Anthony Bourdain was one of the few celebrity chefs who used his platform in large part to spotlight marginalized communities. He regularly discussed the rank hypocrisy of the American dependence on backbreaking, low-paying immigrant work that co-existed alongside rampant xenophobia and racism. “The bald fact is that the entire restaurant industry in America would close down overnight, would never recover, if current immigration laws were enforced quickly and thoroughly across the board,” he said in a 2007 interview with the Houston Press.
To understand Bourdain’s relationship to communities of color, I spoke to Gustavo Arellano, author of Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America and of the formerly nationally syndicated column Ask a Mexican.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Rachelle Hampton: What did Bourdain mean to you personally?
Gustavo Arellano: There’s a saying in Spanish: no tener pelos en la lengua. Without hair on his tongue, meaning someone who didn’t hold back. Bourdain was upfront about everything. On an extremely personal note, for him the one group he championed almost more than others were the Latinos in the food industry. By far the most exploited class, from the fields to the slaughterhouses to the lines to the people who are waiters to the people who wash dishes every night, he spoke again and again about their dignity. And not just their dignity, he also trashed anyone who dared to think that Latinos do not deserve to be given a fair shake in the United States.
One of my favorite moments of him was on Twitter. He was at the James Beard awards and he just started tweeting out, and he did it far better and more profane than my paraphrasing, but something to the effect of: Here I am at the James Beard awards. Where are all the Latinos? Latino immigrants make this industry run and I don’t see them in the crowd or being acknowledged, that’s bullshit. You rarely hear a food celebrity of his caliber speaking so eloquently and so angrily about such an important issue. It’s the issue no one ever wants to talk about and Bourdain was the one who made us talk about it, or at least made us uncomfortable with the damn truth.
Do any other specific moments come to mind where he really went to bat for the Latino community and other communities of color?
The Houston episode of Parts Unknown was amazing. Bourdain showed Houston in all its dynamism, its immigrant communities, the African American community, and not only that. What I love about that episode is he really showcased Houston as a model of what America should be: a multicultural city filled with people who get along and respect each other.
Far too often, the big thing in the food world is Columbus-ing. He was definitely not a Columbus-er. He was not someone who said, “Oh I discovered this food.” He was always about: This is who these people are and let’s hear what they have to say, not what I have to say about them. Especially in the food world, that was revolutionary.
I can’t remember the last time I saw so many people of color honestly grieve for a white male figure.
[Laughs] Yes, and we know phonies from a thousand miles away. We know people who try to exploit us and Columbus us and take so much of us and never give back and Bourdain wasn’t one of those people. He stood up for us and championed us before it became cool to do so.
Can you tell me about when you met him and what stands out to you about the man in person?
I appeared on a Parts Unknown episode about Latino Los Angeles, not just Los Angeles but Latino Los Angeles, which to me already was just like, wow this guy really knows his stuff and knows who he’s advocating for. I only spent a couple of hours with him, maybe two and a half hours because we started shooting at 10 and ended at midnight, in this historic part of L.A. called Olvera Street. He was in pain because he had just had a big tattoo, so he was uncomfortable. We went through the filming, then we talked a little bit afterward, but obviously he wanted to go back to his hotel room, so we get up and people realize that Anthony Bourdain is here on Olvera Street so they start coming up to him.
It’s mostly Latino workers getting off of work, or working people waiting for the bus because that’s where his car was, right next to a bus stop. He made his driver wait for a good 20 minutes while he talked to every single person that wanted to talk to him and not just like, oh yeah thank you for your support. He was having conversations. He did not have to do that.
It really speaks to who he is that you were in a working-class neighborhood that’s mostly people of color, and that they knew him. I feel like you couldn’t say that about most people who attend the James Beard awards.
Exactly. That, to me, speaks so much. The whole food world is in tatters over this but so are my cousins who don’t give a shit about James Beard. My mom, who doesn’t speak much English, she knew who Anthony Bourdain was because she would watch his show. There was an affection and genuine love for the common man and woman that really endeared him to that working-class audience. With Bourdain’s death, so many people that I never would’ve expected are in mourning.
What lessons should the food industry take from the way Bourdain interacted with the world?
Humility. I say this as a food critic, what the food industry needs is humility. Far too often we’re obsessed with the new, the trendy, the buzzy, what’s going to make us famous. We haven’t historically cared about stories from marginalized communities unless we could exotify them, and that’s the other thing about Bourdain: Even though he traveled the world, he never once exotified anyone.