality of his shows, and talent, that kept people hanging on. They relished his strong, spicy, sardonic monologues of social commentary. And he was a good listener. Bourdain didn’t just talk; he gave people a chance to talk about themselves and the places they came from.

Before going to Iran, Bourdain confessed, he held Western preconceptions of the country as deeply religious and conservative. Instead, he found a lively and friendly people, and was blown away by their rich cultural heritage. Locals invited him into their homes, pampering him with meals rich in both thought and conversation.

Bourdain visited many countries in the east—Myanmar, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Laos, Cambodia–finding niche restaurants and eateries so as to better represent them to the world. He never saw autocratic governments as a reason to dismiss entire countries and cultures. Many loved him for that. In Singapore and the Philippines, a visit from Bourdain was a mark of excellence.

Perhaps Bourdain’s greatest love was Vietnam. In the Hanoi episode of Parts Unknown, Bourdain took then-president Barack Obama for bún chå, a local specialty. The two men sat on plastic stools in a cramped room, sharing a meal that cost at most six dollars. They talked about fatherhood, hot dogs, and the president’s memories of life in Jakarta as a kid. Over the next couple of days, several Vietnamese youths told Bourdain how proud they felt that the American president had visited and eaten their food.

What Bourdain seemed to love most about Asia was the mystery of the unknown. He once commented that he could use a whole season to cover just one city block in Tokyo, or dedicate years to a particular Chinese province— and still only scratch the surface. It wasn’t the end of the road that challenged him; it was the thrill of the endless journey.

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