Anthony Bourdain was, in many ways, the US’s top ambassador to Asia.
The celebrity chef and writer, who stunned the world with his passing yesterday (June 7) at the age of 61, circumnavigated the entire globe to film his TV shows. But he found his most secure footing as a host and a human in the vast, diverse continent of Asia.
With daring gusto, Bourdain ate and drank through most of Asia’s culinary heritage. He had bún chả with Barack Obama in Hanoi, tucked into bowls of Hainanese chicken rice in Singapore, chugged rice whiskey in Chiang Mai, and sampled sugary spaghetti in Manila, habitually jumping into the mosh pit of local street life and making friends along the way.
Bourdain eluded the Orientalist clichés that plague the perspectives of many Westerners seeking to unpack Asia’s eclectic banquet. Through his lens, Asians weren’t quaint foreigners to be fetishized, but equals to be encountered—even revered.
Before his passing, Bourdain aspired to import the flavors and fervor of Asian food culture to New York City where he resided. Until it was called off last December because of a real estate snag, Bourdain Market was to be a 100,000 sq ft. “Asian night market,” with cooks flown in from all over the continent for short stints. During an interview with Quartz last year, Bourdain described his design vision for the food market: “The bones would be old-school municipal New York architecture but with a very modern, very Eastern sensibility…. I’m looking for a chaotic feel of a wet market in Hong Kong or a hawker center in Singapore—but for real, not a Disneyland version.”
This yearning for authenticity animated all of Bourdain’s work. His sincerity and candor were apparent. “He gave us the real deal,” says Mumbai-based chef Rishim Sachdeva.“He’s one of the very few chefs I look up to, whether it’s travel, food, or being true to yourself.”
Jason Yang, CEO of the New York-based chain Xi’an Famous Foods expressed how Bourdain championed his family’s cooking, even when they operated out of a basement in Queens, New York. “While he may have no idea what he has done for our family and business by simply saying he enjoyed the food, I wanted him to know it helped bring our family out from living in one room in Flushing to living the American dream,” Yang wrote on Twitter. Deeply troubled by news of Bourdain’s suicide, Yang donated 100% of his restaurant’s June 8 net sales to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
In Singapore, the Philippines, and his beloved Vietnam, Bourdain was a local hero. Many food vendors in Singapore have a photo of Bourdain on their stalls, because, in this part of the world, being featured on his show was more valuable than any Michelin star. The number of episodes he produced about the island nation’s street food remains a vital primer for anyone wishing to sample its three ethnic cuisines: Chinese, Malay, and Indian.
Bourdain has a soft spot for the Philippines. Last year, he predicted that the under-appreciated Filipino cuisine was going to be the “the next big thing” in the US. On his first visit to the country, he stoked Filipino pride when he declared on a 2008 episode of No Reservations that the spit-roasted suckling pig from the island of Cebu was “the best pig ever.”
He earned even more Filipino fans by sampling the kooky menu at the country’s home-grown fast-food chain, Jollibee, on his show. Like a local, he devoured several pieces of Chicken Joy, poured gravy over the rice, and even praised the banana-ketchup-laced pasta. “That spaghetti’s deranged yet strangely alluring,” he said.
And beyond the sisig, the lechon and halo-halo, Bourdain also spoke about his admiration for the hardworking overseas Filipino workers he encountered throughout his world travels. His daughter was raised by a Filipino nanny. “This is a personal connection for me,” he said at the World Street Food Congress conference held in Manila last year. “My daughter, like so many American children, has been largely raised by Filipinas. Her brother from another mother is a Filipino kid.”
In a personal essay to introduce the premiere episode seventh season of Parts Unknown, he extolled Filipino kindness and charity:
This episode is an attempt to address the question of why so many Filipinos are so damn caring. Why they care so much—for each other—for strangers. Because my experience is far from unusual. Hundreds of thousands—maybe millions—of children have been raised by Filipino nannies. Usually mothers of their own children who they were forced to leave behind in the Philippines.
In the essay, Bourdain also astutely recognized the eclecticism of the Philippine archipelago—lost on the many foreigners who never see anything beyond the capital city, Manila or the white sand beaches of Palawan. “There are over 7,000 islands in the Philippine archipelago and I’m pretty sure I’ll die ignorant of most of them,” he wrote.
But of all places on Earth, Bourdain found his greatest bliss in Vietnam. He visited many times over the 15 or so years during which he produced his shows. “Going to Vietnam the first time was life-changing for sure,” he wrote in 2014. “Maybe because it was all so new and different to my life before and the world I grew up in. The food, culture, landscape, and smell; they’re all inseparable. It just seemed like another planet; a delicious one that sort of sucked me in and never let go.”
Cookbook author Andrea Nguyen explains how Bourdain changed the narrative around Vietnamese cuisine:
Vietnam is a small country with a big sense of pride. Colonialism and interaction with the West wasn’t always good on its food. Bourdain came along and proclaimed his love for the country and humble dishes. He anointed a banh mi vendor in Hoi An as the best in the country. She’s likely made a mint but more importantly, Bourdain drew attention to a gateway food to help people understand and appreciate Viet cuisine.
In 2016, Bourdain sat down with former US president Barack Obama for a $6 meal at a humble Hanoi eatery. It became an international event.
The table and plastic chairs where they sat are now encased in glass, made into a shrine.
As far back as 2005, in an essay published in the Financial Times, Bourdain expressed his yearning to spend more of his days in Vietnam, where he felt most at peace, It’s heartbreaking to read now, in light of how his brilliant life ended, but shows truly his deep connection to the land:
I love Vietnam. I love it now. I loved it from the minute I arrived for the first time, a few years ago. A year from now, I plan to live here. I will move to a small fishing village in a coastal area of Vietnam near Hoi An. I have no idea what I’m going to do there, other than write about the experience. I plan only on being a visual curiosity, the lone westerner in a Vietnamese community; to rent a house, move in with few, if any, expectations and let the experience wash over me. Whatever happens, happens.