Anthony Bourdain was the storyteller that picked me up, a lazy 12 year-old kid on his couch in Indiana, and took me to Cambodia.
And then Beirut. And then Montana. Soon, I was probably the only 6th grader who wanted to know more about the Khmer Rouge and green peppercorns, the party scene in Beirut and the 2006 Lebanon War.
I wanted to be like Bourdain. Anthony Bourdain was a lot of things: deranged, wickedly funny, humane. But maybe his most important trait was his cunning. Because he tricked America.
He gave America what it was most afraid of and still is — the other — and made people give it all their attention for 45 minutes. In the end, maybe they understood it or even liked it.
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On his shows, he took the weird and dangerous, the completely foreign and poked at it, asked questions and listened. Then he told a story about it. A beautiful story, with visuals that made you dizzy as, through him, you got in people’s faces and sat next to them outside a street food stand in Thailand, while listening to punk rock music or bossa nova on a show soundtrack curated by the man himself.
He gave America a different way to approach new cultures and old problems, showing that the world is not a dangerous place — if that is the way you approach it. His approach was one of the few things that I took with me when I moved to a foreign country at 19, alone and looking for Bourdain-esque adventures and misadventures.
That was just his TV shows, from A Cooks Tour to Parts Unknown. I came late to the party he started with the book Kitchen Confidential, and so missed the years where he slapped both the restaurant and publishing world in the face with that raucous writing. But when I finally read it, I realized I had never before been spoken to by an author like that. Tony wrote exactly like he spoke, with just as much intensity and just as many expletives.
In his books, he told about the life he loved: the life of a line cook. A line cook? These are the people who make our food surrounded by boiling vats of liquid and sharp objects, in the heat of kitchen, working 12-hour shifts for minimum wage so we can enjoy a three course meal or a lunch break burger. In the kitchen, there is, as Tony put it, “a tolerance for eccentricity, unseemly habits, lack of documentation and prison experience.”
When I got the chance to hang out in the kitchen of one Philly’s best restaurants for a writing project, I sat down with head chef and laughed about crazy things Bourdain told the world about the kitchen. And then I experienced it.
At times he romanticized it or exaggerated the sex, drugs and rock’n’roll of working in the kitchen. But more than anything else he honored it. For a group of people in one of the hardest, most dismissed jobs there is, he gave them their dignity back.
He taught me to give every piece of food and every single human that passed in front of me my curiosity and their dignity. And that is the way to pay tribute to Anthony Bourdain.