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Anthony Bourdain loved Austin, but he loved a lot of places.
In fact, that’s the gift Bourdain left with this world after his death today at age 61. He was in France, filming for his CNN show, “Parts Unknown.” According to news reports, his friend and chef Eric Ripert found him unresponsive in his hotel room.
It’s an understatement to say that this is heartbreaking news in the food world. This is devastating. Millions of viewers gravitated toward Bourdain’s rigorous thinking, his challenges to the status quo, his endless curiosity about how cultures work, how they intertwine, how they serve the people who carry them on to another generation.
He came to fame as a chef in New York City, and people still called him that, though he joked that he hadn’t been in a kitchen so long, he wasn’t sure he could keep up anymore. His real fame — and cultural impact — started in 2000 with a memoir called “Kitchen Confidential.” He wrote with biting wit about the underbelly of the chef world, and the book quickly became a bestseller, launching Bourdain out of the restaurant kitchen and in front of the camera.
If chefs were the new rock stars, then he was Johnny Cash, an outlaw who softened as he aged and became a family man but who never lost his edge. He likely also never lost his feeling of being an outsider. He spoke often in interviews about the grueling realities of filming international television and the difficulties of being recognized everywhere. Fame turned out to be heavier than a chef’s knife, but he kept going, creating new seasons of “No Reservations” on the Travel Channel from 2005 to 2012 until CNN picked him up in 2013.
Since then, he’d been making new episodes of “Parts Unknown,” traveling to unexpected parts of the world — from Koreatown in L.A. to Jerusalem, Detroit and the Mississippi Delta — to uncover culinary cultures that hadn’t yet had their turn in the spotlight. Bourdain was the first travel show host who used food as a launching point to discuss politics and current events in addition to cuisine. In 2006, he turned an episode about Beirut, where he and his crew were stuck for a week due to the war between Lebanon and Israel, into an Emmy-nominated episode about geopolitics.
He spoke at South by Southwest in 2012, when he was in Austin to shoot an episode of “No Reservations,” and again in 2016, where he was interviewed on stage by one of the founders of Roads and Kingdoms.
Last fall, Bourdain, who was the father of an 11-year-old from a short-lived marriage, became an outspoken advocate in the #MeToo movement, in part because his girlfriend, actress Asia Argento, publicly accused Harvey Weinstein of rape.
The lanky, tattooed Bourdain wasn’t chipper. He always had something acerbic to say about Rachael Ray or Paula Deen, but that was almost always in response to a question from an interviewer. He used his platform instead to heap praise onto the line cooks and street vendors who keep most of the world fed. He was adamant that home economics should be mandatory for everyone.
Bourdain was a more gifted writer than he was a cook, but his years in kitchens gave him something to write about and a perspective that he carried to every corner of the globe. With a cinematic team that could rival any in Hollywood, Bourdain told unforgettable stories that were only tangentially connected to food. He was unapologetic in his mission: He wanted viewers to confront our prejudices and our privilege to better understand and appreciate the marvelous world outside our comfort zone.
His memoirs might have inspired many to enroll in culinary school in an effort to become part of that “rock star chef” world, but his true legacy is inspiring a generation of travelers and cooks to look at the world through his eyes, where beauty, chaos, friendship and something good to eat could be found anywhere.
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline number is 800-273-8255. Chefs with Issues is also a resource if you are struggling and in the food world. Locally, you can call 512-472-4357 to connect with mental health services.