Anthony Bourdain: Exploring Culture and Media at the World’s Dinner Table

Curator's Note

In his Emmy-Award winning CNN series, “Parts Unknown,” chef Anthony Bourdain traveled around the world and invited his readers to explore the world through a series of moveable feasts at family restaurants. His show’s philosophy was simple: Eat. Drink. Know. Go. “I travel around the world asking people, ‘What makes you happy, what do you eat and what would you like your kids to eat ten years from now?’” said Bourdain. "And I get some really interesting and complicated answers in places like Beirut, Iran, Vietnam, and even Detroit." 

In “Bourdain's Field Notes: Hanoi,”  Bourdain shares how having a simple conversation about food serves as a model for how food can enlighten our way of thinking about communities around the world. “A few young Vietnamese who spoke English approached me and told me, with tears in their eyes, how shocked—and how proud—that the president of the United States had come to their town and eaten not phở, or spring rolls, which they would have expected—but bún chả,” he wrote about his 2017 visit to Vietnam. “Bún chả! It was THEIRS! Their proud local specialty! And Hanoi beer! They couldn’t get over it. And in the kind of place they always ate.”

Bourdain considered himself a storyteller. However, he was also credited with "telling broader stories about a country's history and culture through the lens of its food" and opening “new subjects to the purview of food writing: immigration policy, labor conditions, racism.

“Bourdain developed a new approach that used conversations about food to tell the story and politics of the countries he visited in ways that hard news couldn’t,” wrote Kim Ghattas, a senior visiting fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “Perhaps Beirut had taught him what every Lebanese knows: that conversations around and about food allow people to let their guard down. Discussions about the secret source of your spices, or how to pound your meat, erase all differences.”  

“People are not statistics,” said Bourdain, after he received the Voices of Courage and Conscience in Media Award in 2014. “That is all we attempted to show. A small, pathetically small step towards understanding.”

Former President Barack Obama shared a meal with Bourdain in Vietnam right before the 2016 election. “‘Low plastic stool, cheap but delicious noodles, cold Hanoi beer,’” tweeted Obama after Bourdain’s death last year. “This is how I’ll remember Tony. He taught us about food—but more importantly, about its ability to bring us together. To make us a little less afraid of the unknown. We’ll miss him.”

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