From the restaurant kitchen, to the Nigerian coast, to the markets of Singapore, Anthony Bourdain was a world class chef, writer, and storyteller. His determination to bring light and honesty to his culinary pursuits continues to make waves in the industry even today, some three years after his death. June 25 marked what would have been Bourdain's 65th birthday, so to celebrate, we'll remember what made this globe-trotting foodie so great.
Anthony Bourdain was born in Leonia, New Jersey, to parents who helped inspire a desire for knowledge from a young age. After trying his first oyster on a trip to France, Bourdain was hooked. He began his culinary career as a restaurant dishwasher, a role that he later described as responsible for “every important lesson, all the most important lessons of my life." Indeed, one of Bourdain's greatest strengths as a food connoisseur and storyteller was his ability to reframe one's relationship to food. His first major print publication, a 1999 article in The New Yorker titled "Don’t Eat Before Reading This," was met with immediate acclaim. In the article, Bourdain drops insider knowledge of the industry (order fish on a Tuesday, never order your meat well-done), but his witty, honest voice tells another, more poignant story: lean into the experience of food in all its messy and imperfect glory. As this Vox article puts it,
"That was the food world that Bourdain helped create and make wildly fashionable: one in which eaters could unabashedly celebrate their food, and the insistent physical fact of it."
The 1999 New Yorker article soon grew into Bourdain's first brush with fame: his 2000 book Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly. The publication became an immediate bestseller, and ultimately opened the door to Bourdain's international success as a writer, respected TV host, and lover of food. Within the decade, Bourdain had earned several Emmys for his groundbreaking narrative technique and journalistic integrity (he wrote his own voiceovers, and sought his own food destinations). His 2001 book A Cook’s Tour chronicles his travels to places including Vietnam, Mexico, Russia, Morocco and Cambodia. In it, he eats a still-beating cobra heart (among other things).
Most notably, Bourdain's entry into the writing world marked his departure from the haute world of high-end cooking. Bourdain replaced the bistro food of the rich with the soup of Lagos, the noodles of Vietnam, and the fish of the Philippines. Taking to the streets of countries and cities across the world, Bourdain began his search for great food, culture, and the demystification of places that he thought to be previously "off the map" in a series of TV shows that he hosted up until the time of his death in 2018. His final program, "Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown" on CNN, explored cuisine and culture in every nook and cranny of the world. The show was among his most successful, and won twelve Primetime Emmy Awards out of 31 nominations, as well as a 2013 Peabody Award.
Even posthumously, Bourdain continues to remind us what a gift it is to experience wonderful food, in all its forms. He reminds us to step out of our comfort zones, try new things, and embrace uncertainty with gusto. On the 65th anniversary of his birth, enjoy a lovely meal in the name of the late and great Anthony Bourdain.