The essay that propelled Anthony Bourdain from weathered, seen-it-all chef to the exceedingly humane, globe-trotting, seen-it-all icon, “Don’t Eat Before Reading This,” was given to New Yorker editor David Remnick as an unsolicited manuscript. In a brief phone call, Remnick recounted how he came across the work of Bourdain, who died earlier today, and his impact on television and the world beyond. This interview has been edited for clarity and concision.
I became editor in 1998 and my wife, Esther Fein, at that time, was still a reporter at the New York Times. She worked together in the same newsroom as Anthony Bourdain’s mother, who I believe might’ve been a copy editor — you can call my wife to fact-check this — and we weren’t used to the idea that I’d be getting envelopes all the time, literally or figuratively. Very apologetically, Anthony’s mother said, “My son has written something, and maybe you could pass it along to your husband.” Esther brought it home and said, “Do me a favor and be polite to Ms. Bourdain.”
You never know, good writing, where it’s going to come from, and I opened this envelope with no expectations whatsoever. I immediately found myself entertained by and riveted by [the piece]. Any editor will tell you that the best thing about the job is saying “yes.” It’s calling someone up who’s not used to it and saying, “I want to publish your piece.”
He had a real life force. He invented something on television. Which is to say, under the guise of food journalism, he was showing more parts of the world than most television does at all. What other show is going to Burma, Congo, Vietnam, and Cambodia? He went everywhere. He was insatiable in that way. And food was the excuse the way that food was the excuse for a lot of writers, like [A.J.] Liebling, who he really admired.
It did strike me that his show on CNN got to more corners of the world... It wasn’t war reporting, it wasn’t political reporting as such, but it had a kind of energy and appetite for knowing the other. And not just how their food tasted or how it looked, but some taste of life elsewhere. If that show was about anything, it was about sitting at the same table with people who are not like you, which sounds awfully corny but is pretty damned noble at the same time.
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