Travel Shows Were Boring as Fuck. Then Came Anthony Bourdain.

The late travel host changed television-and my life.


Once upon a time, travel shows were stodgy as fuck. Television tourism was populated with pleasant, proper people who strolled the Champs-Élysées or the beaches of Rio to show you how to do pleasant, proper, prepackaged things. Early travel shows regarded the locals as curiosities. Interactions with the host were either staged or kept at a respectable distance, while finding a good cruise and shopping for bargains were paramount. Until the 1990s, travel shows were mostly about watching a trusted host sniffing his way through fine wineries, meandering through Baroque Period museums, lounging around four-star hotels, and indulging in the sensual pleasures of eating familiar fare with the right fork at the right restaurant, and always with the right kind of people.

About the time that global capitalism put distant travel within the range of an ambitious backpacker, all that began to change. Travel TV went from advertising the lifestyles of the rich and famous to chronicling adventure tourism for the young and penniless. Shows like Globe-Trekker showed hosts knocking back vodka shots inside the private homes of the newly opened nations of the former Soviet Bloc or happily ditching the salad forks of France to give us a glimpse of Bangkok's back alleys.

The hosts were real people, and so were the locals they met. Their travels were rough and risky. They gave the distinct impression that, for a few weeks, a person of ordinary means could live like Indiana Jones. The catch was you had to want it badly enough to live in a rat-infested slum for a while. Which, for a certain kind of traveler, was half the fun.

Then came Anthony Bourdain. He began every show with a parental advisory warning and was 10 times snarkier than all the other hosts put together. His punk nonchalance stuck out like a middle finger to every travel show that went before him. He savaged rival chefs by name and held in righteous contempt every culinary fad and pompous ideology that stood in the way of pure food enjoyment.

I liked him immediately.

Bourdain got away with being such an arrogant prick because underneath the swagger was an empathetic guy with a big idea that's been so widely copied that it's hard to remember how novel it once was: Any culture, no matter how foreign, can be understood through its food. Bourdain was equally at home twirling spaghetti in the swankiest restaurants of Rome and scarfing down warthog rectum with the tribes of Namibia. He traveled for all the right reasons: to understand the world—and to understand himself.

I remember sitting on my couch in Los Angeles, alone and unemployed, watching the first episodes of A Cook's Tour. The feasts Bourdain ate, the flavors he described, the people he met—he made the world seem alive, no doubt, even as he was contemplating his own death.

Day after day, I watched as he traveled to Morocco and Cambodia and Japan. Places I'd only dreamed about visiting. And I started thinking: "Maybe I could do that. Maybe I should do that."

And so…I did.

Within a month, I was on a plane to India.

No sooner did my feet hit the tarmac in Mumbai than I immediately and very self-consciously began living la vida Bourdain. I saved rupees by living in shabby hotels and spent what I could on the best eats the city had to offer. Enormous fish markets with fresh seafood as far as the eye can see, legendary food stalls like Bademiya Kebab, and swanky eateries like Trishna blew my taste buds away with flavors that were too strong or too strange or too spiced for the American palate. Over Hyderabadi biryanis and the manifold pleasures of the thali plate, I broke naan bread with imams in the mosques of Ajmer and ate dal bhat with feudal Rajasthani landlords, connecting with countless others whose lives were unquantifiably different from my own.

After two weeks, I'd move on to another city and do it all over again. I had no real plan; I just kept moving.

What began as a show about food and culture was permanently changed by the 2006 war in Lebanon. The Beirut episode of No Reservations made reporting on politics as important as reporting on food.

Just when No Reservations began its pivot into politics, I found myself doing the same. I took an internship as a photojournalist with The Kathmandu Post. Nepal's toxic brew of ruling monarchists, insurgent Maoists, and ethnically based political alliances set the stage for the culmination of a 15-year civil war, with tens of thousands dead or disappeared.

What began as my adventure in food and travel was fast becoming a life in news photography.

When the dust settled, the world's last Hindu king was forced from his throne, replaced by the violent birth of a troubled democracy.

I returned to Los Angeles to find TV completely Bourdainified. Television had spawned a dozen Anthony Bourdain clones, each wandering the world in a weekly quest for that white whale of serious travel hosts, cultural authenticity—and clicks. The snarky host who got my ass off the couch was now a bona fide celebrity.

But the knockoffs never understood that the journey outward was always something of a ruse. Even while reporting on far-flung conflicts, Bourdain knew that travel and food were best used as vehicles for introspection. What he shared was always honest but not always pleasant. Show after show, he dropped hints about his state of mind, concealed inside gallows humor, easily forgotten in the pleasures of an exquisite meal.

Bourdain's dark inner life was never more on display than on his visit to Argentina, where he saw a local therapist.

Anthony Bourdain couldn't be contained by this world—not by its political or its existential borders. He passed through some of the world's most dangerous places unharmed, only to turn the belt of his hotel robe into a hangman's noose.

For all the books he wrote and the shows he narrated, Bourdain left without a word of explanation. So I'm left with a sense of loss. And an a enduring gratitude for the recorded memory of a life lived spectacularly.

Produced, written, and edited by Todd Krainin.

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  1. I was hoping the Travel Chanel would’ve fed Bourdain to that fat guy who ate anything and fed that fat guy to the fat guy who ate everything.

    1. Butt cheeks for everyone

  2. blew my taste buds away with flavors that were too strong or too strange or too spiced for the American palate”

    You lost me with your my taste buds are better than Americans typical bull shit way of putting Americans down,
    Anthony didn’t do that so why did you have to. Just because someone hasn’t had the opportunity does not mean they wouldn’t.

    1. You have to admit that most Americans don’t want to eat much outside of what their mom’s cooked.

      1. Yeah. That’s why nearly every cuisine one can imagine–including some that ARE actually imaginary–exist at restaurants in the US.

  3. And nothing changed.

  4. He was a member of 12 Steps, which is a suicide cult. Same for Robin Williams. Such endings are not surprising. Networks today are outdoing each other to expose extremist cults and their ideologies. Expect an expose on AA any day now…..

    1. I’m guessing people who are members of 12 steps are members of 12 steps because they had major substance abuse problems, and they had major substance abuse problems because they felt a need to self-medicate. People who feel a need to self medicate are more prone to things like depression and hence, have higher suicide rates.

      1. Members of the 12 Step cults often participated in suicide bullying which they justified as “Some must die so that others can live.” Yes this is actual cult doctrine. Funny that his last episode was with Darren Aronofsky, who is a prominent 12 Step propagandist. As the cult doctrines are exposed, many will be forced to grapple honestly with their past misdeeds. If that includes you, then please know that forgiveness is available to all.

    2. Also 12 steps has no higher success rate than just quitting cold turkey and nothing else.

  5. Any culture, no matter how foreign, can be understood through its food.

    I think this is one of those sham ideas that people like because it puts forth this idea that people are all basically the same. Which I think is a slur against the wonderous diversity of people.

    We like to think they’re basically the same, and that our disagreements are superficial. I always find this immeasurably condescending. Particularly because it is often thought in terms of “Oh, wow, those foreigners really are like me.” It’s rarely turned around.

    1. “What Eretrea needs is a large injection of Welshmen.”

      1. Anything we can do to keep those Welshman away from those poor sheep.

    2. And just to clarify. I don’t mean this as saying people shouldn’t intermingle, and that cultures are incompatible or whatever. I mean it in a way to respect other people’s dignities. Their views have value, and they differ from others, and these differences can’t easily be pushed away with a shrug and a nice meal. They are real differences in belief and outlook of the world.

      1. And just to clarify. I don’t mean this as saying people shouldn’t intermingle, and that cultures are incompatible or whatever.

        whatever, Hitler

        But I agree. It’s sort of like when people (usually hippies) say they’re a practitioner of all religions, because all religions are the same if you just look at the stuff about “be nice to others” and ignore the stuff about a past life as a snake or trying to go to the heaven with 72 virgins.

    3. I think he meant to understand their wondrous diversity through food. I didn’t take it as an “all the same” message, other than we are all humans, so there’s that.

    4. “I think this is one of those sham ideas that people like because it puts forth this idea that people are all basically the same. ”

      They are. This has been proven time and again, and your post is breathtakingly stupid. It makes very tiny differences of socialization seem important, when the similarities are far more abundant and relevant.

      Never share your stupid opinion on this subject again.

    5. People basically are the same, it’s the underpinning philosophy of the culture that turns them into terrorists, criminals, haters, war mongers, etc. Any kid is a blank slate regardless of color or birth. I hope you’re not implying that isn’t true.

  6. I beg to differ: Michael Palin’s travel shows were great, and he was doing them before this Bourdain character came along.


    1. Rick Steves has repeatedly told me that there is no market for travel shows, which is why it is important to contribute to PBS and to write my representatives and tell them that continued use of taking taxpayer dollars and shoveling it to State-run TV is critical to a free society.

      So I believe that this Bourdain guy, if he even existed, certainly never had a travel show on a channel dedicated to travel shows. Fake news.

    2. And then there was “Wild on E”, which started in 1997.

      Brook Burke was a lot of things, but she certainly wasn’t “stodgy”.

      1. I was always more of a Jules Asner guy.

    3. Thanks for the reminder. Indeed his shows were great. I think it’s just the author wasn’t old enough to be influenced by Michael Palin.

  7. I will forever remember him as the guest star of the best Archer episode ever.

  8. Anthony Bourdain is one of the five best food writers ever, and I will miss his antics

    1. He was a great writer but the show was boring.

  9. Palin’s shows were great also

  10. Another Illuminati murder.

    1. There is no illuminati, just illumidummies who think there is one.

  11. Speak for yourself. I loved George Pierrot Presents, where people who’d traveled to exotic destinations were interviewed while showing their pictures.

    Bourdain? I’ve eaten things he’d have turned pale at.

  12. I liked the guy and appreciated his gift of snark. That’s the only celebrity endorsement you will get from me..

    1. As I recall, he didn’t seem understand the difference between different approaches to avoiding food spoilage, and not bothering avoiding food spoilage. He ended up with food poisoning at least once because of that.

      He was somewhat entertaining, at least.

  13. Headline makes it sound like Boudain took “boring” to new levels. Lol, maybe that was intentional.

  14. Headline makes it sound like Boudain took “boring” to new levels. Lol, maybe that was intentional.

  15. I like to travel myself instead of watching other people do it, which is like travel porn; that doesn’t mean I’m against the porn, but it’s better to DIY.

    I just got back from Ibiza.

  16. “blew my taste buds away with flavors that were too strong or too strange or too spiced for the American palate”

    *eyesroll. There are >330M of us with a variety of culinary predilections. To what I think was your point, Indian food isn’t very exotic and unless you’re implying the live fetal snake and chilled monkey brains stereotypes are actually de rigueur in the old country, I doubt your kebabs are too strong, strange, or spicy for the average Yankee.

  17. Having worked in a kitchen and met some of the arrogant chefs, hard working dishwashers and devoted salad chefs I had an immediate liking for Bourdain. The 1964 NY world’s fair cracked a door of international flavors for me. Experience in the CIA’s Hyde Park school was just a glimmer as to how food gets presented. In travel I was never the adventurer Bourdain was, but pushed my suburban NY limits. He made the world smaller for us, less fearful no matter his inner demons. I almost always thanked his show with a quiet,”wow!” He touched so many of us

  18. Bourdain’s show was overtly and unnecessarily political. To that end, it sucked.

    1. Just overtly boring. Politics are to be ignored, everyone has them, and everyone is wrong about them. No one has politics figured out yet.

  19. To each his own; but I never found pre-Bourdain travel shows “boring.” Although Rick Steves’ wimpy voice and manner screams out “liberal douche,” I have enjoyed his travel shows, particularly the first series he did.

  20. You are right that Anthony Bourdain has created a new genre of tourist show. I like his manner of performance!
    After his transmission, I often carried out trips by car. I used check-distance to calculate the distance to another city, refueled the car and hit the road, try new dishes!

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