Parts Known: Anthony Bourdain, US Ambassador to the World

Primetime audiences across America are more than familiar with the late Anthony Bourdain. Remembered for his wild authenticity, Anthony “Tony” Bourdain brought viewers along on his joyride in search of the best the world had to offer in cuisine, sights, and people. More than just an average travel show, his long-running and critically acclaimed series represents a cultural field study of what lies beyond the US border. With no more than his production crew and an insatiable hunger for cultural enlightenment, Tony explored the world with an agenda to experience its diverse beauty and the universal humanity of those he met along the way.

However, from the same TV sets once used to watch Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown, American audiences now turn their attention to former President Donald Trump referring to the SARS-CoV-2 virus as the “Chinese virus.” In the UK, fans harassed England’s Black football players following the national team’s Euro 2020 Final upset. To isolate and perceive based on differences — to explore with apathy and fear instead of empathy and curiosity — is antithetical to the model Bourdain spent decades building. In reflection of the life and career of Anthony Bourdain, one can perhaps take more away from his journeys than simply the best food joints in Lisbon. 

Reaching beyond differences

Somewhere in Hanoi, Tony and then-President Barack Obama sat among locals and spoke over a warm bowl of phở and Vietnamese beer. Breaking the barrier between America and the rest of the world was a feat Bourdain accomplished with ease and over a dinner table, no less. Looking back on his meal with the celebrity chef, the President said: “I believe what’s important to him is this notion that otherness is not bad, that Americans should aspire to walk in other people’s shoes.” Bourdain never shied away from his “American-ness” throughout his travels: his characteristic New York accent, almost always sporting a loose t-shirt and blue jeans reminiscent of fellow American Bruce Springsteen and his American perspective. Nonetheless, Anthony Bourdain did not survey the world from an ivory tower. Rather, the American experienced and interacted with cultures in genuine respect. It is these qualities of self-awareness and open-mindedness that set apart ignorance and cultural appreciation. 

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, another phenomenon dominated America and the globe at large. Empowered by the pandemic, rates of racially motivated harassment and hate crimes against those of Asian-descent and visible minorities increased exponentially across the US and Canada. East Asians were pinned as the culprits behind the virus first detected in Wuhan, China, which has since taken hold of every part of the world. Many blamed deaths, lockdown, and the economic crisis on anyone and everyone of East Asian descent. Anti-Asian sentiment cost Asian-owned businesses a fortune as countries began reopening. Marlene Kim, an Economics professor at the University of Massachusetts, noted the economic toll of this fear stating, “If people continue to believe these myths that Asians are more likely to have the virus, that they’re bringing the virus, certainly Asians will have a more difficult time [… and] we’ve seen a number of businesses already close in Asian areas of the country.”

Activist groups and organizations reacted to the surge of anti-Asian hate crimes across the US, leading the “#stopasianhate” social media movement and protests in solidarity with the AAPI community. “STOP ASIAN HATE Digital Billboard Ad Display at Union Station Great Hall in NE Washington DC on Tuesday Morning, 13 April 2021” by Elvert Barnes is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

The pandemic has fuelled a phobia of ‘Otherness,’ and its result is a testament to society’s lack of social progress. Unfounded and arbitrary resentment toward all racialized communities during times of crisis and hardship is nothing new. A failure to look beyond one’s limited viewpoint ultimately contributes to such division, making it second nature to reject the ‘Other.’ Regardless of his many adventures, Bourdain recognized his limited knowledge of the world beyond his own: “The more I become aware of [the world], the more I realize how relatively little I know of it, how many places I have still to go, how much more there is to learn.”

Togetherness and the human condition

Famed chef Tom Colicchio once said of Bourdain: “He told stories of the human condition through food, and helped people to understand the world by going out, enjoying and not being afraid.” Anthony Bourdain captured this sentiment throughout his shows, even adopting it as a running theme — fearlessness in exploration and a belief in the universal humanity found in all. 

There may be many things that set Bourdain and cattle farmers in northern France apart. Yet, there are fundamental experiences that bring them together. From his hotel in Tangier, Bourdain wrote to CNN: “Everybody, it turns out, is proud of their food (when they have it). They enjoy sharing it with others (if they can). They love their children. They like a good joke.”

Passion, hope, and defeat can all bring people together. The aftermath of England’s loss to Italy in the Euro 2020 Final brought together these emotions, expressed through widespread disarray and division. As the European Championship title came down to a penalty shoot-out, tensions among fans and players ran high at the thought of bringing home England’s first Euro Cup. Following missed penalties by England’s Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho, and Bukayo Saka — all Black players — Italy prevailed as the Euro 2020 champions. Almost immediately after, these footballers, whom the country once rallied behind, were subjected to thousands of racist comments across their social media. Manager Gareth Southgate claimed responsibility for the team’s misstep and condemned the racism directed at his players, stating: We have been a beacon of light in bringing people together in people being able to relate to the national team, and the national team stands for everybody so that togetherness has to continue.” In the face of racist backlash, many were quick to unite in support of the effort and perseverance carried by the players throughout the tournament, with an outpour of messages of encouragement and admiration circulating online.

The nation coalesced based on collective passion, national pride, and community. Passion is a universal language — despite differences, the search for community is something known to everyone. This embodies the human condition: regardless of how people may seek to push hate and fear, a simple shared memory or experience is a reminder of the humanity that ties us all together — the very humanity Bourdain’s Parts Unknown aimed to uncover.

A life well lived

Anthony Bourdain was a man of many words, and in his commentary, audiences learned more about the world. His authentic storytelling sparked aspirations for adventure and cultural appreciation in a way no other travel series or book could, and he did it all in the search for a plate. His hunger for cultural exploration was built on a desire to tear down barriers between himself and the supposed ‘Other.’ To remember Tony’s impact is to reflect on the journey of a compassionate man who sought to understand the world just a little better than he did the day before, and to inspire his viewers to do the same.

Featured Image: Records of the White House Photo Office (Obama Administration) “President Obama participates in an interview with Anthony Bourdain during dinner at Bún cha Huong Lien restaurant in Hanoi, Vietnam, May 23, 2016” is Public Domain.

Edited by Naomi Lyzun