Brow Beat

Anthony Bourdain Helped Us Seek Out Difference, Even in Places That Didn’t Welcome It

NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 22:  Anthony Bourdain attends 'WASTED! The Story of Food Waste' Premiere during 2017 Tribeca Film Festival at BMCC Tribeca PAC on April 22, 2017 in New York City.  (Photo by Robin Marchant/Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival)
Anthony Bourdain
Robin Marchant/Getty Images

The first time I ever read Anthony Bourdain, I was more than a decade late. It was 2016 in Prague, and I had to read a chapter of A Cook’s Tour for my travel writing class. “How to Drink Vodka” was the story of Bourdain’s trip from Moscow to Saint Petersburg during a frigid February. In Prague, the air was just starting to chill and I had recently discovered the local technique for staying warm by filling my stomach with frothy pilsner and pivni guláš served in a hearty bread bowl. The Russians did it by drinking vodka. The way Bourdain described it reminded me exactly why I had come to an Eastern European country, still fresh from the overthrow of communism.

“It was the Russia of my dreams and adolescent fantasies that I was looking for: dark, snowy, cold, a moody and romantic place of beauty, sadness, melancholy and absurdity,” he wrote.

This morning, two years later, I discovered with the rest of the world that Anthony Bourdain had been found dead in France at age 61, a reported suicide. As Bourdain fans of all kinds pay tribute to the famed TV host, chef, and food writer, his work is praised for bringing people and cultures together through food.

Like Bourdain, I was also looking for a gloomy romance with a new city, but in the three months I had been there I’d been unable to make a connection. Czechs are notoriously suspicious of outsiders and I couldn’t shake the cold stares I was met with whenever I left the dorm. It seemed impossible to navigate around the more serious instances of xenophobia, such as the n-word hurled at black classmates on the tram or the unwelcome hands that tugged at my friend’s afro.

Although Bourdain was criticized last year by chef Tunde Wey for the portrayal of Lagos, Nigeria in an episode of Parts Unknown, Bourdain generally rendered foreign culinary phenomena with respect and curiosity. In the famed Parts Unknown episode with then-president Barack Obama, Bourdain encouraged visitors to Hanoi to be more adventurous. “It’s always seemed pointless to me to go all the way to someplace as extraordinary as Vietnam and spend time in an air-conditioned, Western-style restaurant with tourist-friendly food,” he wrote for CNN.

Bourdain’s outlook inspired my fellow foodie roommate and I to take all three forms of city transportation—subway, tram, and bus—from our campus in the center of Prague to the outskirts of town in search of the SAPA Vietnamese Market, or “Little Hanoi.” The year before, Bourdain had visited the market in an episode No Reservations. We were itching to follow in his footsteps, desperate to escape pork in what Bourdain called “The land that vegetables forgot.” We made the trek to Praha 4 in search of hot pho and some form of greens, expecting to find the bustling, grungy, stubbornly secretive market where Bourdain ate his fill of steamy bún ôc. But after taking the wrong bus and trudging along a highway to reach our destination, we finally arrived just after dusk, as the market was already being packed away into the trunks of beat-up vans. With our fragmented elementary Czech, we stumbled through two orders of pho just before the last take-out counter closed. It cost us about 75 Czech crowns, or the equivalent of three dollars, and tasted better than anything we’d had in months.

Thanks to Bourdain, I left my comfort zone to find a side of Prague that I would have never known otherwise. The harshly unwelcoming Prague of beer, pork galore, and after-dinner liquor that could burn your eyelashes off was now a whole new city with freshly unearthed diversity. Soon after my SAPA adventure, I roamed to another district that was home to an underground reggae bar run by a group of Nigerian immigrants. It was a chance to experience difference even in a city that did not welcome it, and I would not have been emboldened to find it if it weren’t for an adventurous, inspiring food writer like Anthony Bourdain.