In my youth, when the History Channel was airing the same episode of “Victory at Sea” for the umpteenth time (this was when the station actually ran historical documentaries rather than pseudo-science specials), and it wasn’t Shark Week on Discovery, I would often turn to the Travel Channel where a charming young woman by the name of Samantha Brown would take me on a tour of some of the most beautiful cities in the world. The show was polished, the episodes formulaic. It was a televised version of Fodor’s centered on a few key tourist attractions, a restaurant or two, and of course a hotel review. Samantha Brown was deemed a travel goddess by her fans, and her rather infectious personality made what was, in essence, lukewarm television, watchable.
But in 2005, celebrity chef and author Anthony Bourdain joined the network, and travel programming changed forever. With a quick wit and a raw cinematic style, Bourdain didn’t just dethrone the travel goddess; he decapitated her with a bloody meat cleaver. Bourdain was everything that the good-natured and bubbly Brown was not: he smoked, he drank, spoke openly about his past drug use, and wasn’t afraid to swear when it suited him.
But it wasn’t his irreverence that made “No Reservations” and his later show, “Parts Unknown,” popular; it was his honesty. Bourdain brought unfiltered realism to travel television. When his film crew got caught up in the 2006 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, Bourdain kept the cameras rolling. When he was given the honor of dispatching a pig in Borneo for a feast, Bourdain overcame his own reluctance and ended the animal’s life. When Panamanian police needed someone to burn several tons of cocaine, Bourdain was there (maybe even more reluctantly) with the match. It was as if Hunter S. Thompson had come back from the grave, sobered up, and started working for “National Geographic.”
Bourdain wasn’t interested in tourism, as past travel hosts had been, but understanding the local ethos. His shows emphasized food, in part, because it served as a point of entry into a culture. It was by breaking bread (usually with copious amounts of alcohol) that Bourdain was able to generate a meaningful dialogue. And despite his bad boy image, his interactions were always characterized by politeness, modesty, and an almost fanatical level of empathy. He could as easily converse with politicians and millionaires as he could with dishwashers and farmers. It was his genius to sit, eat, and let each guest tell his or her story without fear of judgment. He was not a teacher, but a listener, a learner, a humanist who intrinsically believed in the goodness of people and sought to explain our differences through something common and universal: food.
For Bourdain travel was a process. And while each new episode may not have exposed the key to any one particular place, the collection of experiences did teach him, and, consequently, us, something about humanity as a whole. Whether it was a humble fishing village in Asia or an eco-lodge on the coast of Patagonia, Bourdain imparted that travel isn’t about checking off a bucket list but experiencing a place to the fullest. He showed us that travel could be crude, uncomfortable, even sickening, but it’s when it’s at its most challenging that we learn something, about others and about ourselves.