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.