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Anthony Bourdain Rewrote the Rules for Food and Travel Shows

From A Cook’s Tour to Parts Unknown, the host was the first of his kind on television, and revealed what food looked like under a political lens

Anthony Bourdain sitting in a restaurant in a clip from the Uruguay episode of parts unknown
Anthony Bourdain, in a scene from the Uruguay episode of Parts Unknown.
CNN/Parts Unknown

Anthony Bourdain entered the public consciousness with his food writing, first with a gasp-inducing New Yorker submission that pulled the curtain back on the reality of restaurant work in 1999, then with Kitchen Confidential, an expanded version of the expose that made readers forever change the way they thought about restaurants. But Bourdain’s greater influence came on television. Over the past 16 years, before his death on June 8, 2018 at the age of 61, the chef and author evolved into an iconic TV host who pushed new boundaries for food and travel programing on the small screen.

Soon after Kitchen Confidential published in 2000, Food Network locked Bourdain in for his first gig as a TV host. A Cook’s Tour (and its accompanying book) premiered in 2002, at a time when the network’s roster of stars included the likes of Rachael Ray, Alton Brown, Emeril Lagasse, Paula Deen, and Bobby Flay. This generation of celebrity chefs hosted shows that were mostly studio-based and instructional, with the exception of Ray’s $40 a Day, which helped vacationers find cheap dining. Bourdain’s hard edge was something entirely different. Over two seasons and 35 episodes, he traveled to locales such as Cambodia; Oaxaca, Mexico; Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam; and Salvador, Brazil.

In a narrative that would become more familiar and mainstream in later projects, in A Cook’s Tour, Bourdain ate what the locals ate, and since he was visiting places that were unfamiliar for many American viewers, he was eating things many Americans had never seen. Variety called the show “one man’s journey for Epicurean nirvana in the far-off reaches of the planet,” noting that it was the Food Network’s latest in “a well-advised travelogue path.”

Ultimately, Bourdain and Food Network did not see eye to eye on the company’s business model, as he detailed in an updated edition of Kitchen Confidential, and the host moved on. In 2005, No Reservations premiered on Travel Channel. The series followed the same plot as A Cook’s Tour, taking Bourdain around the world to delve into foreign cuisines. Bourdain embraced the hedonistic requirements of his role with lightness, and the narrative requirements of introducing the world to new foods without being pedantic. “He’s not a Falstaff type,” wrote the New York Times in its 2005 review of No Reservations. “There’s no reason Mr. Bourdain shouldn’t be annoying, another aspiring Paul Auster who talks too much about himself and his edge. But he is good company.”

In the same year that Travel Channel was airing Haunted Hotels, Amazing Vacation Homes, Mysterious Journeys (a show about paranormal-related travel), and a couple of series tracking perky host Samantha Brown’s exploits in Europe and Hawai‘i, Bourdain was once again taking his crew to places that would typically be overlooked by American food and travel media. Sometimes, this allowed unparalleled access to global conflict: He and his crew were in Beirut when the 2006 Lebanon War erupted in the city’s streets.

Beyond spotlighting exotic foods, he also offered a novel perspective on travel. Instead of taking a trip and looking at the destination through American eyes, Bourdain genuinely wanted to immerse himself in the local culture. He was willing to dine like the locals, even if the meal before was unappetizing. In a Season 3 episode of No Reservations that filmed in Namibia, he ate warthog anus, freshly plucked from the animal and grilled, and not cleaned thoroughly. He chose to risk parasitic invasion and foodborne illness rather than reject local customs. “The chief is there in front of his whole tribe offering you his very best,” Bourdain said of the dish. “Show respect. I’m lucky to be there. I’m lucky to see that. I’m lucky to have that experience. Chewing some antibiotics is a small price to pay.”

Travel Channel aired a second Bourdain-hosted series, The Layover, from 2011 to 2013. On this show, he taught people how to spend their air-travel layovers in major metropolises by ditching the chains and hotel restaurants and seeking out popular and acclaimed establishments. At the end of its run — No Reservations wrapped its ninth season in 2012 — Bourdain moved on from the network, seeking more creative control. He made the jump to CNN, where he eventually produced his finest work.

Parts Unknown, currently in its 11th season, premiered in 2013. Like A Cook’s Tour, No Reservations, and The Layover, the CNN series has taken Bourdain around the world. But while food is a feature of the series, more significant topics play a bigger role. Bourdain examined how Colombia has emerged from the shadows of oppressive drug cartels, how the city of Detroit is rebounding from decades of decline, and what life is like for Iranians ruled by an absolutist theocracy. In the Season 11 premiere earlier this year, Bourdain visited West Virginia, the heart of Trump country, in an effort to find common ground with people who sit opposite of him on America’s deeply polarized political divide. He tried to learn who these people really are.

“It’s so easy from afar to say that coal’s time here has come and gone; that we should let the miners move, find some other work,” Bourdain said in the episode. “What other work? The state’s biggest employer is now Walmart. Whatever your views, respect these people — what they do and what they’ve paid.”

Bourdain also lent his voice and producing muscle to the culinary show The Mind of a Chef, which debuted on PBS in 2012. Like in his travelogues, Mind of a Chef embraced specificity — this time, by focusing on the “the kitchen, the mind, the world” of one chef at a time.

Bourdain’s success and legacy can be seen in the kinds of shows that have come on the air since he first appeared on screen — like Ugly Delicious, the new Netflix project in which celebrity chef David Chang attempts to look outside his own perspective to understand how people eat across the globe. And respect came from the wider television industry, too: Parts Unknown has won four Primetime Emmy awards for Outstanding Informational Series or Special and one Peabody Award; No Reservations has won a Primetime Emmy, and The Mind of a Chef has won one Emmy and three James Beard awards.

Anthony Bourdain made it clear throughout his published and televised career that he was a learner and a listener rather than an educator, that to be open to new experiences and new people was the key. He hated tourists, disparaging them in his New Yorker piece, in Kitchen Confidential, and in each of his television series. To Bourdain, the tourist was the embodiment of ignorance, someone who would refuse to see the world from outside their own perspective. He wanted to see every place he visited through the eyes of the people who called that city, town, or village home.

Bourdain wanted to know the world, and thanks to his voice and the hundreds of hours of television he made, he convinced a legion of fans that they wanted to know the world, too. Through Bourdain’s on-air travels, his viewers came to know people and cultures they otherwise may have never met.

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Correction: June 8, 2018, 3:53 p.m.
This article was updated to clarify some episodes of The Layover were filmed outside the United States.

Anthony Bourdain Is Dead at 61 [E]