As I begin watching the latest episode of “Parts Unknown” on CNN, in which the show’s charismatic host and creator Anthony Bourdain is visiting Hong Kong, there is one word that seems to pop up in my head over and over again. Privilege.
For that is exactly what it has been to ride shotgun for five-plus years with America’s favorite Wanderluster since Hunter S. Thompson and Jack Kerouac respectively. A privilege.
An adventurous documenter of international food culture, Anthony Bourdain was the host of CNN’s Parts Unknown, a chef, prolific food author, speaker, and one of Fast Company’s Most Creative People. Here, we sat down and talked with him about his creative process, what he looked for in his team, and keys to his success (filmed August 2017).
Anthony Bourdain holds a special place in my heart for a myriad of reasons.
Part voyeur, part culinary genius, part rock star and travel icon, he has served as a gateway into distant lands and demystified them for all to see.
Consciously and subconsciously, he seditiously subverted the common notion that traveling outside of American borders is the scariest thing that an American can do. I dare say that he has been the biggest influence on my argument for the black man and woman to not only travel abroad, but live abroad, since I discovered Marcus Garvey and the “Back to Africa” movement.
Bourdain didn’t just make you wanna visit a country, he made you wanna live there, love there, create there, debate there, commune there, connect there, reflect there, and most importantly, return there.
It could be argued that through his travels and documenting, he did more for international relations than many government administrations.
America at the behest of wanting to make herself great again, has decided that the best way to do so is to close herself off from the rest of the world and its citizens. Bourdain subscribed to the opposite mindset entirely.
The Vietnam episode of “Parts Unknown” featuring then sitting President Barack Obama alone is a masterclass in diplomacy.
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“I wish more Americans had passports so that they could see how other people live,” Bourdain said.
As a black man in America, I have never felt welcomed in my own homeland. For as long as I can remember, I have digested American propaganda aimed at justifying America’s treatment of its many non-white, non-conservative, rainbow citizens by suggesting that the alternative waiting outside of its invisible, and soon to be visible walls, is far worse by comparison.
And while I am aware that most of those said messages of angst aimed towards the international community at large are meant to influence my Caucasian constituents, I, like many of my African and black native descended brothers and sisters, believed that notion to also be true.
I ascribed to the belief that I would be reviled the moment I laid boots on the ground of foreign lands, and thusly kept my ass at home where it was “safe”. Once I took a job as a backup singer in 2006 with a local New Orleans musician for a two month stint in So Paulo, Brazil however, all of that changed.
It was like discovering a new world that I never knew existed, where I as a black man was not only tolerated, but adored. Everywhere that I looked I saw me. Everyone that I met showed me love and respect unparalleled before that time. I damn near made the “Harlem Nights” call to my family back in Louisiana, to say that I, like Richie Vento, was “…never coming home no more. Take it easy.”
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In my mind, I was already home. In my heart, I was free. My body felt loose and I didn’t wish to return to bondage. The seed had been planted. The thought began to germinate. And before I knew it, I was hooked on one of the greatest drugs that I have ever known and consumed. Travel.
For years, I was content with visiting tourist locations and famous landmarks. It wasn’t until being introduced to Tony Bourdain however in 2013 that I actually began to change not only how I traveled, but why.
Instead of trying to get in and out and back to that “safe” zone, I now began to meet new people and connect with friends. Instead of hitting the streets trying to find the closest thing to “American food” I could find, now I readied my palate for new flavors I could sample and savor.
And it wasn’t until I began asking myself WWBD that I found the courage to take that leap and just try shit. And that was the magic of Anthony Bourdain. He had that air of confidence yet approachability that made me feel like it was okay to just be yourself.
Always was he among the misfits, the masters, the outcasts and iconoclasts, yet through his lens they all seemed to bleed together; none of them elevated over another in importance. All of them being appreciated and respected for each of their respective gifts in the same way possible. With humility and grace.
He never shied away from speaking truth with no hesitations nor fear for possible repercussions. He would always intermix history from a non-biased standpoint as a simple matter of fact. He never spoke from a place of judgment nor was he ever indignant. He always spoke plainly. Pointedly. Truthfully.
And since his travels were never restricted to international shores, his critiques and his affections would often land the hardest and ring truest in his own backyard of America. He was a citizen of the universe, as cosmopolitan as the cosmos themselves.
No one left behind a better memorial to themselves. The man pretty much documented the best eulogy for his own homegoing celebration with the episode where he takes you to his second home in Provincetown, Massachusetts, the place that set him on the path to become the man we fell in love with.
It’s also the episode that he reveals a layer of himself while detailing his time as a heroin user. He makes himself relatable to the older generation who have patched over their inner turmoils for years with the drywall of denial, while at the same time, endears himself to the current crop of heroin abusers of the millennial generation by saying that he’s just like them all.
The group session with the recovering Heroin and Opioid addicts could be edited to serve as a public service announcement for addiction recovery and mental health awareness, all in one shot. That he ended up taking his own life while in Paris, France at the height of his career and personal life seemingly, adds more weight to the episode.
Bourdain never sought to elevate himself above the citizens of the places in which he traversed. He instead sought to elevate them beyond common stereotypes.
In an age where TRUMP-ism & MAGA are like curse words, how refreshing has it been to witness a white man visiting distant lands with respect and gratitude?
In death, as in life, Anthony Bourdain brought us closer together. On his award-winning series, “Parts Unknown,” Bourdain brought the world home to CNN viewers. Through the simple act of sharing meals, he showcased both the extraordinary diversity of cultures and cuisines, yet how much we all have in common.
With every location that my feet have had the pleasure to touch, my gratitude for the opportunity to do so grows. In an age where so many Americans, African Americans in particular, feel trapped and abused by these United States of America, it is indeed an amazing privilege (there’s that word again) to travel the world and the seven seas.
Bourdain helped me to embrace my own moments with immediacy and appreciate them with the same gratitude; seeking out new life and new civilizations in hopes of boldly going where none of my kindred brethren have yet to go.
It is my hope that in his death, those of us who got to know him by way of his television shows will infuse some of that spirit and passion for travel into opening others up to life’s greater possibilities.
I hope that we will share our stories, build lasting friendships, and connect dots with new families and loved ones in waiting. He taught me to take a walk through this beautiful world, and feel “… the cool rain on my shoulder.”