April 07, 2022

If It Brings You Fear

If It Brings You Fear

What Creatives Can Learn from Anthony Bourdain

Nearly three years after his death by suicide, Anthony Bourdain remains a huge inspiration to lovers of travel, food, and life-changing experiences.

One of the most famous and beloved chefs in the world, Anthony Bourdain was more known in practice as a writer and travel documentarian. Tony, as he was usually called, was even more than those titles. He was also a music and visual art and motorcycle enthusiast. He was a person in recovery. He was a husband (twice). He was a dad.

Tony’s success at the age of 43 is the story that most writers dream about. He was toiling away daily in a Manhattan restaurant—albeit an upscale one, where he got to run the kitchen as chef—when he got a modest book deal for the memoir Kitchen Confidential. (A little-known fact: prior to the bestseller and TV shows, Tony also published two novels, each categorized as a “culinary mystery,” whatever that is). When Kitchen Confidential debuted on the New York Times bestseller list, it was only the beginning of a quick and steep rise to fame.

His documentary-style shows have mostly the same premise: a charismatic, somewhat smart-assed dude travels to far-flung places and tries many different foods, some which are totally new to the average American in the audience. The first iteration of Anthony Bourdain on TV was A Cook’s Tour, which came out in 2002 on the Food Network and kicked off with episodes in Japan, Cambodia, and Vietnam. These early episodes, while rough around the edges now, still contain everything that makes his shows provocative: colorful foods, locations, and conversations (archived episodes of A Cook’s Tour may or may not be available on a certain popular video platform).

His first project in travel filmmaking also leaned heavily into attempts at shock-value, which were on par with what early aughts audiences were seeing in reality shows set in “exotic” locations. In the third episode of the whole series, for instance, Tony searches the markets of Ho Chi Minh City for a fetal duck egg, which he actually ends up eating. He all but admits that while he wouldn’t be eating the it otherwise, it’s not terrible. Later that episode, he famously swallows a still-beating cobra heart, chasing that with its blood, bile, and skin. He quips nervously about it the whole time.

As Tony adjusts to his new role as a televised traveler, his onscreen presence and the episodes themselves become sharper, more thoughtful, and about far more than just food. This is clear in the follow-up TV shows, including No Reservations and The Layover (The Travel Channel), and Parts Unknown (CNN). In a brief departure from purportedly food-related shows, he also filmed a web series called Raw Craft, sponsored by whiskey company The Balvenie, in which he visited with top craftspeople around the world.

A lasting perception of Tony Bourdain was that he had a knack for connecting with most people he encountered. But he also had introverted tendencies, as described by his colleagues and friends in the 2021 biopic, Roadrunner directed by Morgan Neville. This was especially the case in the beginning of his TV career, as he and the production team were getting acquainted and figuring out what kind of show they were actually making.

The thing is, the personality that folks across the world grew to love wasn’t an act. Like any good journalist, he was able to gain people’s trust. And like any storyteller, he strove for authenticity in the material. In eating and chatting with whoever showed up, whether cab drivers or politicians or historians or artists, his work became known for its humanity. Tony recognized there’s always context to food—the people, the place, the history and politics, and the art that came out of it.

In the later part of his TV career and life, his work affected him in two expected but nevertheless significant ways. The constant traveling, most of it by plane (as often as two-thirds of the calendar year, by all accounts) impeded on his family and personal life. It also exposed him to harrowing places, situations, and histories that may have occasionally exacerbated emotions he struggled with already. It isolated him in physical and emotional ways. His vulnerability came with a price, a dilemma that many of the world’s creatives are familiar with.

It’s important to keep in mind that Tony was a white guy—a ridiculously rich and famous one. And he wasn’t immune to White Guyisms, such as his penchant for classic rock or his obsession with the film Apocalypse Now and its technical source material, the novel Heart of Darkness. Both pieces are about white men dealing with their own “darknesses” while they outwardly navigate the jungle, Vietnam during the War and the Congo, respectively. Both are (unsurprisingly) problematic for dehumanizing the people in those locations.

In the opening credits of A Cook’s Tour, Tony narrates the catchphrase: “I am looking for extremes of emotion and experience.” It seems like the real extremes came later in his career and life, as he and his team took on more remote or dangerous locations (including the Congo). Increasingly, locations required truthful documenting of human suffering and, again, utmost vulnerability.

To his credit, Tony seemed aware of, if not haunted by, his own privilege. Even further to his credit, his work has been universally recognized specifically for doing the opposite of dehumanizing—to let the places and people speak for themselves, with beautifully written commentary almost as embellishment.

About this, he said, “The least I can do…is to see the world with open eyes.” Whether it was the abruptly war-torn Beirut, Lebanon or the desolate reaches of the Mississippi Delta—his work had a knack for bringing settings and people to light, clear and unique, but through the same lens of vulnerability.

His work continues to resonate for a reason. And for those of us who aspire to travel, and especially those who hope to document and create meaningfully from it, there’s still much to learn. Because it turns out there is a way to create meaninglessly (see: much of the tourism industry, especially in impoverished countries).

“Life at its best and most vivid,” he said in one episode, “is often a mix of fear and excitement.”

What we can learn as travelers and creatives is not much different from what we could learn as humans, as we increasingly struggle just to get from one moment to the next: start with the experience. The experience is all you have.

And if it brings you fear, you are quite possibly doing something right.

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