Is it possible to be both shaken and stirred at the same time?
I know that feeling today.
I never met Anthony Bourdain in person, but I feel like he was in the seat beside me while I was winging my way to Namibia, literally halfway around the world from where I live, a few years back.
I had loaded my iPad with Africa-centric episodes of Bourdain’s lively, live-and-let-live CNN series Parts Unknown, and I knew enough about Mozambique, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Nigeria, South Africa, Senegal, Ethiopia and Tanzania — all countries Bourdain passed through during his 11 seasons of making Parts Unknown — that, and there’s no delicate way to put this, he was no bullshit artist.
Whatever he was, and he was plenty, he did not take fools gladly. And he wasn’t about to sing the praises of a travel destination if there were no praises to sing.
He had a way of winning the hearts and minds of those he broke bread with, and he was both a lively TV host and, more importantly, a lively and entertaining dinner guest. He was incurably curious, even toward the end, and that’s rare in those who’ve succeeded beyond all expectations, and in the public eye at that. He had every right to be jaded, even at age 61, but as those who’ve watched his most recent sojourns through Uruguay, Armenia and Hong Kong know — all episodes that aired earlier this season on CNN, with episodes based in Berlin, Bhutan and “Cajun Mardi Gras” yet to air — he still had the wide-eyed curiosity of a little boy flipping through a world atlas for the first time and wondering whether they serve fries with that, whether it’s in the French Alps or Southern Italy, on “the Heel of the Boot,” as he put it.
He could be loud, abrasive, outspoken and in-your-face — he famously banned a certain New York real-estate mogul, blowhard and leader of the free world from his restaurant in the nation’s capital — but he was a terrific listener.
Many TV hosts don’t bother with listening, but Bourdain not only listened; he genuinely cared. As I say, no bullshit artist. I frankly doubt he could have lied to spare someone’s feelings even if he wanted to.
Anyone who watched Parts Unknown — whether regularly, like a habitual pilgrimage to a favorite restaurant, or on-and-off, like an off-the-cuff, impromptu sampling of the dishes at an unfamiliar buffet — is likely to have come away with favorite moments.
As I try to come to grips with Friday’s news that Bourdain is no longer with us — he was only 61, for crying out loud — I’ve narrowed my choice memories down to two, that for me encapsulate everything I enjoyed about Bourdain, his travels, his personality, his countenance, and the way his mind worked. (Personal confession: I am arguably the world’s worst stay-at-home cook, an avid believer in takeout and an unapologetic junk-food junkie, and so whatever appeal Bourdain’s programs No Reservations and Parts Unknown held for me, pretending to be a worldly chef is not among them.)
First, Bourdain was a fine writer — another attribute not particularly common among either celebrity chefs or TV presenters — and he always tried to frame his programs around a singular narrative that reflected the place or culture of the place he was visiting. This wasn’t contrived or forced, either; an avid book reader and dedicated follower of pop-culture, he had a way of viewing even an unfamiliar place through a familiar lens, but without appearing to be patronizing or condescending. He reminded me most of the fine travel writer, essayist and novelist Paul Theroux, one of my favorite writers, and it was a thrill to see Bourdain swap tales with Theroux in person during a 2015 tete-a-tete over Hawaiian stew in Honolulu, near where Theroux now makes his home.
My two memories — yours will no doubt be different — are of Bourdain’s sixth-season return to Borneo, after a 10-year absence, and his eighth-season sit-down at a noodle shop in Hanoi, Vietnam (“one of these classic, funky, family-run noodle shops you find all over Hanoi, where dinner and a beer cost about six dollars”), when a fleet of black SUVs pulls up and he’s joined by that other leader of the free world — you know, the one who was born in Kenya — who complains, in a free-wheeling, free-ranging conversation, about uncouth eating habits, over a bowl of bun cha (pork patties and pork belly, served in a broth of vinegar, sugar and fermented fish sauce, with chillies and sticky cold noodles, “and get ready for the awesomeness”).
First, though, my fondest memory is of one of the very first Parts Unknown’s I happened to see, Bourdain’s return to Borneo, which first aired on Nov. 1, 2015. “When I first went up this river,” Bourdain opened his voice-over with, in an Apocalypse Now-inspired opening up a jungle river, “I was sick with love. The bad kind. The fist-around-your-heart kind. I ran far, but there was no escaping it. It followed me upriver, all the way. That was ten long years ago. A previous episode of a previous series, of a previous life. Yet here I am again. Heading up to that same longhouse in the jungle.”
That’s instructive to remember today, the day Bourdain’s sudden passing was announced, because while he was always clear about his drug taking and boozing in his misspent younger years, it was on that Colonel Kurtz-Marlon Brando inspired journey up a jungle river in Borneo that he exposed his heart of darkness to the world watching on CNN.
Far up the river, far removed from civilization, thunder rolls and a gray sky descends. Bourdain must kill a pig for the night’s feast — as the honored guest, it’s a village tradition — and Bourdain, shades of Apocalypse Now, has mixed emotions about it.
“I’d like to tell you that this is never easy, that I felt this time like I did the first time: sad, nauseated, complicit, aware that I’d crossed a line, been changed by the blood, the violence and the awful noise,” he told the camera. “But that would be a lie. This time, I plunged the spear in without hesitation or remorse.”
Cue dark, electronic music, and blood mixing in the river water.
“When the pig dies,” Bourdain continued, “finally gives it up, I feel only relief. I had been hardened by the last 10 years. I don’t know what that says about me, but there it is.”
Later in the hour, Bourdain is back at the booze, downing shots of homemade river hooch with his village companions. “At this point, I think, my body is like an old car. Another dent ain’t going to make a whole lot of difference. At best, it’s a reminder that you’re still alive and lucky as hell. Another tattoo, another thing you did. Another place you’ve been.”
Fast forward two years, and Bourdain was sitting at that noodle shop in Hanoi, across the table from the previous leader of the free world, over a bowl of bun cha.
Is ketchup on a hotdog ever acceptable, Bourdain asked.
“No,” was the reply. “And I mean that. That’s one of those things that . . . let me put it this way: It’s not acceptable beyond the age of eight. I’m sorry. It’s not acceptable.”
Bourdain’s daughter was eight, he told his lunch companion, and the other day she asked if she could put ketchup on her hotdog.
The then-leader of the free world laughed gently.
“That isn’t happening,” he said.
And this is where Bourdain, and Parts Unknown, soared; the conversation turned to weightier issues, including the fact that they were eating lunch together at a roadside noodle shop, unmolested by their fellow lunch companions, despite sitting in the middle of a tiny room on rickety chairs at a rickety table, the kind of place where working people eat on-the-fly and mind their own business.
“Seeing how other people in the world live seems useful at worst,” Bourdain said, “and pleasurable at best.”
His lunch companion concurred.
“It confirms the basic truth that people everywhere are pretty much the same. The same hopes and dreams. When you come to a place like Vietnam and you see former American Vietnam vets coming back, and you see somebody like a John Kerry and a John McCain, two very different people politically and temperamentally, but who were able to bond in their experience of meeting with their former adversaries. You don’t make peace with your friends. You make peace with your enemies.”
As the father of a young girl, Bourdain wanted to know: “Is it all going to be okay? Is it all going to work out?
“Is my daughter going to be able to come here, five years, ten years from now, and have a bowl of bun cha and the world will be a better place?”
Bourdain’s daughter Ariane is, today, just 11-years-old.
“Sure,” the then-leader of the free world replied. “Progress is not a straight line. There are going to be moments in any given part of the world where things are terrible. But . . . having said all that, I think things are going to work out.”
“Thank you so much,” Bourdain said. “Cheers.”
And they clinked glasses.
No, Anthony Bourdain, thank you. It was good getting to know you. Even if it was from afar, on an iPad, somewhere over Africa, at 30,000 feet.